San Giorgio Maggiore

Island of San Giorgio Maggiore        Zoom in        Aerial

Island of San Giorgio Maggiore
photos: TeKappa; zoom: Dennis Jarvis and aerial: Kasa Fue

View from the San Giorgio Maggiore        Monastery of the San Giorgio Maggiore

View from San Giorgio Maggiore Venice
photos: Limlf and monastry: Bichot from Paris

Andrea Palladio

Palladio did not get any important assignments in Venice until the last decade of Sansovino’s life who was seventy-four years old. The first assignment was the refectory of the Benedictine monastery: the San Giorgio Maggiore. It is once again the monks who are the first to have ‘modern’ architecture. The villas of the Palladio in Veneto and the buildings in Vicenza were universally acclaimed. The still fairly conservative nobility and the government in Venice were not fond of the innovations. Sansovino also used the classical language, but left the old Venetian structure intact. Palladio did not.

Portrait: Andrea Palladio
View from Palazzo Ducale on San Giorgio Maggiore
photos: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT; Limlf

View from Palazzo Ducale on San Giorgio Maggiore
View from San Giorgio San Maggiore on Palazzo Ducale

The construction of the San Giorgio Maggiore started in 1565. By 1520, the monks thought their monastery and church on this island too small. The Venetian guide makes mention of an already existing church by Francesco Sansovino, the son of Jacopo. Allegedly this was partly the model for Palladio’s design. The wooden model of the San Giorgio Maggiore by Palladio was built in the winter of 1565-1566. The refectory had already been completed by then. The monks asked the Senate’s permission to get a thousand oaks from the terra firma for their foundations. Normally, shipbuilding was given priority, since deforestation around La Serenissima was already quite intense. The foundation was laid in 1566. The building completed in 1576, apart from the facade, which was built between 1607 and 1611, a quarter century after Palladio’s death. The contract with the stone masons clearly indicates that Palladio’s design had to be closely followed.

San Giorgio Maggiore

San Giorgio Maggiore Palladio

Canaletto ‘The church of San Giorgio Maggiore’ private collection

Canaletto 'The church of San Giorgio Maggiore'

This was the first church that was fully designed by Palladio. He describes the ancient temple in his treatises. Of course, a central-plan building was the most beautiful, but there lies a world between the ideal and practical use of a church. Palladio formulated this as follows:

“And since the round one is such [……] it is the only one amongst all figures that is simple, uniform, equal, strong and capacious, let us make our temples round.’ […] to continue his arguments with.. .’  ‘Those churches also are very laudable, the ones made in the form of a cross [……] because they are fashioned in the form of the cross, they represent to the eyes of the beholders that from which depends our salvation.” Palladio, The Four Books of Architecture, trs. I. Ware, London, 1738, Dover paperback facsimile edn., New York. 1965 pp. 81-82

Palladio had to take the tradition of the Benedictines into consideration in the San Giorgio Maggiore. The Benedictine church, the Santa Giustine (Wikipedia), in Padua, whose construction was started in 1521, was used as the model.

Santa Giustine

Santa Giustine Padua
photo: Didier Descouens
Portrait of Palladio

This church must have been the inspiration for Palladio. He copied the following from the Santa Giustina:
1.three naves
2. transept with large crossing and one dome
3. chancel with apses
It is striking that Palladio left out quite a bit of things that can be found in the Santa Giustina, such as:
1. no multiple domes in nave and transept arms
2. no three apses, but one central one
3. chancel behind instead of in front of the main altar

Having opted for this means he also denounces the characteristic features of the San Marco. By doing this, Palladio goes his own way and rejects the Veneto-Byzantine tradition in his architecture. To him, the Byzantine architecture in the lagoon is not a source of inspiration. All this while the San Giorgio Maggiore’s facade is directed at the San Marco.

San Michele

Palladio did however use Istrian stone. The facade of the San Michele by Mauro Codussi (Wikipedia) was the likely source of inspiration. The wall surface here is not broken like in the scuola di San Rocco or the library. In this last building, we see strong shadow effects next to white, clear planes because of the multiple layers and many openings. The chiaroscuro is enhanced by the abundantly applied decorations by Sansovino. Codussi shows none of this. The San Michele seems to shimmer like an iceberg in blue water. During Palladio’s life, the facade was completed after his death, the view of the facade was blocked by a row of small houses in front of it. The houses were demolished by order of Doge Donà. He resented the view from his quarters in the Ducale.

