Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari or the Frari-church

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari     Large size    Side of the apse
Santa Maria gloriosa dei Frari Venice
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari apse
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari apsis Venice

photo: Meredith Pahoulis

Entrance large size 

Site of the Fari churh (Eng)
Opening times, tickets and information
Map and adress
Things to see (scrol)

Construction of this large gothic church began in 1340; the facade was completed in 1445 and the interior in 1469. This Franciscan church contains many famous works of art by artists like Titian, Canova, Sansovino, Donatello, Bellini, Alessandro Vittoria etc. Click here for the site of the Frari church and for many images click here.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari nave large size        Nave
Santa Maria gloriosa dei Frari nave Venice

photo (mouseover): HEN-Magonzo

Aside from its many paintings this church also has sculptures. We will briefly rush through the development of sculpting in gothic, renaissance, mannerism, baroc and all the way to neo-classicism. The sculpture by Donatello of John the Baptist from 1438 must have been a shocking experience for the sculptors of Venice.

Donatello ‘John the Baptist’     Large size
Donatello John the Baptist Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Venice

This renaissance sculpture has little in common with the gothic sculptures that you find on the choir screen. Donatello is a sculptor from Florence who has also crafted a lot of bronze sculptures and a famous cavalry statue, the Gattamelata. Donatello’s wooden sculpture (click here for a detail picture of John the Baptist), which unfortunately we cannot get closer to, is remarkable not only due to its expressive design, but also because of the technique employed by Donatello. The gothic sculptors either used a lime or gresso layer on a wooden sculpture to create a stable foundation for the polychrome paint. This is clear to see with the wooden cavalry sculpture of Paolo Savelli by sculptor Jacopo della Quercia in the right transept.

Unknown artist ‘Paolo Savelli’ around 1410

Donatello used the thick gresso layer as a sculpting clay, as it were. John’s mantle partly consists of gresso. The chapel of the H. Marcus shows a work by Sansovino, one of Michelangelo’s contemporaries. As a sculptor, Jacopo Sansovino struggled to find work in Florence.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Venice Jacopo Sansovino


Jacopo Sansovino ‘John the Baptist’  big size
Jacopo Sansovino John the Baptist Frari-church Venice

Michelangelo considered him too great a threat and made sure to block certain assignments from reaching him. Sansovino was left with no other option but to seek employment outside of Florence. This is how, after working in Rome, he ended up in Venice where he mostly dealt with architecture. We walked past his Venetian residence this morning – designed by himself – at the Rio di San Gervasio near the S. Trovaso. The sculpture by Sansovino, another John the Baptist from 1554, is characteristic of the transition from renaissance to mannerism. If you get close to this sculpture at the baptismal font, you will see that Sansovino lovingly went into excruciating detail.

 Map of the Frari-church:  
1. Brother choir wood carving 1468.
2. Monument Titian (1852) Zandomenegh brothers.
3. Sculpture Jerome by Alessandro Vittoria.
4. Tomb of Pacifico (1440).
5. Reliquary attributed to Tullio Lombardo.
6. Relic altar Cabianca.
7. Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini.
8. Polyptych by Bartolomeo  Vivarini from 1482.
9. Sculpture of John the Baptist by  Donatello 1451.
10. Monument for Doge Foscari by Antonio Bregno.
11. Titian ‘Assumption (1518).
12. Monument for doge Nicolò Tron by Antonio Rizzo.
13. Memorial for composer Monteverdi.
14. Altarpiece by Alvise Vivarini and Marco Basaiti (1503).
15. Statue John the Baptist  Sansovino (1550).
16. Titian ‘Pesora Madonna’ (1526).
17. Monument for doge Giovanni Pesaro 1669 by Barthel.
18. Monument for Canova (1827).

We now walk towards the choir where you get to see the enormous difference between John the Baptist by Sansovino and the gothic statues on the choir screens: a remarkable difference.

Choir big size and        Choir stalls
choir Santa Maria dei Frari church Venice

The body proportions of these gothic statues, their expression, the way they have been placed, none of it is a realistic display of the human body. What’s more, these statues are quite rigid and give out the impression of being inside gothic columns.

Altar of San Giuseppe da Copertino big size
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Altar of San Giuseppe da Copertino Alessandro Vittoria Venice

If you compare the statues on the choir screen with the St. Hieronymus by Alessandro Vittoria from 1570, the difference is stark. Vittoria’s sculptures have a more natural pose. The body of St. Sebastian, next to St.Jerome, was sculpted in a kind of spirally twist (like a cork screw, a better term when it comes to art would be a figura serpentinata, or, a snake figure). By the way in the San Giovanni e Paolo you can also see a St. Hieronymus of Vittoria.

Alessandro Vittoria ‘Jerome’ big format       Front
Alessandro Vittoria Jerome Frari-church Venice

The baroque period focuses more on movement, as shown in this eye-catching monument for Doge Giovanni Pesaro by German sculptor Barthel from 1669. The use of black and white marble creates a strong contrast. If you stand in front of this monument, you should walk towards it and discover how the slaves that carry the group above them are quite remarkable.

Monument for the Doge large         Doge Giovanni Pesaro
Caryatides: left    Second left    Right in the middle

At the east side near the central entrance, which is only open in the afternoon, we find a monument made by Canova’s students after a clay model that can be seen in the Correr museum in Venice. This monument for 1827 contains the heart of the famous French sculptor. It has been sculptured with unrivalled perfection, the proportions of the weeping figures are typical for the notions about art back then.

