Venice – churches of the Chorus Association (2/3)

This is my second post about Venice and in it I’m going to introduce to you another five churches which are members of the Chorus Association. If you have read my previous post, please click here to jump directly to the main content of this post. If not, the following paragraphs will be about an explanation of the outstanding universal value of Venice in terms of its history, city planning, architecture and art, some practical tips concerning the ideal length of your stay, the proper season of your visit and what you should note while eating in the restaurants and an introduction to the public transport system as well as the entrance prices and opening hours of some of the major attractions such as the churches belonging to the Chorus Association and the museums of the MUVE. Now, let’s get to know Venice, a precious gem on the Adriatic sea.

As the UNESCO comments:

Founded in the 5th century and spread over 118 small islands, Venice became a major maritime power in the 10th century. The whole city is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others.


威尼斯及其泻湖: 威尼斯始建于5世纪,由118个小岛构成,10世纪时成为当时最主要的海上力量。整个威尼斯城就是一幅非凡的建筑杰作,即便是城中最不起眼的建筑也可能是出自诸如焦尔焦内(Giorgione)、提香(Titian)、丁托列托(Tintoretto)、韦罗内塞(Veronese)等世界大师之手。

1. Venice and its outstanding universal value

When’s the first time you heard about Venice and how? Well, I guess the first time I heard about Venice was in my English literature class when I was introduced to William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice“. Or maybe it was in my history class when I learnt that Marco Polo departed from here in search of China, Annam (nowadays Vietnam), Tonkin, Sumatra (an island in Indonesia), India and Persia. His voyage reminds us of the role that the Venetian merchants played in the discovery of the world, though after the Arabs, around 200 years before the Portuguese. In fact, it’s also possible that I heard about Venice even earlier, in my Chinese literature class when I was appreciating the essay “Venice” written by Zhu Ziqing, a renowned Chinese poet and essayist.

威尼斯(Venice)是一个别致地方。出了火车站,你立刻便会觉得;这里没有汽车,要到那儿,不是搭小火轮,便是雇“刚朵拉”(Gondola)。大运河穿过威尼斯像反写的S;这就是大街。另有小河道四百十八条,这些就是小胡同。轮船像公共汽车,在大街上走;“刚朵拉”是一种摇橹的小船,威尼斯所特有,它那儿都去。威尼斯并非没有桥;三百七十八座,有的是。只要不怕转弯抹角,那儿都走得到,用不着下河去。可是轮船中人还是很多,“刚朵拉”的买卖也似乎并不坏。 威尼斯是“海中的城”,在意大利半岛的东北角上,是一群小岛,外面一道沙堤隔开亚得利亚海。在圣马克方场的钟楼上看,团花簇锦似的东一块西一块在绿波里荡漾着。远处是水天相接,一片茫茫。这里没有什么煤烟,天空干干净净;在温和的日光中,一切都像透明的。中国人到此,仿佛在江南的水乡;夏初从欧洲北部来的,在这儿还可看见清清楚楚的春天的背影。海水那么绿,那么酽,会带你到梦中去。

Zhu studied at Peking University (always one of the 2 top universities in China), and during the May Fourth Movement became one of several pioneers of modernism in China during the 1920s. Zhu was a prolific writer of both prose and poetry, but is best known for essays like “Retreating Figure” (背影), “You. Me.” (你我) and the long poem “Destruction” (毁灭). This time, before leaving for Venice, I told my parents that I was going there and my dad said, “Oh, Venice, the city that Zhu Ziqing visited and wrote about. Don’t forget to take the gondola and check whether they are the same as he described or not. Maybe they have changed now?” The text above is part of what Zhu wrote and I’ll try to translate it by myself here. I hope and will try my best to keep the “original taste” of it.

Venice is a unique place. Once leaving the train station, you will immediately realize that there are no cars here. Wherever you wanna go, you can to take either a steam ship or a gondola. The Grand Canal goes through Venice like the letter “S” and it is the “main street” of the city. What’s more, there are 480 small canals and rios and they play the same role as the small alleys (hutong) in Beijing. The steam ships are like buses in other cities, “driving” passengers hither and thither. Gondola is similar to a rowed boat and it’s unique here in Venice. Wherever you wanna go, it can take you there. There are no bridges? Of course there are and there are 378! That’s a lot and enough because after turning around and around, you can basically reach everywhere without touching the sea water. Nevertheless, still quite a lot of people choose to take ships and it seems that gondola is also a rather popular option among them. Composed of many small islands and located at the northeast corner of the Italian peninsula, Venice is called the “city in the sea”. Seen from the top of San Marco Campanile, the islands are like floral clusters floating on the Adriatic sea. In warm sunlight and with almost no smoke, my sight goes through the seemingly transparent whole until it reaches the horizon where the sea meet the sky. As a Chinese, Venice reminds me of the water towns in southern China. After my trip to northern Europe in early summer, I can still find spring here, retreating yet clear. The water, so green and so “strong”, flows into your dreams.