Chiesa San Michele Venice
photo: Didier Descouens

Palladio would definitely have been excited about this. A drawing from Palladio’s workshop was found in the Venetian archives. Palladio drew a large three-dimensional portico in front of the facade in this. This was only executed in his Villa Barbaro in Maser (Wikipedia). Palladio projects a temple facade on the flat wall, the vertical section. He does this ingeniously. His solution becomes the model for generations of architects after him. The current facade is a much cheaper solution than a portico. The facade barely has any deep niches and ‘holes’ such as in the library, so there is much less shadow- and light effects, just like in the San Michele. In this church, for which Palladio had control over the entire design, the interior and facade are perfectly compatible. The small and large orders, the high bases can be seen in the interior.

San Giorgio Maggiore facade       Zoom in

San Giorgio Maggiore facade Palladio
photos: Till Niermann

Facade and entrence

San Giorgio Maggiore facade detail Palladio
photo: Till Niermann

Entrance        Part of the facade and entrance

The church’s interior is extremely light due to the combination of white Istrian stone and white stucco. Furthermore, the windows are cleverly placed, so a sea of light can flow in. New to the natural lighting is that it was a conscious effort to achieve certain effects.

San Giorgio Maggiore: Entrance Palladio

Palladio used white in his churches on purpose, as he says: “Among all colours what is most suited to Temples is whiteness so that the purity of the colour and of life is highly pleasing to God” ” Palladio, The Four Books of Architecture, trs. I. Ware, London, 1738, Dover paperback facsimile edn., New York. 1965 p. 82.

San Giorgio Maggiore     Zoom out       Other side of the nave

San Giorgio Maggiore interior Palladio
photos: Sailko; zoom side: José Luiz

Adding to this, the Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trent demanded a lot of light in churches. The paintings and sculptures that had to educate the faithful and stir up one’s religious feelings were to be highly visible. Additional windows were installed in many of the churches such as the San Salvatore. The Santa Giorgio Maggiore is, however, no manifesto of the Counter-Reformation. This church is too unique; completely in a category of its own in the context of Venetian tradition. Palladio prevents a ‘multiplicative’ effect of rooms in the San Giorgio Maggiore, which is the case in the many domes of the San Marco or the Santa Giustina in Padua. So no matter where you are in the church, you are always aware of the central point of the church. It therefore works as a central-plan building, even though it is a basilica (cross-section and plan of the San Giorgio Maggiore).

Dome of the Santa Giorgio Maggiore

San Giorgio Maggiore dome interior Palladio
photo: Derbrauni

The large dome was placed exactly in the middle of the entrance and the main altar, the windows in the tholobate and the roof lantern provide a lot of light. The four areas that touch the crossing with barrel vaults are clearly distinguishable from the vaults in the aisles, which have lower cross vaults. Palladio was able to unify that what is almost impossible, which is the cross shape, the basilica, and the central-plan building. Palladio uses the colossal composite order and half-columns in the interior, just like for the facade. The small pilaster order is a point of orientation for the church visitor that serves as a reference for the enormous dimensions. The pillars with the half colossal composite order and the pilasters with the composite order are a repetition of the same motif. The colossal order on high bases emphasise the views in the church. Large, thermal windows in the nave and transept provide abundant light from above. On the spot, I will show you with a piece of A3 paper that the Roman thermae modelled for the blueprints of this church. Bath houses had a smart concatenation of completely different areas. Despite of this concatenation of areas, there was a clear unity in the building, which can also be seen in this case. The thermal windows (windows from Roman bath houses: Wikipedia) was rarely used before Palladio. After the San Giorgio Maggiore, thermal windows were applied in almost all churches, especially after the demands of the Counter-Reformation that churches needed to be lighter.

San Giorgio Maggiore main altar
photos: José Luiz; zoom: Testus

Zoom in main altar

Just like in Sansovino’s church, the San Francesco della Vigna, the chancel of the monks was placed behind the main altar, and not in front like in the Frari church. Palladio copies this in his churches in Venice.  He also applies the windows on the back side with the backlight, which almost resembles a divine apparition coming toward the church visitor. In the San Giobbe and the San Francesco della Vigna, monastic churches this type of chancel already proved its advantage. The view on the main altar was perfect and the monks could sing and pray freely.

Palladio and Sansovino had to have been aware of the chancel from Bramante in the Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. This was new for a Benedictine church. The chancel in the Santa Giustina in Padua was located in front of the main altar. The chancel in the Santa Giorgio Maggiore was divided and quite large, with as many as forty-eight seats. According to the tradition of the Benedictines, singing took place seven times a day. The height of the chancel was significantly lower than the church, so the sounds of the singing and the organ were sent into the church.