Antonio Canova Burial monument       Large size
Antonio Canova Burial monument Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

After the sculptures we will also look at a number of important paintings by Titian, Giovanni Bellini, Vivarini and others. The sacristy has a famous triptych by Giovanni Bellini, often called the Frari-triptych (see Web Gallery of Art for more details).

Monument of Benedetto Pesaro      Entrance sacristy   Information
monument of Benedetto Pesaro  Santa Maria gloriosa dei Frari Venice
Sacristy Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Venice

Across from this early-Renaissance work (1481) is a painting shaped like a lunette (click here for the painting in the recess with the embossing) by the founder of the Venetian painting school Paolo Veneziano from 1339.

Paolo Veneziano ‘Mary with Child and the Doge Francesco Dandolo with his wife’
Paolo Veneziano Mary with Child and the Doge Francesco Dandolo with his wife Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari


Paolo Veneziano ‘Mary with Child and the Doge Francesco Dandolo with his wife’     Francesco Dandolo     Large size
Paolo Veneziano Mary with Child and the Doge Francesco Dandolo with his wife Santa Mary gloriosa dei Frari
Mary on her deathbed big size                Soul of Mary rises to heaven
Paolo Veneziano Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Venice

A measly one-hundred-fifty years apart, but it seems more like centuries if you compare these two works. Once we arrive, I will explain why these artworks differ so greatly and why Paolo Veneziano’s painting is considered ‘traditional’ art while Giovanni’s work is considered ‘modern’. Vasari used these terms and describes it in his ‘Lives’ – where he referred to Giotto- – as follows:

[…] that clumsy Greek style [meaning the Byzantine style] and revived the good, modern way of painting, being the first to accurately depict existing people by basing his art on  observation, something that had been forsaken for two hundred years […]’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten’ [The Lives of the Artists], Amsterdam,  Contact, dl I [oorspronkelijk uitgave 1568] 1992, p.69

Bellini Frari-triptych Pesaro chapel big format         Mary
Bellini Frari-triptych Pesaro chapel Frari-church Venice

Vasari’s comments are evident when you look at the two paintings in the sacristy. If you stand in front of Veneziano’s painting, the altarpiece by Bellini can still be seen quite well. A Renaissance painter had to display reality, ‘imitatore della natura’.  The painter has but very limited means: paint and a flat surface to create the illusion of ‘natura’. While sculptors in the 16th and 17th century produced near-lifelike sculptures, painters did not succeed in this until the 19th century. They had to solve all kinds of problems, like perspective, atmospheric perspective, the suggestion of a rotating wheel (Rembrandt still struggled with this), shadow, storytelling with a timeline, the right movements of a horse, etc. Displaying reality was something that was completely alien to medieval painters like Paolo Veneziano. His task was more to convey a divine message. What was depicted was a sign of a higher reality and the demands of the Renaissance to make it resemble Earth’s reality was not at all a concern to medieval persons.

Still, Paolo Veneziano’s painting needs a bit of nuance. Influenced by the west, his ‘Greek style’ is already influenced by international gothicism. The posture of baby Jesus is something no Byzantine painter would ever consider: it is too human.

In the conga above Mary of Bellini’s Frari triptych the following text can be read:

Sure gate of Heaven, lead my mind, direct my life, may all that I do be committed to thy care

The inscription in the mosaic above the Madonna is a quotation from the commission that Pope Sixtus had approved in 1478 for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. (Rona Goffen, Giovanni Bellini, Yale University 1989 1989 p. 161)

Zandomeneghi brothers ‘Monument for Titian’ 1852 big size           Titian
Zandomeneghi brothers Monument for Titian Frari-church Venice

Finally, we look at two famous works – often depicted in your typical art books – by Titian: his ‘Assumption’ that was the source of quite some controversy when it was completed and Pesaro’s famous altarpiece. If you stand in front of Titian’s grave and compare his grave to the painting that you see up ahead near the main altar, you will see a clear link.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari apse      Assumption altar big size        Apse

He completed the altarpiece of 6.9 meters high and 3.6 meters wide (24.8 square meters) in two years’ time. Titian signed this work – below centre, slightly to the right of the seated Peter – which is something he rarely did.

The actions of the figures are placed close to the image plane. This creates a narrow stage in which  the viewer is directly involved. Each zone is connected to the other zones by visual gestures until it reaches Mary, who looks up to God the Father.  Maria is glorified (gloriosa) by angels making music and singing.

As we have come to expect, Titian uses colour with a clear function. In his Assumption of the Virgin, the deep red and warm orange tones and the sunny skin tones with the underlying gold have the effect of a sparkly illuminated upward thrusting mass. A red triangle strongly contributes to the upward movement.

Lodovico Dolce, writer (e.g. Dialogo della Pittura) and friend of Titian, was present at the unveiling of the canvas on 19 May 1518. Dolce describes that the public – and especially other Venetian artists – were shocked when they saw the painting. Such dynamic, more than life-size figures and drama were unprecedented in the tradition of painting in the Serenissima. Gradually, the general mood changed and finally the Assumption of the Virgin was widely praised and admired.

Titian ‘Assumption’ big size        Video Khan Academy (3.24 minutes)
Titian 'Assumption' Maria Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Titian ‘Madonna di Ca’Pesaro’ big size        Detail
Titian 'Madonna di Ca'Pesaro' Santa Maria gloriosa dei Frari


Titian ‘Pesaro Madonna’ and  Youtube Khan Academy (7.06 minutes)
Titian Pesaro Madonna Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Close to the Frari church lies the famous Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

Click here for the continuation of day 2.