The function of this church, gratitude, as well as protection against the plague, can be seen in the main altar. The altar you directly stand eye-to-eye with when stepping into the church through the main entrance. Sculptor Juste Le Court developed a group of sculptures in 1670 for the main altar, showing the personification of the plague, an old ugly woman, being chased away by an angel. A woman kneels on the left, representing Venice, and Mary with her child is standing in the middle on a cloud with the crescent moon under her. In a style that is characteristic of the Baroque. The cap of the Doge can be seen on the pillow at the bottom in the centre.
The myth that the church was put forward by angels stands in stark contrast with the 100,000 trees used for its foundation. In the words of the poet Longo: ‘A fertile buried forest’. A very precious issue, since there was a lack of trees and most new building reused the old foundation piles.
Like the Redentore, the Santa Maria della Salute was primarily a votive church and not a monastic church. As described before, most votive churches are placed on hills or other prominent places, usually on the edge of the city or just outside of it. The pilgrims arriving from outside the city had to be overwhelmed. An example is the basilica of Mary on Mount Berico in Vicenza, which we will walk by when we go to Vicenza on Wednesday. Furthermore, the Salute forms an imaginary circle that connects the San Marco, the Redentore and the Salute to each other. The San Giorgio Maggiore also lies in this circle.
San Marco bottom; Il Redentore top right; San Maria della Salute middle right; San Giorgio Maggiore left
Also, the church is located near the point where customs are. The ships that arrived and had to report to customs immediately saw the Santa Maria della Salute. They were reminded that Mary protected the sea travellers of this city. Also, the church is located near the point where customs are. The ships that arrived at the Punta della Dogana had to report to customs immediately saw the Santa Maria della Salute. They were reminded that Mary protected the sea travellers of this city.
The final report of the commission of five noblemen appointed by the Senate stated what requirements the church had to meet:
1. The interior had to be properly lit.
2. Not too expensive.
3. The main altar had to be clearly visible from the entrance.
4. The rest had to be visible when the procession moved through the church.
Palladio already effectively used the arch at the chancel as a beautiful frame of the main altar. The drama of the Redentore, the conscious creation of an architecture that impresses the participant of the procession, is copied by Longhena. In the Redentore, the church unfolds to the visitor when walking along the centre axis (floor plan). In the Salute first at the axis: entrance and main altar. After this while walking around the octagonal. You get multiple vistas while walking around or standing still and turning your head. From the door you can see the main altar, but not the other six chapels: the view is blocked by the large columns that carry the dome. Longhena got the idea of a round cloister directly around the nave from early Christian examples such as the San Vitale in Ravenna and the San Costanza in Rome. The only example of a semi-circular cloister in Venice can be found in San Zaccaria. So the map is based on Byzantine examples. The perception of space is also very special in the San Vitale in Ravenna (Wikipedia); you don’t discover the structure until you start walking.
Since the annual procession started at San Marco and lead to the Salute via a pontoon bridge, Longhena made sure that the San Marco would also be represented in ‘his church’, at least in certain elements of it. The enormous dome looks a lot like the large dome of the San Marco; the outer shell is much higher than the inner one. While Palladio didn’t take the San Marco into account, Longhena felt obliged to create a connection with San Marco in his church. Both strongly rising domes are clearly visible against the horizon. Baldassare unified the San Marco and both churches by Palladio in his Salute.
Like the Il Redentore, the dome on the side of the Giudecca is flanked by two small towers. These connect the two churches when standing with your back towards the Il Redentore, looking at the city.
This is of course also the case if you take a boat towards customs or sail onto the Giudecca. Two apses are placed in the chancel, next to the main altar. Palladio did this at the two chancels under the dome. Also, the large thermal windows from the IL Redentore can be seen in the side walls of the Salute. The main facade of the Salute has colossal columns at the entrance on high bases and niches that feel quite Palladian. The same thing applies to the combination of colossal and small order. In the interior, the large order, composite, is placed against pillars with half columns; it is flanked by Corinthian pilasters. Quite simple proportions were used in this church, reminiscent of Palladio. The Salute is however no sample of Byzantine and Palladian elements. It is a masterpiece of the Baroque that stands on its own. It can compete with buildings from the birthplace of Baroque: Rome, with Bernini and Borromini. Just like Borromini, Longhena was fascinated with contrasting geometrical shapes (St. Ivo alla Sapienza and the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane). This ‘obsession’ is clearly visible in the transition from the octagonal nave to the round dome. The sixteen ribs in the dome just run through the pilasters of the tholobate.
Just like Bernini, who made theatre sets, Longhena was aware of the church as a stage, similar to a theatre stage. He carefully interweaved the interior and exterior. Longhena changed the heavy buttresses to visually attractive curls reminiscent of the house of a snail. The twelve apostles are depicted on the twelve ‘snails’ or volutes. Completely above the lantern, Mary can be seen with a crown with twelve stars.
Like Borromini and Bernini, Longhena was not afraid to ignore Vitruvian rules for a better theatrical effect. Longhena for instance used Doric pilasters above the composite order. Vitruvius would turn in his grave at the sight of this. Longhena also placed two windows above a single arch, as if wanting to show that the dome is a completely independent structure that is unrelated to the building underneath it. There is no logical tectonic connection to the upper and lower construction, a deadly sin in Vitruvian logic.
Longhena, just like his ‘Roman brothers’, is very aware of the urban context he placed his church in. The Baroque was interested in radial vistas that stretched out over the city. The Salute, as described earlier, has points of contact with the different churches in the city. The Salute remains Venetian, since the white Istrian stone was also used here. The church lights up against the blue backdrop of water and sky, and immediately catches your eye. He uses white stucco in the interior and white Istrian stone that has darkened over time. Longhena wanted to decrease the strictness of the white, as seen in Palladio’s churches. He wanted stucco in the dome and paintings. This would be more in the direction of Bernini.
The iconography played a big role in the design, as it did with Bernini and Borromini. The eight side walls stand for the eight winds, similar to the Tower of the Winds in Athens. The building was an inspiration for the sailors. Baldassare Longhena had just passed away when his church was completed. He wasn’t completely reassured about his creation. Sources from his time speak of a small man, always dressed in black, latching on to everyone to pry for their opinion about his church. Apparently he wasn’t all too sure of his own work. In the history of architecture, this church is seen as a masterpiece, and is depicted in every handbook on the history of architecture for a reason.
If we have time, we will view several famous paintings, including two works by Titian. Mark can be seen in one of these paintings with saints Roch, Sebastian, and Cosmas and Damian on the left. It was obviously no coincidence that these particular saints were painted by Titian in a church that was erected after the plague. The other painting shows the descent of the Holy Spirit of Titian.