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Santa Maria dei Miracoli

For anyone who was into The Young Pope, and whose response to subtitled foreign language shows is pretty chill (or you’re the lucky bastard fluent in Italian) there’s a new tv series that might be of interest: Il Miracolo (The Miracle). It’s produced by the same people who did TYP, except thankfully without Jude Law’s American accent, and less thankfully, sans his papal mantums. If you haven’t seen the former, shame on you. Also, google ‘The Young Pope Sexy and I know it’, (you’re welcome), and if  you’re not tout suite searching for the full series online, while cancelling plans, the rest of this post is probably not for you. For everyone else, let’s continue.

There once was a beardy and charismatic Italian PM, who spent his days looking into the middle distance, saying clever-sounding things in a calm way. As seems to be common in TV dramas nowadays, this chap was left-of-centre, handsome, and was to be read as intelligent, dignified, and yet tortured. I’m not sure he did anything dignified or intelligent. And he only had one torso-bearing tortured outburst in the series. But it was quite nice.

Now, at the start of the story, this tortured, beardy man, in pristine handmade suits, and a roving eyebrow, decides to call a referendum on Italy remaining in the European Union (stay with me, it turns out to be a sub-plot). He doesn’t want his nation to leave the EU because he is appropriately 21st-century  woke, and believes that the Italian people are also appropriately 21st-century woke too. His party is filled with cardboard cutout right-wing nutters, and because they keep pestering him with immigration and sovereignty stuff, in a totally unexpected plot twist, to shut them up, he makes the decision to call a referendum and let the nation decide. Not to give too much away, but Italexit (Itexit? neither have quite the same ring to them as the Brexit portmanteau) doesn’t go as planned since the Italian people turn out to be not so keen on the EU or immigrants.

There’s also a mad, attractive wife, who eats too little, drinks too much, and has a borderline stalker obsession with her children’s Evangelical Christian nanny (I’m not sure if she’s actually an Evangelical Christian, but she prays a lot, wears puddle brown cotton, and does some weird chanty thing in a fish bowl). 

One day, the PM receives a phone call from someone referred to as ‘The General’. The General, we are supposed to believe, is an army person, even though he looks like he’s never stepped foot on a training field, and has kept his figure – if not his hair – with a keen smoking habit. This General has called to inform the PM of a miracle. A proper Christian miracle. For he has discovered a Real. Weeping. Virgin. 

This Virgin who weeps, we are told, is relatively small (15, maybe 20 inches), and plastic, and not the sort of majestic, Old Master Virgin you would expect to be weeping blood.  Through flashbacks we find out that some years previous to the start of the narrative she had started to weep profusely. Before The General got his nicotine-stained hands on her, she had been kept in a Sicilian mafioso’s home, and was discovered flooding the place, with the roly-poly criminal galumphing around in her tear blood. Once found by The General and his crew, she’s transported to an abandoned swimming pool in Rome, and her gallons of blood are regularly collected, tested (it turns out to be human blood), and disposed of. 

It is at this point that the life of the PM and The General intertwine, and that the show really begins. The latter calls the former, and asks:

‘We have a weeping Virgin. What do we do?’

And the former says to the latter:

‘I dunno’

The rest of the show looks at how the story unfolds, all the weird shit that happens to the people who find out about the Virgin, how they react, and what they think should be done with her. The silly plot line turns out to be a vehicle for a nuanced and gripping story. 

Go watch it.

***

A few Sundays ago I arranged to meet my supervisor in front of S. Maria Nuova, only to find out that there is no S. Maria Nuova. There is a Campo di S. Maria Nuova. And there once was a Chiesa di S. Maria Nuova. But, it was demolished, or burnt down, or something like that. Anyway, I felt a right tit.

This campo is in a part of Venice, which, although pretty central, I don’t know very well at all. It’s near S. Marco, as you’re heading away from the Palazzo Ducale in the direction of the wines of Cannaregio, and its closest famous reference point is the Basilica di S. Giovanni e Paolo. I had suggested the location as a meeting point since it’s near the Querini Stampalia, one of Venice’s seemingly endless gorgeous libraries, where I was planning on tapping away that avo (it’s open on a Sunday, and Sunday work,  unlike work on any other day of the week, brings me an embarrassing amount of joy). Not having recognised the name of the previously believed-in Church,  I also thought the square was in possession of my that day’s ‘unexplored Venice thing’. 