Choir         Zoom in

San Giorgio Maggiore: choir
photos: Andraszy and zoom: Niki.L

The day the Doge attends the church, on the day of St. Stephen, the sounds of the chancel of the San Giorgio Maggiore come from behind the main altar, while the chancel of the San Marco comes from the transepts. The layout is perfect for a divided chancel, Coro spezzato, a chancel behind the main altar and two chancels in the apses of the transept. This idea must have been based on the multiple apses of the Santa Giustina, which also had a divided chancel. But the choirs could not have always sounded beautifully, since there are too many rooms and domes. At the time, people thought wooden ceiling or roof trusses provided the best acoustics. The effect of a flat wooden ceiling is that it largely absorbs the echoes to create better sound. That is why Sansovino opted for a wooden ceiling. In Rome it was discovered around the same time that low barrel vaults, like those in the Il Gesù, provide even better acoustics. Vignola’s discovery from 1568 spread quickly across Italy. The wooden ceiling of the San Francesco della Vigna was replaced by a low barrel vault in 1630.

Palladio’s cloister        Another view of the cloister (completed in 1614)

San Giorgio Maggiore: cloister Palladio
photos: Hervé Simon

This church in Venice also contains a number of remarkable pieces of art, such as works by Tintoretto.

Tintoretto ‘The Jews in the Desert c. 1593

Tintoretto 'The Jews in the Desert' San Giorgio Maggiore

Tintoretto ‘The Jews in the Desert’ in situ

After 1590, Tintoretto’s workshop received commissions to create large canvases for decoration purposes. As the number of commissions grew, Tintoretto, in his later years, began to increasingly depend on his colleagues for assistance. The complete interpretation of the unique iconography in this painting remains elusive. However, there are compelling indications that Tintoretto intended to portray the Israelites’ rejection of the manna, which resulted in the outbreak of fiery serpents and ultimately led to the construction of the bronze serpent. Alternatively, the painting might amalgamate various themes, such as the Israelites’ encampment in the oasis of Elim, the cleansing of their garments at the base of Mount Sinai, the crafting of the copper basin for the sanctuary, and the preparation of the manna through cooking, among others. The artist deliberately designed the figure of Moses in the right foreground to bear a resemblance to Christ, as he engages in a conversation with Aaron. This intentional choice creates a typological connection between Moses and the painting on the opposite side, namely The Last Supper. In typical Tintoretto fashion, seemingly ordinary elements of genre painting conceal a deeper scriptural significance. For instance, the figure of the donkey driver positioned at the top right could potentially represent Balaam, who, unable to perceive the angel of the Lord, chastised his fearful animal.

Tintoretto 'The Jews in the Desert' in situ San Giorgio Maggiore
photo: Sailko

Tintoreto ‘Self-portrait’

Throughout his life, Tintoretto depicted the Last Supper on multiple occasions. This particular rendition can be characterized as a feast of the poor, wherein the figure of Christ blends among the masses of apostles. Yet, an otherworldly spectacle featuring winged figures emerges as the illumination around his head captures attention. By bestowing upon it a visionary quality, this attribute distinctly sets apart the painting from earlier depictions of the same subject by artists such as Leonardo.

Tintoretto ‘The Last Supper’ 1592 – 1594

Tintoretto 'The Last Supper' San Giorgio Maggiore

The intriguing diagonal placement of the Last Supper table can be attributed to its installation on the right wall of the presbytery of San Giorgio Maggiore. The intention was for visitors to perceive the table as an extension of the high altar in perspective, or conversely, to view the high altar as a continuation of the Last Supper table. The regal demeanor of Christ and the presence of liturgical vessels on the adjacent small table evoke a similar association. By incorporating winged apparitions, the painting symbolically represents the Eucharist as the “bread of angels,” as eloquently described by St. Thomas Aquinas. The ethereal and otherworldly nature of these figures alludes to the profound mystery of transubstantiation, wherein bread and wine undergo a miraculous transformation into the actual body and blood of Christ. Although the overall composition of The Last Supper draws inspiration from a tapestry by Giulio Romano depicting the Passover, the inclusion of the hauntingly flickering candlestick was inspired by a painting titled “Crowning with Thorns” by Titian (Alte Pinakothek) , which Tintoretto acquired from the master’s collection after his passing.

Top of the Campanile

If we have time we will take the elevator and go up to the Campanile. This provides a stunning view of the city. We take boat 82 again and sail from the Canale della Giudecca to the second church Palladio built: Il Redentore.

San Giorgio Maggiore: Top Campanile
photo: Didier Descouens

View from the Campanile of the San Giorgio Maggiore       View from Campanile

View from Campanile of the San Giorgio Maggiore 
photos: Vyacheslav Argenberg and Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

Continuation Venice day 4: Il Redentore