The San Salvador was built in 1507 by local architect Giorgio Spavento, and completed in 1534. Tullio Lombardo took over after Spavento’s death in 1509 (Wikipedia).
After Tullio died in 1532, Sansovino completed the San Salvatore. This church is considered one of the most successful and beautiful churches in Venice. Spavento started with a central-plan building and a large central dome with four small domes in the corners. The central-plan building and the Greek cross were reintroduced by Codussi at the end of the 15th century (click here for a map of the San Salvatore in the urban context). Spavento, who of course had to deal with his commissioners, was not allowed to make a full central-plan building. This shape is quite awkward. By repeating the Greek cross twice more, a long nave is created. A basilica that also has the strong features of a Greek cross. A perfectly successful synthesis of two construction types which seem to be mutually exclusive: a basilica and a central-plan building.
Three round apses were placed on the east side as enclosure. This is a tradition in Byzantine architecture. By lengthening the side arms, the Greek cross also gets a transept. The architect was forced by the monks to do this. Click here for a map of the San Salvador.
The simple interior with white stucco and grey-blue stone for the supporting parts had a large influence on Palladio and Longhena. The three consecutive domes with lanterns in combination with the smaller domes provide an immense amount of light (Click here for a drawing of a cross-section of the San Salvatore). The lanterns were added in 1574. Under the influence of the Counter-Reformation, more windows were built in many churches in the late 16th and early 17th century: more light was required to make the artworks, paintings and sculptures clearly visible to the public.
The church is not only worth visiting because of its architecture from the Renaissance, but also to admire the works of Titian (Tiziano Vecellio). These are two altarpieces: one of them adorns the high altar, and represents the Transfiguration, and the other piece is placed above an altar by Sansovino, and depicts the Annunciation. Titian uses his technique in the Annunciation (See Titian’s painting technique), painted between 1560-65, to shape a literary text in paint. The following words from Genesis are painted on the marble frame: ‘IGNIS ARDENS ET NON COMBURENS’ or burning with fire, but not being consumed by it. It represents Mary having a child, but that the ‘fire’ did not affect her hymen.
The crystal vase with flowers exactly placed above the frame with the inscription, stands in stark contrast with the way the flowers are painted. It doesn’t display the usual traditional lilies. Titian painted a firm plant with heavy petals that looks suspiciously like the flames of fire. The suggestive spots, macchia, make it look like it’s actually on fire. Titian uses his painting techniques here to shape theological metaphors. Next to Titian, his brother Francesco also worked on several assignments in the church, such as the tomb, the high altar, the doors of the organ and the frescos at the side entrance.
Hidden behind Titian’s Transfiguration is a true treasure from the fourteenth century..
Despite its magnificence, the Pala d’Argento, a late 14th-century ‘Golden Cloth’ adorning the high altar, remains widely unknown, even among numerous art historians. Only during specific occasions such as Christmas, Easter, and the celebration of the Transfiguration (August 6), when Titian’s expansive canvas illustrating the Transfiguration of Christ, typically suspended in front of it, is lowered onto the altar table, can the Pala d’Argento be observed.
We backtrack a bit and take a right at the San Giovanni Crisostomo (map). We leave the busy road that leads to the station and we enter a number of courtyards that are typically medieval Venice. In the Corte Seconda del Milion we see the home that once belonged to the famous Marco Polo, the explorer who visited China. These courtyards are typical for how tradespeople lived in medieval times.
Finally, we arrive at one of the largest squares of the city: Campo di S. Maria Formosa.
The founding of the church by the same name, the Santa Maria Formosa, was initiated by higher powers. Mary, as matrone formosa (lit. wealthy or plump), commanded the local bishop to establish a church at the place where a cloud would stop moving, and so it happened. The layout is similar to what we say at the San Giovanni Crisostomo, a Greek cross. This was the conventional shape for Byzantine churches devoted to Mary.