While this obviously didn’t happen, instead I discovered a lovely cafe, and after my meeting, the Church of S. Maria dei Miracoli.

I had just been waxing lyrical to the supervisor about Il Miracolo, whose response I read to be curious yet unconvinced. I think he’d just about had enough of anything remotely Brexit-related, and I probably lost him at ‘blood-weeping plastic Madonna against Italexit backdrop’. He did, however, politely let me ramble on, asking at the end:

‘Are you curious about the history of so-called Catholic Miracles in general then?’

Me: ‘I am now’

Supervisor: ‘In that case, you might be interested to know that just across that bridge (pointing to bridge) is a church which was built to house a miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary’

Me (inside): ‘Score’

Off I trekked across the bridge, arriving 30 seconds later in front of the lovely Chiesa di S. Maria dei Miracoli.

And what a miracolo it is…

1. It’s an early Renaissance Church, untainted by later additions and changes, which is pretty groovy and rare to find in Venice.

2. There’s loads of coloured marble –  one of the best things ever.

3. It was designed and almost entirely decorated by only one artist – Pietro Lombardo – and his workshop, which gives it a visually unbroken, harmonious feel. 

The church was built at the end of the fifteenth century, between 1481 and 1489 to house an image of the Virgin Mary that had been declared miraculous.

SIDE NOTE: This was during a time of great interest in the Virgin, in part due to the role of the Rovere pope, Sixtus IV’s keenness on, and establishment of, the cult of the Immaculate Conception. In a reductive nutshell, there was a debate surrounding the immaculacy of the Virgin, which the Franciscans defended and the Dominicans opposed. Although the pope didn’t declare the Conception dogma (that happened much later), he did recognise the feast of the Immaculate Conception, which everyone was chill with. He also said that it was a mortal sin to deny the Immaculate Conception and was super engaged in promoting its cult. End of Side Note

The painting of the Virgin in the church; the Virgin Mary with Child and Two Saints, had been owned by one Angelo Amadi, a member of a rich, albeit non-noble cittadini, Venetian family, who had made their money in some sort of international trade. Angelo’s uncle, Francesco, had commissioned the image in c. 1408 from Venetian painter Zanino di Pietro. 

This painting was said to have begun working miracles in the summer of 1480, and once word got out, the subsequent flood of devotional and pious bequests made it necessary for a church housing the painting to be built pronto. The procurators who were selected to oversee the construction of the church were Angelo, his cousin and Francesco’s son, Alvise, and three Venetian noblemen: Francesco Diedo, Marco Soranzo, and Francesco Zen. 

(We have a lot of information surviving on the building and the family itself, from the Amadi family chronicle. No doubt a page turner). 

The Amadi cousins swiftly began going about settling their claim over the painting (which had previously been in another family’s home), and legally committing themselves and their heirs to take care of the church in perpetuity. By 1483, they had managed to secure papal authority to establish a Franciscan convent attached to the church, and jurisdiction over it. 

All in all, they were on their way up in the world, and the church was in part a project to help the Amadi propel themselves beyond that of cittadini with money, and be viewed as more noble than their status suggested. That such ambitions resulted in this jewel of a building is no bad thing. 

The lovely facade is a funny mixture of Florentine and Venetian: Florentine via the pillar covered in different colours and cornices; Venetian via its decorative chromaticism. The interior is kitted out with more sculpted and coloured marble, which looks truly magical. A lot more delicate, and a lot less mad than the Gesuiti. But no less impressive.

One of the few bits of the interior which is not by Pietro Lombardo is the painted ceiling (fair nuff). Its fifty panels depict the Prophets and Patriarchs (? – to be further researched), which are attributed to an artist I’d never heard of – Pier Maria Pennacchi, and his assistants. Pennacchi was from Trevso, where he almost always worked. Although not the best thing in the world, I didn’t find the paintings terrible either, and they were quite fun for guess-the-character games (I guessed almost none right). 

Oh, the original doors were painted by Giovanni Bellini. Alas they are no longer in situ, but if you’re yearning to see them, they are in the Accademia (#futurepost).

And, of course, in case you’re curious, the miraculous painting is still there. In its original, intended, pride of place. 

Judging from what happens to all of the people who cross paths with Il Miracolo’s weeping virgin, I’m hoping that this painting turns out to be decidedly un-miraculous. 

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A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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