The essay is much longer and I hope you can grasp a general idea or feeling of it from my translation. I’m happy that writing about Venice gives me the opportunity to read Zhu’s work again. I think the last time I read the “Venice” by him was somewhat more than 10 years ago and I have forgotten almost all of it except the “gondola”. A city floating on the sea? Doesn’t it only exist in fairytales or the magical world? As Zhu mentioned in his essay, I was born and grew up in southern China and I know Suzhou (Soochow) is called the “Oriental Venice” because of its rivers and bridges. I lived in this city for four years and I’ve always dreamt of seeing the real Venice. Eventually, the opportunity has come.

In this lagoon covering 50,000 square kilometers, nature and history have been closely connected since the 5th century when the Venetian ancestors came to the sandy islands of Torcello, Jesolo and Malamocco. As time went by, temporary settlements turned to be permanent and the fisherman and peasants became a maritime power. With its expansion over the centuries, Venice never ceased to consolidate its position in the lagoon. What is it that made the UNESCO decide to protect the whole city and its lagoon? What kind of historical, cultural and educational values does Venice possess? Based on what I read from the UNESCO World Heritage website, I’ll try to answer these question from three main aspects, that is to say, the city planning (protection), the monuments (architecture) and the art (painters and paintings).

1.1 Urban setting

Before seeing it, it’s rather difficult to imagine a city built on the sea. We sometimes say though a sparrow is small, it has all the organs that it needs. From Torcello to the north to Chioggia to the south, the islands here in this lagoon are similar to the sparrows, small yet highly functional. Made up of these islands and located at the heart of Veneto, Venice “stood as one of the greatest capitals” in the Middle Ages. In this distinctive city, street means canal, alley means rio, bus means ship and pedestrian crossing means bridge. This unique landscape resulted from a long and sophisticated process which reflects the interaction between people and the natural environment and it is this interaction that demonstrates people’s high technical and creative skills in the “realization of the hydraulic and architectural works” in this area. Although Venice presents a complete typology of medieval architecture, what makes it more special and valuable is that these buildings were constructed according to certain urban setting which had to adapt to the special conditions of the site.

Was it an easy task to organize the islands in such an urban system? It was not and it is not an easy task to keep the system or to update it nowadays either. Venice was and still is vulnerable due to various reasons. One of them is the irreversible natural and climate changes. We human beings can change a lot of things but one of the few things that we can never take control of is nature. Though very difficult, negotiating with nature and protecting their home is a task that the Venetians never forget or give up. When you are in the city, you will see ingenious devices and designs that have been applied to the streets and buildings (palazzos, churches and so on) for this specific purpose. As part of the coherent ecosystem, the muddy shelves, the small islands, the pile dwellings, the fishing villages, the rice fields and so on (which can be easily neglected) all need the same level of attention and protection. Shouldn’t we remember the crystallization of wisdom of these people who were, are and will be coping with nature to preserve this glorious gem of the sea?

1.2 Architecture and monumental arts

The second aspect showing Venice’s outstanding universal value is its influence on the development of monumental arts. I was writing about Palladio and his works in and around Vicenza some time ago and I mentioned some of his original designs in Venice. Honestly, for me, visiting Venice is like visiting the historic centers of Rome and Paris in the aspect that almost every building has its own history and is worth knowing about. This is the reason why the UNESCO emphasizes that “the lagoon of Venice has one of the highest concentrations of masterpieces in the world”. From the palazzos to the squares (piazza and campi), from the bridges to the streets (calli), from the churches to the Scuole hospitals and chartable and cooperative institutions, one who sees Venice sees the complete catalogue of medieval architecture and even more.

While we are talking about the city’s history and buildings, how can we miss its significant role as the capital (810–1797) of the Republic of Venice? For almost a millennium, Venice was the major witness to the ups and downs of this powerful sovereign state and nowadays, its architectural ensembles make it possible for us to see the magnificence of the Republic’s Golden Age. What’s more, internationally, the monuments built based on the Venetian models “first through the Serenissima’s fondachi or trading stations, along the Dalmatian coast, in Asia Minor and in Egypt, in the islands of the Ionian Sea, the Peloponnesus, Crete, and Cyprus” are strong evidence of the width and strength of this Republic’s influence on architecture.

1.3 Paintings and decorative arts

When the Republic of Venice started to lose its power over the sea, it exerted its influence in a rather different manner. I personally am a great fan of Italian paintings and besides the Manneristic Renaissance painters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, the ones belonging to the Venetian school are always among my favorites. From the later part of the 15th century, Venice had a distinctive, flourishing and influential art scene. Beginning with the work of Giorgione and the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, major artists of the Venetian school included Titian (Tiziano Vecelli), Tintoretto (also known as Jacopo Robusti in his youth), Paolo Veronese (also known as Paolo Caliari) and Jacopo Bassano (also known as Jacopo dal Ponte). Together with Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo, their revolutionary and ingenious masterpieces illustrating a brand-new perception of space, light and color left a decisive mark on the development of painting and decorative arts in the whole of Europe.