The diary of Malipiero describes how the Santa Maria Formosa was constructed. It was mostly completed when Codussi died in 1504. This church was located at the largest campo of the city. A freestanding church like this one is highly unusual for Venice. Perhaps the architect saw a challenge in designing a freestanding church that could be approached from three sides. During the Gothic period the basilisk shape was dominant, but Codussi falls back on the old Byzantine layout: a centred plane, in this case, a Greek cross. These layouts were often used in the Veneto-byzantine period. Examples include the San Giacomo di Rialto and of course the San Marco. The layout of the Santa Maria Formosa shows the ingenuity of Codussi (map: 1. Mary chapel of the Immaculate Conception and 3. Chapel of Barbara).
It goes without saying that the San Marco, some minutes away from the Formosa, was the archetype for this layout. During the First World War, the church was heavily damaged after which the dome and roof underwent considerable change. For example, the high tholobate of the dome was never rebuilt. This downplays the otherwise nice elevation of the dome. To still receive sufficient light, the windows of the old tholobate were replaced by round windows in the lunettes of the aisles. The original look of the church is unknown, as the church underwent significant restoration after an earthquake in 1668. Most likely, the church was originally very basic, nearly “unvenetian.”
The ambiguity between the two main axles was niftily exploited by Codussi. The apses are found at the east side, but the north side has the main entrance. That is, from the direction of the campo. The west side, the side of the Rio di S. Maria Formosa, has the second ‘main entrance’, straight across from the apses. What’s unusual are the deep side-chapels in the aisles that accentuate the Greek cross.
The mullion arches in the side-walls of these side-chapels affect the Greek cross: they accentuate the longitudinal axis of the aisle. If you walk through the church, the vista changes all the time. Each year, the Doge visited the yearly fest of the Immaculate Conception and the church organised a procession. Codussi designed a perfect stage to host it. Little is known of the exterior. The western facade – channel side- and the campanile are from the 17th century. The very simple apses draw your attention as you walk across the square. The Santa Maria Formosa was a rich parochial. A highly desirable area to live in. It drew in rich parishioners and thus a beautiful and large church. And that is something the parishioners of the church we examined before, the San Giovanni Crisostomo, couldn’t afford.
We will examine two more paintings. In the first chapel to our right, devoted to the immaculate conception of Mary, we see a triptych by Bartholomeo Vivarini from 1473. The triptych worships Mary and depicts to the left the meeting of Mary’s mother and father, Joachim and Anna. Mary is in the middle, as a protector of the poor and the right panel shows the birth of Jesus. The priest Vettor Rosati collected funds from his parishioners. That money allowed him to pay Vivarini and as a token of gratitude, the parishioners are depicted under Mary’s protective cloak. Frame is not original.
All the way to the left we see the chapel of the H. Barbara, the location of a polyptych made by Palma il Vecchio in 1510. Palma was a student of Titian and he spent some time in Rome where he was largely influenced by Michelangelo.
Barbara is quite chubby in this image (formosa), as a saint she is carrying a palm branch and her figure and face meet the Venetian beauty standards of that time. The tower depicted by Palma il Vecchio in the background is there for a reason, as the legend of this brave Christian woman is as follows:
Born as a daughter to a rich heathen, Barbara was introduced with Christianity and saw that it was good. Her father was furious and had her locked away. Barbara asked for more room and she had some additional quarters constructed. She insisted that not two, but three windows would be placed. Her cunning father knew all too soon what that would imply, the holy trinity. He turned his daughter over to the justice system. But the tortures that befell her did not break her faith. Erupting with anger over her stubbornness, Barbara’s father took up a sword and decapitated her. But then Christ intervened, and a lightning strike descended upon Dioscurus from the heavens to leave him as nothing more than a pile of ash. Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen, miners and others who deal with explosives. See Golden Legend Volume 6
Barbara was especially popular in the late medieval period. Palma depicted another Pietà at the top of this polyptych.