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San Giorgio Maggiore
Andrea Palladio/Simeone Sorella  1565-97

There's been a church on this island, originally known as the Isola dei Cipressi, since the 9th century. Previously there'd been a vineyard, a cypress grove and a mill. A Benedictine convent was established here in 982, with a church erected in 987 by Vitale Candido and the Badoer family. The body of Saint Stephen was brought here in 1103 by a monk called Petro from Constantinople and from then on the Doge and the Signoria visited the church every year on the saint's feast day, the 26th December, and this became one of the most popular festival days in the Venetian calendar, involving the floating of thousands of candles in the Bacino di San Marco - a festival which lasted until the end of the Republic. In 1204 the body of Saint Lucy was brought here too, but her feast day celebrations on the December 13th became so popular that after a storm resulted in the deaths of many people in 1280 her body was moved to the church of Santa Lucia in Cannaregio. The church and monastery were almost destroyed by an earthquake on Christmas Day in 1223 and rebuilt by
Doge Pietro Ziani, who later retreated here. The church was further rebuilt in late Gothic style after 1461.
Palladio's replacement of this gothic church (after his renovation and enlarging of the monastery in 1560, which included adding the refectory) began in 1565. The church was also realigned at this time, its fašade having originally faced San Marco, and the piazza outside added. Palladio died in 1580 and Simeone Sorella continued the work for a further 30 years. In 1610 Palladio's Istrian stone fašade was finally finished, having been begun by Sorella in 1597, keeping faithfully to Palladio's plans. The effect was completed in 1609 when buildings in front of the church were demolished.
In 1800 the Conclave which elected Pope Pius VII was held here, but in 1806 the monastery was suppressed and the buildings then used as barracks and government offices.

The fašade
Another temple front, it's a development of Palladio's design for the fašade of San Francesco della Vigna.

The interior
A Latin cross, stony, light and monumental, as befits a church built for ceremony, with white walls and thick clusters of supporting Corinthian columns and pilasters.

Art highlights

On the right as you enter is an Adoration of the Shepherds by Jacopo Bassano, an atmospheric night scene that benefits greatly from a coin in the light. Opposite it is an odd Martyrdom of Saint Lucy by
Leandro Bassano (one of Jacopo's four sons, who were all painters in his studio) which depicts strong men and oxen trying to move the miraculously-heavy saint with ropes.
Three late works by Jacopo Tintoretto, commissioned after the death of Veronese, long the Benedictine's favoured artist. These are The Fall of Manna in the Desert to the left of the altar, a revolutionary sideways-on Last Supper to the right, best viewed from the choir behind the altar; and a later Entombment  painted for the altar of Capella di Morti here in the last two years of the artist's life. This last Last Supper, of 1592, was the last one of the very many that Tintoretto painted.
Also a brighter Risen Christ and Saint Andrew with the Morosini Family by Jacopo &  (mostly) Domenico Tintoretto and works by Sebastiano Ricci and Palma Giovane.
The Ricci, Jacopo da Bassano, a Ponzone and two Tintorettos are currently (March 2015) being restored.
The Tintorettos of the Risen Christ and a Martyrdom of Cosmas and Damian are usually said to be very much 'Studio of...'

63m (206ft) electromechanical bells
The original campanile stood in front of the church, collapsed in 1442 during a storm and was rebuilt. A new tower, behind the church, was built in 1729 by Scalfarrotto following the collapse of the previous campanile in 1726. This one itself collapsed in 1774, killing one monk and wounding two others, and was rebuilt in 1791 by Fra Benadetto Buratti. In 1993 the wooden angel on the top of the campanile was struck by lightning. It now stands in front of the ticket office for the campanile. A lift takes you to the top, giving panoramic views towards San Marco and into the monastery's cloisters.

