Venice day 4 (continuation 1)

San Francesco della Vigna and the San Giorgio Maggiore

On our way to the San Francesco della Vigna

photo: netNicholls

San Francesco della Vigna entrance large size

Official website (Eng):
1. Where we are and opening hours
2. Facade     Interior    Presbytery and Choir
3. History of the church and the convent

Jacopo Sansovino designed the San Francesco della Vigna for a branch of the Franciscans, called the observants (they tried to maintain the sobriety of Francis more, the main branch, the Frari Minor, was in the Frari). The facade is by Palladio.

Canaletto ‘Il Campo e la Chiesa di San Francesco della Vigna’ and the  urban context aerial photograph
Canaletto 'Il Campo e la Chiesa di San Francesco della Vigna'

Some wealthy families supported the Construction. The Doge Andrea Gritti bought the right to be buried in the chancel of the church. The Order, however, kept strict control over the design; Sansovino was on the leash of his principals. The humanist and scholar Francesco Giorgi (Zorzi) altered the building modestly during the design stage. The letter in which Giorgi vents his views on the construction is still preserved to this day. Francesco Giorgi paid special attention to the Divino Proportione, the proportions given by God. The number three, which can also be found in Plato’s Lambda is the perfect number (click here for more about Plato’s Lambda). We will measure on site what ‘divine proportions‘ were applied in this church. Giorgi writes the following about the proportions:

“April I, 1535.
In order to build the fabric of the church with those fitting and very harmonious proportions which one can do without altering anything that has been done, I should proceed in the following manner. I should like the width of the nave to be 9 paces (I pace=ca. 1.8 m.) which is the square of three, the first and divine number. (Click here for the plan with dimensions).  The length of the nave, which will be 27, will have a triple proportion which makes a diapason and a diapente. And this mysterious harmony is such that when Plato in the Timaeus wished to describe the wonderful consonancy of the parts and fabric of the world, he took this as the first foundation of his description, multiplying as far as necessary these same proportions and figures according to the fitting rules and consonances until he had included the whole world and each of its members and parts. We, being desirous of building the church, have thought it necessary and most appropriate to follow that order of which God, the greatest architect, is the master and author. […] To this perfect and complete body, we shall now give the head, which is the ‘capella grande.’ As for the length, it should be of the same proportion, or rather symmetry which one finds in each of the three squares of the nave, that is 9 paces. I consider it advisable that it should be of the same width as the nave (which as we have said should not be longer than 27) ; but [I prefer] that its width be 6 paces, like a head, joined to the body proportionately and well balanced. And to the width of the nave it will be in the ratio of 2:3 (sesquatera) which constitutes the diapente, one of the celebrated harmonies.”

Quoted from: Rudolf Wittkower ‘Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism’, Sun, Nijmegen 1996 (original English publication 1971), p. 167

Just like the Camaldolese Order of the San Michele, the monks from the San Francesco were keen to apply the latest theories of the Renaissance to their church. The San Francesco was based on the San Salvatore al Monte in Florence, which was built at the end of the 15th century. Sansovino therefore had to take Giorgi’s proportions into account and at the same time base it off a church in Florence. The monks wanted only one nave with side chapels, just like the San Michele and San Giobbe. The Florentine model, the San Salvatore al Monte also only had one nave with side chapels. The large windows at the closing wall that illuminate the chancel create the impression that this part of the church is poorly lit unlike the rest of the church, because of the backlight. This was later copied by Palladio in his Redentore and the San Giorgio Maggiore.

San Francesco della Vigna and zoom in large size         Chapels
San Francesco della Vigna nave and main altar Venice


San Francesco della Vigna large size          Nave of the  San Franciscus della Vigna zoom in
San Francesco della Vigna interior nave Venice


San Francesco della Vigna choir and main altar large size
San Francesco della Vigna choir and main altar Venice


Palladio was asked to handle the facade of the San Francesco della Vigna. Sansovino was still alive and the Grimani family paid for the facade, so the chapel of the Grimanis was built in the church for a reason. The fact that Palladio was commissioned meant his reputation in the city was established. The design of the facade for this church has been preserved in a coin. It was considered too old-fashioned.

Chapel of Grimani
San Francesco della Vigna chapel of Grimani Venice


San Francesco della Vigna facade big size
Drawing  of the facade Diagram of two interpenetrating temple frontons
San Francesco della Vigna facade Palladio Venetië

Palladio’s facade was completely different and totally new. Palladio used the colossal order, unlike Sansovino, bunched in the middle part. The side wings, the side naves, with the ‘regular’ orders look like the buttresses of the nave part of the facade. All orders are put on high plinths. The bases of the half columns are higher than eye level of the church visitor.

The small order suggests that the side chapels also run up to the height of the columns, but this is not the case. The side chapels are much lower. This is clearly visible on the side of the church. The facade and the church are therefore not really compatible. Palladio was more interested in an impressive facade as a screen. The enormous scale of the classical elements made a major impression, it was completely new in the city. By 1560 there were barely any facades that were fully made out of Istrian stone. This was the case in the San Michele, but this is a very small church, whereas the San Giovanni e Paolo and the San Salvatore had stone facades. Red brick in combination with some Istrian architectural elements were commonplace.

Since our daily schedule only has us visiting this church, I will discuss a painting by Paolo Veronese, called ‘The Holy Family’.