I remember that in the museums in other cities, once I saw paintings of these masters that I mentioned above, I would definitely take a close look at them. Nevertheless, in Venice, I only chose to take a look at the most famous ones or the ones that I like the most. Why? Because there are so many! I assure you that in no other city of the world can you see such a complete collection of works created by these great painters. These marvelous masterpieces are scatted all over Venice in the churches, houses, palazzos and of course in the museums and art galleries. For example, in the Church of San Zaccaria, you can see Giovanni Bellini’s “San Zaccaria Altarpiece”; in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, you can see Titian’s “The Assumption of the Virgin”; in the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, you can see Tintoretto’s “Last Supper”; in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, you can see Paolo Veronese’s “The Feast in the House of Levi” and “Mystical Marriage of St Catherine”Titian’s “Presentation of the Virgin” and many more. Trust me, if you are a fan of any of those masters in the Venetian school, you will certainly feel Venice is the paradise of art. Just a reminder, as a city built on 118 small islands floating on the Adriatic Sea, the beauty of Venice also inspired numerous landscape painters such as Canaletto, Guardi, Turner and so on.

2. General tips for visiting Venice

Having elaborated on the outstanding universal value of Venice, now, by answering four questions, I’d like to give you a general introduction to the city accompanied by some suggestions or tips based on my own experiences. The first question that I guess many people, who have never been to Venice, have in their mind is: “What are the must-visit attractions in this wonderful city?” Well, I guess anyone who knows Italy knows Venice and anyone who knows Venice knows St. Mark’s Square. It is the principal public square of Venice and is generally known just as la Piazza (“the Square”). Together with the Piazzetta (“little Square”), an extension of the Piazza towards the lagoon in its south east corner, it forms the social, religious and political centre of Venice. In fact, All the other urban spaces in the city (except the Piazzale Roma) are called campi (“fields”). Dominated by the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint MarkProcuratie Nuove, Napoleonic Wing, Procuratie Vecchie, the Campanile of St Mark’s churchBiblioteca Marciana, and Doge’s Palace, these two spaces are worth the name “the drawing room of Europe” (a comment which is said to have been left by Napoleon).

Take your time but remember, don’t spend all your time here. Otherwise, you will miss a big part of Venice. I somehow feel that visiting Venice is like going through a general body examination. It’s of vital importance to check the heart (visit the St. Mark’s Square) but without checking other parts, this examination just doesn’t make much sense. All in all, I’d really like to remind you that Venice is much more than just St. Mark’s Square. Visiting the bridges (such as Ponte dell’Accademia and the Rialto Bridge), the churches (such as the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and the Basilica of Saint Mary of Health), the houses or palaces (such as Ca’ Rezzonico and Ca’ Pesaro), the islands (such as Murano and Burano), the museums (such as the Lace Musem and the Glass Museum), the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Grand Canal and so on will help you gain a much more detailed and comprehensive understanding of Venice.

“How long should we stay in Venice?” Well, this is a very difficult question because depending on how much you wanna see and how much you wanna learn, the length could vary from three days to a month or even longer. If you wanna have a good understanding of the city, I would say you need to spend at least a week here. “What’s the best time to visit Venice?” I visited Venice in November and at the beginning I was a bit disappointed because my friends told me the weather in the summer is much better. Nevertheless, when they told me they waited for one, two or even more hours to enter the churches and museums, I was so glad and realized that I chose the right time. In totally, I visited 18 churches and 9 museums and I didn’t spend any time waiting for entering them. Though in the winter, almost all the museums close earlier than in the summer, I’m still happy that I can use the time standing in the lines to have a nice dinner and enjoy the view of Venice at night. Briefly, if possible, I still recommend you visiting Venice in the low season to avoid large crowds.

“Is it safe to travel in Venice?” According to my experience, I would say my own trip was rather smooth and successful. I wouldn’t say there’s anything life-threatening that you need to be reminded of. Nevertheless, do keep an eye on your personal belongings because similar to any other big or famous touristy cities, thieves are inevitable. What’s more, don’t fall for their tricks when someone offers you free stuff or asks you to sign something. Just remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Besides,there are two more things that I’d like to share with you concerning having lunch and dinner in the restaurants. Firstly, please note that cover fee and service fee are two different charges so when you go to a restaurant where they say they don’t charge compulsory service fee, don’t be surprised when the cover fee appears on your bill, and vice versa. Honestly, as for the cover fee, I think its reasonable to charge it and as long as they provide ok service, I prefer that the restaurants just charge the service fee directly so I don’t need to calculate and think about how much tip I should leave. The thing I hate the most is that sometimes they say one thing while doing another (For example, some guy standing in front of the restaurant inviting customers in said that the restaurant wouldn’t charge service fee or whatsoever. Nevertheless, by the end, both fees appeared on the bill and I saw some customers complaining to him and he seemed to suggest that he would talk with the manager and give their cover and service fees back. Of course 99% of the people would say “Ah, it’s just a few euros, never mind,” and that’s how he does his “business”.) I don’t mind paying a few more euros but if you lie to me, I won’t allow myself to be tricked like a fool and pretend nothing has happened. The second thing is that when you make your order, make sure you see your dish and the price on the menu. For example, in one restaurant, the waitress asked my friend and me, “do you want some garlic bread”? and I said “sure, why not.” but when I got the “garlic bread” they turned out to be tomato buchetta. I bet that if I questioned her she would say “oh, sorry I can’t speak English well or oh sorry, isn’t buchetta garlic bread?” What else could I say? Fortunately, nowadays on Google Map you can check reviews of the restaurants and I strongly recommend you doing so before entering them. How I regret I didn’t do it because later on I checked the reviews of that particular restaurant and there had been so many similar cases much worse then mine. Can you imagine how you would feel if you and your family enter a restaurant planning to have a simple dinner for around 60 euros and end up paying 200 instead? I sincerely hope that the local authorities could deal with these kinds of restaurants which are obviously trying to “rip tourists off”. We tourists need to respect Venice and on the other hand, Venice (relevant administrations) also needs to respect its visitors. Only in this way can we achieve a harmonious relationship between the city and the people.