Lost art
Two small panels depicting four pairs of saints by Cima da Conegliano (or his studio), are now in the Brera, Milan, as is his lovely little Saint Jerome in the Desert from around 1495.
Paolo Veronese's wonderful Wedding Feast at Cana (see below right) of 1562/3 was painted to fill the end wall of Palladio's refectory here. The same Benedictine order had commissioned Veronese's first biblical feast scene for their refectory in the monastery attached to Santi Nazaro e Celso in Verona, and for the Wedding Feast at Cana they stipulated that the artist should be making 'that quantity of figures that it can fit comfortably'. Ridolfi counted 'more than one hundred and twenty'. It was an immediate success and has remained one of Veronese's most celebrated works. Elsewhere a painting this huge would have been a fresco - a canvas painted in oil this large was unusual. The refectory also had a pulpit, walnut dining tables and high-backed benches along the walls. A section of the latter is to be found in the Victoria & Albert museum in London, it is said. The painting was looted by Napoleon, cut into pieces and taken to Paris, taking 10 months to get there and suffering much on the journey. It needed to be moved to make room for Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria and the difficulty of moving it caused Napoleon to lose his temper and order it burnt, Baron Denon, then director of the Louvre, ignored his command, thankfully. The painting was further damaged during cleaning at the Louvre in 1992, when it also fell from a metal scaffold making five vertical tears. It is shameful and sad that it's still in the Louvre, in the same room as the Mona Lisa scrum. On September 11th 2007, to celebrate the 210th anniversary of the looting, a computer-generated facsimile was hung on the wall of the refectory where the painting should be.
Rocco Marconi's Christ and the Adulteress, now in the Accademia.

The church in art
Monet, Turner, Guardi, Carlevarijs, Canaletto...

Ruskin wrote
It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard. Observe, also, that when Palladio had got his pediment at the top of the church, he did not know what to do with it; he had no idea of decorating it except by a round hole in the middle ... Palladio had given up colour, and pierced his pediment with a circular cavity, merely because he had not wit enough to fill it with sculpture. The interior of the church is like a large assembly room, and would have been undeserving of a moment's attention, but that it contains some most precious pictures.

Effie Ruskin wrote my mind a very corrupt form of architecture and very ugly, half Greek Temple-ish and half anything else you like, the inside heavy and unimpressive...

Letter to her mother, 15th December 1849.

E. M. Forster wrote
...and then came Venice. As he landed on the piazzetta a cup of beauty was lifted to his lips, and he drank with a sense of disloyalty. The buildings of Venice, like the mountains of Crete and the fields of Egypt, stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong.  ...but oh these Italian churches! San Giorgio standing on the island which could scarcely have risen from the waves without it, the Salute holding the entrance of a canal which, but for it, would not be the Grand Canal!
A Passage to India

The church in film
In memoria di me (In memory of me) an Italian film released in 2007, was filmed in the monastery and the church. And very handsome they look too, especially at night with atmospheric lighting.

Opening times
Mon-Sat: 9.30-12.30 and 2.30-6.30
Sunday: 2.00-6.30

Vaporetto Isola San Giorgio


The Monastery
Cosimo de' Medici when he was banished from Florence in 1433
took refuge here. He brought Michelozzo with him who designed and built a library to show Cosimo's gratitude. This was demolished after a fire in 1614 and replaced with Longhena's library, built in the 1640s.

There are two cloisters. One Giovanni Buora's Cloister of the Bay Trees begun in 1516 and completed by Buora's son Andrea in 1540. The other is Palladio's untypical Cloister of the Cypresses, begun in 1579, the year before he died, but not completed until the mid 17th century. Suppressed in 1806, the monks were moved to Santa Giustina. In 1808 an airship was built in the church and in 1929 the complex became a barracks and ammunitions store. In 1951 the monastery was taken over and restored by art patron Count Vittorio Cini , and renamed in memory of his son Giorgio, who was killed in an air crash in 1949. It now hosts conferences and courses and so is not generally open to the public, except at weekends when there are guided tours. Some Benedictine monks remain.

The Cini Foundation website



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