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Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore

It’s a non trek kind of trek to get to the island the church is on. There’s a vaporetto from St Mark’s (as well as various other places in the city) which goes reasonably regularly. Google maps tells you incorrectly where the vaporetto stop is, so, if you’re like most people, you’ll end up asking each ticket seller at each vaporetto stop how to get there. They’ll all tell you it’s the next one down. It’s almost always not. 

My reason for going was not for the church itself, but for the Giorgio Cini foundation, which is right next to it. Should anyone find themselves in desperate need of a groovy art history library, the building is a beaut and the people even more so (save the porter who was grumpy). Upon leaving, I managed to miss the vaporetto back to St Mark’s, mainly because the driver couldn’t be asked to wait for incoming passengers, even though almost all of us were ready and waiting next to the entrance. So, with time to kill, it seemed daft to not go and explore the island’s chiesa.

The church of San Giorgio Maggiore was designed by great man Palladio himself, built between 1566 and 1610. The facade is Maid in Manhattan white, a hue which has, until now, shaped my sartorial ambitions, and as a result of today’s visit, has extended to interior and architectural decoration. The Yongle Emperor would have been jelly. The chaps on the facade are St. George and St. Stephen, to both of whom the church is dedicated. The pillars are very very large. 

Inside it continues to be pretty white. Paintings by well-known artists are dotted about, including works by Jacopo Bassano, Tintoretto, and Sebastiano Ricci. Tintoretto’s Last Supper was the only one that I was really really keen on, although I did like the Ricci too. The altarpieces of Jacopo, as well as that of Leandro, were a bit yawnfesty. 

Unlike in many of the churches in Venice, the chapels were not sold to powerful families, which goes some way to explaining their almost austere appearance. The Benedictine monks who occupied San Giorgio had enough income from property to resist such money making ventures. There were some altars which were given over to rich patrons, but the decoration remained under the control of the monks. These included the Bollani family and the Morosini family. I think that the muted interior decoration permits the brilliant white to dominate, and makes you fell like you’re walking in a chilly, fluffy cloud.

You can walk through to the back of the altar which has some 48 beautiful choir stalls with some of the loveliest carvings I’ve yet seen. They show scenes from the life of St. Benedict. Back in the day, the monks sat to sing their prayers there SEVEN TIMES A DAY! 

It was just how the Benedictines rolled. 

Palladio made a point of incorporating the importance of music to the monks in the design of the interior. The choir is larger than conventional choirs of the time, and longer than the arms of the transept of San Giorgio itself. The ceiling, too, reflects a sensitivity to musical requirements, illustrating Palladio’s unusual preference for barrel-vaulted ceilings, a design which was in direct contrast to the prevailing trend for flat ceilings (since they were thought to better absorb echoes. I dunno if that’s true).  

All in all, the church was lovely, and, in its own way, refreshing. Its separation from San Marco made it seem like a secret church, a feeling reinforced by the very few people who were in there with me. The gleaming white made gave it an air of the heavenly and the stripped down, yet still grand, architecture imbued it with a sense of the divine (I’m going into art historical / Catholic mode). By the time I left, I felt cleansed of the world’s worries. I suspect it’s one of those places that changes and improves with each visit. And I think there might be a few more yet. I can’t think of any place nicer to go on those days when quiet and solitude are needed.  

Except maybe Bottegon.  


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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