3. Brief info about public transport and major attractions (that I visited)

As I mentioned above, during my this trip to Venice, I visited 16 churches belonging to the Chorus Association, a conservation organisation aiming at safeguarding, conserving and restoring the artistic, historical and cultural heritage contained within the 18 Venetian churches that presently constitute its membership (Church of Santa Maria del Giglio, Church of Santo Stefano, Church of Santa Maria Formosa, Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Church of San Giovanni Elemosinario, Church of San Polo, Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Church of San Giacomo dall’Orio, Church of San Stae, Church of Sant’Alvise, Basilica of San Pietro di Castello, Church of the Santissimo Redentore, Church of Santa Maria del Rosario (Gesuati), Church of San Sebastiano, Church of San Giobbe, Church of San Giuseppe di Castello, Church of San Vidal and Church of San Giacomo di Rialto), 8 museums belonging to the Venice Civic Museum Foundation (Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia) (Doge’s Palace, Museo Correr, Ca’ Rezzonico, Ca’ Pesaro, Glass Museum in Murano, Natural History Museum, Mocenigo Palace, Fortuny Palace, Lace Museum in Burano, Carlo Goldoni’s house and Clock Tower (visits only upon prior booking)) as well as the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore as well as the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

If you want to visit both the churches and the civic museums I recommend you buying the City Pass from VeneziaUnica which costs 29.9 euros for people from 6 to 29 years old (39.9 euros for people from 30+) and gives free admission to: Doge’s Palace and all 10 Civic Museums of Venice, 16 churches of the Chorus Circuit (another 2 are free), the Querini Stampalia Foundation and the Jewish Museum. Please click here to check more offers provided by VeneziaUnica such as St. Mark’s City Pass (free access to Doge’s Palace and the Corror museum on St. Mark’s square + 3 churches in the Chorus circuit of your choice), St. Mark’s City Pass + tour of the Teatro La Fenice with audioguide, City Pass + lagoon tour, City Pass + public transport and so on.

If you only wanna visit the churches of the Chorus Association, I suggest you buy the Chorus Pass which costs only 12 euros for an adult (please note that entrance to each church in this circuit costs 3 euros already). For more information about the reduced-price Pass, Family Pass, free tickets, opening hours of the churches and so on, please click here.

If you only wanna visit the civic museums, you can buy the “Museum Pass” which grants entrance to most of them except Palazzo Fortuny and the Clock Tower. The full price is 24 euros. Depending on which and how many museums in this foundation you want to visit, either buying the tickets separately or buying the “Museum Pass” can be cheaper. However, if you plan to visit more than four museums in this circle, it’s for sure a better deal to just buy the Pass. Please click here and then click the PDF file “Civic Museums of Venice – short version” to check both the full and reduced entrance prices for each of the museums and click here to know more about the different prices of the “Museum Pass” (such as family pass, child pass, senior pass etc).

As for public transport, water bus (ship) is the main means. According to my experience, it’s fun exploring the main island both on foot and by boat because the former means gives you the opportunity to be closer to the narrow streets and authentic residential blocks while the latter makes your journey much easier and more convenient because there are so many lines and stops. Nevertheless, if you want to visit the Church of the Santissimo Redentore, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Lace Museum on Burano Island, the Glass Museum on Murano Island and so on and have a cruise on the magnificent Grand Canal, you have to take the water bus. Depending on how many days you will spend in Venice and where you want to go, you can buy one-way ticket (7.5 €), 1-day ticket (20 €), 2-day ticket (30 €), 3-day ticket (40 €), 7-day ticket (60€), water bus tickets with Marco Polo Airport transfer and so on. For more informations about group tickets and some special offers please click here and click “Public Transport”.

4. Churches of the Chorus Association

In total, I visited 16 out of the 18 churches belonging to the Chorus Association and again if you wanna visit more than four of them, I strongly recommend you buying the Chorus Pass because it’s a very good deal. These churches are not only religious places but also art galleries. In my previous post, I talked about the churches of Santa Maria del Giglio, Santo Stefano, Santa Maria Formosa, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, and San Giovanni Elemosinario and in this post, based on the information I learnt both from the info sheets on site and from the official website, I’ll introduce to you 5 more churches in the same manner (starting with their opening hours and focusing on their history, architectural features and the paintings within). As for the permission to take pictures, the staff in one of the churches told me that it depends on the priest in charge of the church so in some churches you can take pictures while in others you can not. My suggestion is that in each church, while you are going through the ticket booth and getting your info sheet (available in various languages), just ask the staff whether you can take photos or not. Most of them are very friendly and helpful. Now, let’s continue with the Church of San Polo.

