BOOK REVIEW / Folly, grandeur and death in Venice: Jan Morris on a wonderful and scholarly account of a life devoted to the building of a palace: The house of gold - Richard J Goy: Cambridge University Press pounds 60

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THIS IS a book about a familiar situation. A middle-aged businessman with more money than taste (or so the neighbours doubtless say) sets out to build himself an ostentatious house without the benefit of an architect. He has all the predictable difficulties with builders, most of them immigrant workers, makes the usual nuisance of himself with the skilled craftsmen, pays out exorbitant sums of cash ('well you don't want second-rate stuff, squire, do you?'), and by the time the job is done has only a few years to enjoy the house before he is in his grave.

Nearly 20 years it took him to complete it, but at least he had the posthumous satisfaction of knowing that 40 years later it had tripled in value. Fifteenth-century prices were buoyant, it seems, and besides, his house was the most flamboyantly sumptuous residence in one of Europe's most sought-after pieces of urban real estate. The architect manque was Marin Contarini. The house was the Casa d'Oro, on the Grand Canal in Venice.

This record of its construction is fairly sumptuous too (and so it ought to be, at 20p a page) but decidedly unflamboyant. It is a piece of pure scholarship with not the faintest trace of a purple passage. Richard Goy has no truck with lyricism or fantasy in his scrupulous examination of the building work: he simply tells us the facts, extracted and marshalled with a diligence that amounts almost to poetry itself. I have no criticism of The House of Gold. I thought it sheer pleasure to be dealing for once with a brilliantly competent, totally unliterary work about a strictly technical subject: rather like reviewing a ship's turbine, and a damned good one.

Years ago I read a book that gave me similar pleasure - George Ordish's The Living House, which analysed all the creatures, insects to higher mammals, which had ever inhabited a particular Kentish farmhouse. Except in his last few pages though, nobody lives in Dr Goy's Ca d'Oro. Indeed there are times when it seems, as it surely must have seemed to Marin Contarini too, that nobody ever would.

There was so much to do. The existing house on the site had to be demolished; the timber and stone had to be shipped in; the enormous brick structure had to be erected; the headily ornate stone decoration of the house, its gateway, wellhead and crenellations, had to be prefabricated and erected; all the complex windows must be glazed; and finally the building had to be embellished with the prodigious decorations of red, white, gold and ultramarine which, surely to the chagrin of the people next door, made it second only to the Doge's own palace as the most dazzling house in Venice.

Dr Goy tells us that the Ca d'Oro was intended to be a Dogely symbol itself. Contarini's father was disappointed in his ambitions for the dukedom, but the house was completed anyway as an expression of family consequence. The Contarinis were not only corporate entrepreneurs (spices, cloth, glass, balsam, property, squashed bugs called grana which were used for making dyes); they were also among the great patrician clans of the Republic, and Marin was determined from the start to make the house worthy of his lineage.

He had a marvellous time of it, it seems to me. Dr Goy is able to recreate the long construction programme in infinitesimal detail - the time everything took, the exact money it cost, the woods and stones used, the name of every last employee from celebrated artist- craftsmen like Bartolomeo Bon down to the very bargees who brought the stone up the canal.

The work was hindered sometimes by sickness, sometimes by bad weather, sometimes by disputes about pay, sometimes by the temporary absence of a workman helping the police with their inquiries, but Marin himself presided over the job throughout, giving to the whole building his stamp of opulent and enthusiastic amateurism. He dictated the design, in the whole as in the detail. He walked the streets of Venice picking up ideas, a balcony here, a corner window there.

Like all such dilettantes, he was constantly changing his mind, upsetting the timetable and sometimes delaying matters for months. His system was nothing if not pragmatic, somewhat haphazardly pulling together all the various talents of his artists and craftsmen, and he evidently delighted in the uninhibited gaiety of the building - its cheerful asymmetry, its delicate traceries, the wonderfully cocky crenellation which crowned its facade.

And as completion approached at last, perhaps he enjoyed himself most of all with the paintwork, the final display of Contarini flash. Many thousand sheets of gold leaf were used to gild bobbles and mouldings all over the facade; and where it was not gold, it was ultramarine, from a pigment made of crushed lapis lazuli - each pound cost the equivalent of a craftsman's monthly pay. The house was called 'The House of Gold' from the start and was to remain ever after one of the most lavish marvels of the Serenissima.

Yet Contarinis were not in it for long. Marin died when he was 54, his son died without an heir when he was 24, and less than half a century after the house was finished it was a Pietro Marcello who was lording it in the great hall. They called him 'He of the Ca d'Oro'; but he was a usurper to the title really, for he was never able to feel, as Marin could, that every stone of the building, every grace note, every lop-sided window, every inadvertent change of floor level, was all his own.

(Photograph omitted)