4.1 Church of San Polo

Open from Monday to Saturday: 10:30 – 16:30  (last entrance at 16:20)

The original church, dedicated to Paul the Apostle was founded in the early 9th century and though never been entirely rebuilt, it went through several stages of major changes. The first important change happened in the late 14th century and early 15th century when the church was transformed based on late-Gothic models. This style can still be seen from the large pointed-arch side doorway, attributed to Bartolomeo Bon. In 1804, the second big change took place with the architect Davide Rossi restoring the church by replacing the columns, redefining the area of the apse, rearranging the windows and superimposing neoclassical decorations. It was also during this particular restoration that the fabulous “ship’s keel” wooden ceiling, the Gothic “survivor” within this neoclassical structure, was revealed.

In fact, what impressed me the most in this church was not the architectural features but the artworks, in particular, the paintings in the Oratory of the Crucifix by Giandomenico Tiepolo. In this oratory, you will see “Glory of the Angels”, “Saints Helena and Macarius”, “St. Philip Neri”, “Martyrdom of St. John of Nepomuk”, “St. Vincent Ferreri preaches to the crowd”, “The Resurrection of Christ” and most notably, “Stations of the Cross”, which is composed of 14 panel paintings depicting scenes of the crucifixion of Jesus such as “Jesus is sentenced to death”, “Jesus carries his cross”, “Jesus falls the first time”, “Jesus meets his mother”, “Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross”, “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus”, “Jesus falls the second time”, “Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem who weep”, “Jesus falls the third time”, “Jesus is stripped of his garments”, “Jesus is nailed to the cross”, “Jesus dies on the cross”, “Jesus down from the cross and his body is returned to his mother” and “The entombment of Christ”. All the paintings in this room are among the earliest works (1747-1749) of Giandomenico Tiepolo, who was around 20 when he painted them, and I believe after a walk around, you will have a deep feeling of his bitter and melancholy style. I didn’t know he painted them at his early twenties and I was deeply attracted and touched by the facial expressions of the characters, in particular, Jesus’ mother,Virgin Mary, whose helpless sadness, pain and desperation took me into the scene immediately.

I first came to know Giandomenico’s works when I was visiting the guest-house of Villa Valmarana ai Nani. He together with his father, Giambattista Tiepolo frescoed basically all the rooms in the villa. Though portraying different scenes, his works in the Church of San Polo do imply his personal style which brought him success in his later works. I remember in my post about Villa Valmarana ai Nani, I said that  “this is the only place in the world where you can go through a few rooms and make a comparison between the different styles of Tiepolo the father and the son”. Well, in this church, you can do something similar. The famous “The Virgin appears to St John of Nepomuk” (the fourth picture in the gallery above) on the second altar on the left aisle is actually the work by Giambattista Tiepolo. What’s more, the first altar on the left of the entrance is decorated by the workshop of Jacopo Tintoretto while further on the back wall, the spectacular “Last Supper” (the fifth picture in the gallery above) was painted by the master’s own hands. The left apse chapel hosts “The Marriage of the Virgin” by Paolo Veronese and the right one is decorated with frescoes on the vault by Gioacchino Pozzoli and paintings on the walls by Giuseppe Porta called il Salviati. Above is what I learnt about the church and if you wanna know about it please click here.

4.2 Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

This church is open from Monday to Saturday: 9:00 – 18:00 & on Sundays: 13:00 – 18:00 (last entrance at 17:30). I suggest you leave at least half an hour for this basilica because there are indeed so many things to see and to appreciate. At the ticket office close to the entrance, you can obtain a brochure containing a brief introduction to the basilica and a map marked with numbers. The red numbers refer to the artworks of great significance and they form an itinerary with audio guide, which can be rented at the ticket office for 2 euros and is available in 6 languages. I recommend you listening to it because it lasts only around 35 mins and is very helpful if you want to gain a better and more deeply understanding of not only the religious building but also its treasures.

After St. Mark’s Basilica, the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is the most remarkable religious complex in Venice. What’s more, it is also one of Italy’s most important Franciscan foundations. Honestly, in my opinion, if you are a fan of Venetian paintings and sculptures, this basilica is even more worth visiting than the Basilica of St. Mark’s. This is also the reason why I said that if you only have time to visit one church in Venice, I would personally recommend you the Frari. Why? After finishing reading this chapter, you will see the reason. Shortly after 1220, the Franciscan friars first came to Venice and in around 1231, a church and a convent were built on the land donated to them. Due to the improper size, on 28th April, 1250, the pope’s delegate, Cardinal Ottaviano Ubaldini, laid the foundation stone of the second church dedicated to “Santa Maria Gloriosa”. In around 1330, given the condition of an ever-growing number of pilgrims, the friars commissioned a third and even larger church, which is the basilica that we see nowadays, and it was consecrated in 1492. As you can see from the first picture above, the imposing edifice is built of brick, and is one of the city’s three notable churches built in the Italian Gothic style. Once you enter it and have a walk around, you will figure out easily that (as you can partially see from the second and third pictures above) the interior is made up of a central nave, two side aisles and seven apsidal chapels in Franciscan-Gothic style. Despite a simple structure, the basilica’s beauty and value can never be overestimated. Over eight centuries, it has not only been the witness to the faith of the Venetian people but also become a veritable treasure chest of exceptional works of art. Considering the veneration of Virgin Mary is a typical trait of the Franciscan spirituality, let’s go through the artworks starting with the basilica’s three most beautiful paintings dedicated to her.

Titian has always been one of my favorite Italian Renaissance painters and finally in this basilica, I saw one of his most famous and important painting, one that was described by Canova as the greatest painting in the world and by Oscar Wilde as the best picture in Italy. Yes, it’s “The Assumption of the Virgin” or also called the “Frari Assumption”. It is an altarpiece panel painting in oils painted from 1515 to 1518 for the high altar (where it still stands nowadays) and is the largest altarpiece in the city, with the figures well over life-size. It is said that the figures were enlarged because of the long distance between the altar and the nave (congregation). This painting marks Titian’s early maturity and a new direction in his style because first of all, “The Assumption” reflects Titian’s awareness of the developments in High Renaissance painting in the southern part of Italy such as in Florence and Rome. Secondly, compared with the common still meditative saints in Venetian painting represented by Giovanni Bellini and so on, the active, unsettled figures of the Apostles also mark Titian’s breakthrough. Thirdly, Titian broke with tradition by omitting all the landscape elements and implied the outdoor setting only by the light blue sky above the apostles. Of course, at the very beginning when the painting was freshly finished, it was a great shock to the public. Nevertheless, it was soon recognized as a masterpiece and ensured Titian’s position as the leading painter in Venice and one of the greatest painters in all Italy, even an equivalent to Michelangelo and Raphael. As I read from Wikipedia, the painting is descried as follows:

The figures are in three zones, divided by spaces filled only with light. On the ground are the Apostles, tightly packed in a group and in a variety of dramatic poses, most looking up at the unprecedented sight of the Virgin Mary rising to heaven. They are shown in a variety of poses, ranging from gazing in awe, to kneeling and reaching for the skies, “monumental figures … massed in collective movement, united with shadow, heroic gestures are given a silhouette of unprecedented boldness”.

In the centre zone, the Virgin Mary stands on clouds, wrapped in a red robe and blue mantle, and also makes a gesture of astonishment. Around her “throngs of angels are melted into clouds irradiated by heavenly light”. Above is God the Father, who is about to be handed a crown for Mary by the angel to the right (see above).

Titian’s “Assumption” is usually compared with Raphael’s “Transfiguration” and coincidentally, I’ve seen the latter in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Similarities can be seen between the two of them such as the main figure flying in the air and below, a group of followers who are not fully lit. I’m neither an artist nor an art student, but I do find the comment by John Steer quoted by Wikipedia interesting. Below I’ll share it with you.

Differences between them show in their treatment of form: “Each of Raphael’s figures is thought of as a separate unit, and brought together they are like group sculpture. Even when only a small part of the body is showing … the rest of the body is implied, because Raphael’s space is so clearly constructed that it creates a vacuum which the figure must be conceived as filling.” In contrast, “In the Assumption, the group of Apostles, silhouetted against the sky, is created, by strong cross illumination, from patches of light and shade. So strong is this pattern that when our attention is not deliberately concentrated, the forms are partly lost in it, and it is only by conscious effort that we attach the gesticulating limbs to individual bodies.”

If you are interested, there are actually some other features of this painting (such as its history, subject, style and so on) that are worth reflecting on. please click here to read more.

The picture above shows another masterpiece by Titian called “Pesaro Madonna” or “Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro”, which was commissioned by Jacopo Pesaro, Bishop of Paphos, in Cyprus. In 1518, his family acquired the chapel in the Frari Basilica for which the work was painted, and where it remains today. By giving it splendid colors, perfect design and expressive power of the portraits, Titian started the work in 1519 and finished it in 1526. Nevertheless, the most ingenious and intelligent feature of this painting is the brilliant use of perspective. Please pay attention to the pose of Bishop Pesaro and Saint Peter’s key on the stairs. The key’s diagonal plane leads towards Virgin Mary and it parallels that of Jacopo. On the right bottom corner, Saint Francis of Assisi links the five kneeling Pesaro family members to Christ, “suggesting that through his own route of identification with Christ salvation can be achieved”. Now, with every member of the Pesaro family connected to the “Virgin and Child”, our eyes are redirected to Virgin Mary, whose position at the top of the stairs implies to her celestial role as Madonna of the Stairs and as the Stairway to Heaven. (In fact, I read from Wikipedia that in this work, Titian used her wife as model to portray Mary). Next to her, the two columns, almost taking up the entire height of the painting, draw viewers’ eyes directly heavenwards.

When Titian painted this altarpiece, he broke with a centuries-long tradition of placing the devotional figures (the Virgin and Child) in the center of the painting and the painted space. By doing this, he allowed for a greater sense of movement through the painting, presaging the Baroque period’s more complicated compositional techniques.

Above is another breakthrough made by Titian and if you want to know more about this painting such as the symbolic meanings of the large red banner, the laurel branch, the unidentified knight and two prisoners and so on or want to have a more comprehensive understanding of the aesthetics and composition of it, please click here.  All in all, without a detailed explanation, it’s really difficult to see and understand a painting or the efforts that the painter has made in such a professional way.

Are the two Titian’s paintings mentioned above the only precious works in this basilica? Of course not. As show in the first picture above, it is the “Madonna and Child with Ss. Nicholas of Bari, Peter, Mark and Benedict” by Giovanni Bellini, who was considered to have revolutionized Venetian painting, moving it towards a more sensuous and colouristic style. In the gallery, the works from the left to the right are respectively Bartolomeo Vivarini‘s “St. Mark Enthroned”, Alvise Vivarini‘s “St. Ambrose and other Saints”, Donatello‘s “St. John the Baptist” (It is the only example of Donatello’s work in Venice. It seems that Donatello carved the figure at the request of the Medici family, who wished to thank the Venetians for their generosity during the exiled family’s stay in Venice in 1433), Bartolomeo Vivarini‘s “Madonna and Child with Saints” and Paolo Veneziano‘s “Doge Francesco Dandolo and His Wife Presented to the Virgin by Ss. Francis and Elizabeth”. Trust me, all these masterpieces are worth your time so please rent the audio guide and listen to the introduction or explanation about them. After that you will learn a lot about Venetian painting before and during the Renaissance.

Except for a spectacular collection of paintings, the Frari also hosts an extraordinary collection of Venetian sculptures. Besides Donatello’s “St. John the Baptist”, the most notable ones are probably the “St. Jerome” by Alessandro Vittoria, “St. John the Baptist” by Jacopo Sansovino and the “St. Anthony of Padua” and “St. Agnes” by Girolamo Campagna. At the same time, don’t forget the funerary monuments because they are not only the places where the most important people in the city’s history rest forever but also excellent pieces of art. For example, do take a look at the monument to Doge Francesco Foscari by Antonio and Paolo Bregno, the monument to Benedetto Pesaro by Lorenzo Bregno, the monument to Pietro Bernardo by Tullio Lombardo, the monument to Doge Niccolò Tron by Antonio Rizzo and so on. Last but not least, can you see the two pictures I attached above? They are the monuments to Titian and Antonio Canova respectively. The one to Titian was made by Luigi, Pietro and Andrea Zandomeneghi and this remarkable master painter himself is interred here. Imagine how marvelous it is to stay “so close” to him and appreciate two of his biggest accomplishments in his early years. Opposite to Titan’s monument is the monument to Antonio Canova, one, if not the top one, of the greatest neoclassical artists. It was made by the students of him and as Zhu Ziqing commented, “it looks as if it’s his own”. Imagine a person whose monument stands facing Titian’s. His artistic position in history can’t be just in the middle for sure. In fact the first time I came across Canova’s work was during my visit to the Louvre (his “Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss” is exhibited there) but the sculpture that made me fall in love with him was “The Dance” exhibited in Bode-Museum on the Museum Island in Berlin. I was instantly attracted by the smooth movement of the dancing girl and I was so amazed that I couldn’t help thinking how can such lightness be achieved in a sculpture made of (such heavy) marble. Since then, whichever museum I go to, I keep an eye on whether there’s a sculpture by Antonio Canova or not. I read from Wikipedia that though his body was placed in the Tempio Canoviano, his heart was interred here at this very basilica.

Having said so much about this basilica and its treasures, now do you see the reason why I said at the beginning of this chapter that if you have time to visit only one church in Venice you should the Frari? Again, don’t forget to rent an audio guide because it will give you a lot of help with your exploration and learning. Now let’s move to the next church, the Church of San Giacomo dall’Orio.

4.3 Church of San Giacomo dall’Orio

Open from Monday to Saturday: 10:30 – 16:30 (last entrance at 16:20)

The original church was one of the oldest in Venice and was probably constructed from the 9th to the 10th century. The name “Orio” was derived from the word “Luprio”, the name of the site where the first church was built at that time. Through centuries, this church, like most of the others in Venice, underwent significant transformations. The current form of the interior, a Latin cross with a central nave, two side aisles and a broad transept, was mainly resulted from the remodeling of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, but of course, remains of an earlier major reconstruction in 1225, which gave the church a Byzantine structure, can still be seen. Particularly notable is the fine green marble column with the Ionic capital from Byzantium (as you can see in the first picture in this chapter), praised by John Ruskin and Gabriele d’Annunzio in their writings and the quatrefoil holy water stoup made of Greek marble (as you can see in the first picture in the gallery), which was probably brought back after the Fourth Crusade, which ended in 1204. Once you look up, I’m sure you won’t miss the splendid “ship-keel” wooden ceiling which somehow adds warmth to the general atmosphere. It dates back to the second remodeling (late 14th and early 15th centuries) and is analogous to and contemporaneous to the ones in the churches of Santo Stefano and of San Polo. If you have time, why not making a comparison between the three of them? Can you spot the similarities and differences?

As for the paintings in this church, I think the first one that you need to see is Lorenzo Lotto’s “Virgin Mary and Child with Apostles and Saints” (as shown in the third picture above), one of the few works by this artist that can be found in Venice. On the altar of St. Antony, you will see the “Virgin with Child and Saints”, the last work by Giambattista Pittoni. The New Sacristy, built after 1903, hosts paintings by Francesco Bassano, Francesco Zugno and “Faith with the Holy Ghost” and “Doctors of the Church” on the ceiling by Paolo Veronese while the Old Sacristy was almost entirely decorated by Palma il Giovane, featuring “Mystery of the Eucharist”. If you wanna know more about this church please click here.

5.4 Church of San Stae

Open from Monday to Saturday: 13:45 – 16:30 (last entrance at 4:20)

As early as in 1127, the church of San Stae (St. Eustachio) already existed as a parish church. Nevertheless, towards the end of the 17th century, due to an urgent need of restoration, it was totally re-designed by the architect Giovanni Grassi. The plan clearly shows an influence from Palladio. For example, the interior represents a rectangular plan with its single nave flanked by three open chapels on each side, topped by a vaulted ceiling and leading to the deep chancel. What’s more, the large semi-circular windows invite the sunlight in and when it’s reflected by the white walls and decorations, it makes the inside strikingly luminous. I believe before you enter, you are already attracted by the splendid façade facing the Grand Canal. Sponsored by Doge Alvise Mocenigo and designed by Domenico Rossi in 1709, it features rich decorations by Giuseppe Torretto, Antonio Tarsia, Pietro Baratta, Antonio Corradini and so on. In fact, you can see in the center of the nave a large tombstone, which marks the burial place of the Mocenigo family.

Inside the church, the artworks will give you a fundamental understanding of the early 18th century Venetian painting. For example, when you are facing the presbytery, in the chapels on your right-hand side, you will see works by Nicolò Bambini, Giuseppe Camerata, and Antonio Balestra while on your left-hand side, the chapels host works by Giuseppe Torretto, Pietro Baratta, Francesco Migliori, and Jacopo Amigoni. Furthermore, if you keep walking you will see the most important works of this church in the deep presbytery. On the ceiling there is a canvas painting by Bartolomeo Letterini and on each side of the wall, there is one big rectangular painting between six small ones. The two big ones are “The Sacrifice of Melchisedech” and “The Fall of Manna” by Giuseppe Angeli while the twelve small ones are by various artists. Among them, the most notable masterpieces are probably the “Martyrdom of St. Bartholemew” by the young Giambattista Tiepolo, “The Martyrdom of Saint Thomas” by Giambattista Pittoni, the “Martyrdom of St. James the Greater” by Giambattista Piazzetta and the “Liberation of St. Peter” by Sebastiano Ricci. Don’t forget, in the sacristy, Maffeo Verona’s “Crucifixion” and Giambattista Pittoni’s “Trajan orders St. Eustachio to pray to the idols” are stored. If you wanna know more about this church please click here.

5.5 Church of Sant’Alvise

Open from Monday to Saturday: 10:30 – 16:30 (last entrance at 16:20). Please note it is not allowed to take pictures in this church.

Located at the northern end of the main island, the Church of Sant’Alvise will take you away from the busy city center and give you the opportunity to explore the secret part of Venice. I remember the first thing I said when I arrived in front of it was, “wow, finally a place in Venice with only a few people.” Trust me, only after your visit to this city will you realize how previous and rare tranquility is. Before entering, you can see the statue of St. Louis of Toulouse above the main entrance, to whom this church was dedicated to. It is said that in 1388, the saint appeared in the dream of the patrician lady Antonia Venier and convinced her to build a convent bearing his name. In 1456, the monastery acquired three relics of the Flagellation and since then, it has been a place of devotion and pilgrimage. The current plan with a single nave is the result of a remodeling carried out in the 17th century.

Judging from the brick outside walls and façade, we might easily assume that the interior is just as plain as the exterior. Nevertheless, don’t be deceived because the inside is actually lavishly decorated, and in particular, I even think the ceiling can be compared with the one in the Sistine Chapel. Once you enter, the barco or in other words, the nuns’ choir gallery above your head, which was used by the nuns and connected to the nearby convent is one of the most special features of this church. Being one of the earliest examples of the 15th century barcos, it is supported by two columns with capitals and barbacani (wooden beam supports). If you want to have a good view of it please walk close to the chancel and turn around. Personally, I think the ceiling is the most eye-catching feature because it is entirely decorated with the frescoes by Pietro Antonio Torri and Pietro Ricchi, depicting “Heavenly Jerusalem”. How I wish I could take a picture and show you how marvelous it looks. In the chancel, you will find one of Giambattista Tiepolo‘s early works, “Christ Reaching the Calvary”. In 1735, the nuns commissioned in total three paintings to Giambattista Tiepolo which once formed a triptych but now are separated. Besides the one we just mentioned in the chancel, the other two are “The Coronation of Thorns” and “The Flagellation” and are located in the nave nowadays. Another two paintings that I didn’t pay attention to but later read about are to the right of the entrance. As I read from Wikipedia, these two canvases by Pietro della Vecchia depicting “Theft of the body of St. Mark” and “The Saracens refuse to inspect the basket with the body of St. Mark” were made as cartoons for the mosaic decorations in St. Mark’s Basilica. If you wanna know more about this church such as the panel paintings by Lazzaro Bastiani, please click here.

Finally, I’ve finished introducing to you another five churches belonging to the Chorus Association, emphasizing on the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Although a little bit long, I hope this post can give you some help either when you are planning to visit or when you are visiting the churches. In the next post, which is the last post about the churches of the Chorus Association in Venice, I’ll introduce to you the Basilica of San Pietro di Castello, the Church of the Santissimo Redentore, the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario (Gesuati), the Church of San Sebastiano, the Church of San Vidal and the Church of San Giacomo di Rialto. Don’t miss the opportunity to see some original designs by Palladio and some more artworks by the greatest masters of the Venetian school.

Venice – churches of the Chorus Association (2/3) was last modified: May 28th, 2019 by Dong

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