Chapel of Giustiniani and Paolo Veronese ‘Holy family Anthony the Abbot, Catherine, John the Baptist’ 1551
San Francesco della Vigna kapel van Giustiniani Paolo Veronese 'De heilige familie'


Paolo Veronese ‘Holy family’ large size
Titian ‘Pesaro Madonna’ 1519-1526
Paolo Veronese 1551 Holy family Anthony the Abbot, Catherine, John the Baptist

Paolo Veronese ‘Holy family Anthony the Abbot, Catherine, John the Baptist ‘ (Giustiniani Altarpiece) 1551  319 x 187 
If you walked inside the Frari church and saw the famous painting by Titian, the Pesaro altarpiece, you may see who strongly influenced Veronese in this piece.

San Francesco della Vigna side Campo San Francesco della Vigna
San Francesco della Vigna Campo San Franceso della Vigna

We walk to the S. Zaccaria Jolanda and take boat 82 to the island San Giorgio Maggiore, where we will visit the church of the same name. When we go to Vicenza on Wednesday, we will discuss the very influential architect Palladio. Palladio built two churches and part of a monastery in Venice.

Vaporetto line 82and video Drone to the San Giorgo Maggiore Greg Snell (0.0-0.22 minutes)            Aerial picture          
Vaporetto 82 Venetië

Photograph (mouseover): ricardoavella

Luca Carlevaris ‘A  Distant View of the Isola di San Giorgio’ c.1709, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 119.7 cm, large size
Luca Carlevaris ‘The Bacino, Venice, with the Dogana and a Distant View of the Isola di San Giorgio’ oil on canvas, 50.8 x 119.7 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Luca Carlevaris ‘The Bacino, Venice, with the Dogana and a Distant View of the Isola di San Giorgio’ oil on canvas, 50.8 x 119.7 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Canaletto ‘Basilica San Giorgio Maggiore’ 1726-1730, 46.3 x 63.2 cm, oil on canvas, Museum of fine Arts, Boston large size
Canaletto 'Basilica San Giorgio Maggiore' 1726-1730, 46.3 x 63.2 cm, oil on canvas, Museum of fine Arts, Boston
The island of San Giorgio Maggiore         The San Giorgio Maggiore         Aerial picture         View from the window of Palazzo Ducale
the island of San Giorgio Maggiore   and the San Giorgio Maggiore church Palladio

Palladio did not get any important assignments in Venice until the last decade of Sansovino’s life who was seventy-four years old. The first assignment was the refectory of the Benedictine monastery: the San Giorgio Maggiore. It is once again the monks who are the first to have ‘modern’ architecture. The villas of the Palladio in Veneto and the buildings in Vicenza were universally acclaimed. The still fairly conservative nobility and the government in Venice were not fond of the innovations. Sansovino also used the classical language, but left the old Venetian structure intact. Palladio did not.

San Giorgio Maggiore big size
San Giorgio Maggiore Venice

photo: Zaw Wai

The construction of the San Giorgio Maggiore started in 1565. By 1520, the monks thought their monastery and church on this island too small. The Venetian guide makes mention of an already existing church by Francesco Sansovino, the son of Jacopo. Allegedly this was partly the model for Palladio’s design. The wooden model of the San Giorgio Maggiore by Palladio was built in the winter of 1565-1566. The refectory had already been completed by then. The monks asked the Senate’s permission to get a thousand oaks from the terra firma for their foundations. Normally, shipbuilding was given priority, since deforestation around La Serenissima was already quite intense. The foundation was laid in 1566. The building completed in 1576, apart from the facade (photograph: B Coleman), which was built between 1607 and 1611, a quarter century after Palladio’s death. The contract with the stone masons clearly indicates that Palladio’s design had to be closely followed.

Cross-section and plan of the San Giorgio Maggiore.

San Giorgio Maggiore big size      Church and cloisters aerial picture      Facade
facade San Giorgio Maggiore Palladio Venice

This was the first church that was fully designed by Palladio. He describes the ancient temple in his treatises. Of course, a central-plan building was the most beautiful, but there lies a world between the ideal and practical use of a church. Palladio formulated this as follows:

‘‘And since the round one is such [……] it is the only one amongst all figures that is simple, uniform, equal, strong and capacious, let us make our temples round.’ […] to continue his arguments with.. .’ ‘Those churches also are very laudable, the ones made in the form of a cross [……] because they are fashioned in the form of the cross, they represent to the eyes of the beholders that from which depends our salvation.”

Palladio, The Four Books of Architecture, trs. I. Ware, London, 1738, Dover paperback facsimile edn., New York. 1965 p. 81-82

Palladio had to take the tradition of the Benedictines into consideration in the San Giorgio Maggiore. The Benedictine church, the Santa Giustine, in Padua, whose construction was started in 1521, was used as the model.

Santa Giustina Before and after the bridge Padua
Santa Giustina Padua

This church must have been the inspiration for Palladio. He copied the following from the Santa Giustina:

  • three naves
  • transept with large crossing and one dome
  • chancel with apses

It is striking that Palladio left out quite a bit of things that can be found in the Santa Giustina, such as:

  • no multiple domes in nave and transept arms
  • no three apses, but one central one
  • chancel behind instead of in front of the main altar

Having opted for this means he also denounces the characteristic features of the San Marco. By doing this, Palladio goes his own way and rejects the Veneto-Byzantine tradition in his architecture. To him, the Byzantine architecture in the lagoon is not a source of inspiration. All this while the San Giorgio Maggiore’s facade is directed at the San Marco.

Palladio did however use Istrian stone. The facade of the San Michele by Codussi was the likely source of inspiration. The wall surface here is not broken like in the scuola di San Rocco or the library. In this last building, we see strong shadow effects next to white, clear planes because of the multiple layers and many openings. The chiaroscuro is enhanced by the abundantly applied decorations by Sansovino. Codussi shows none of this. The San Michele seems to shimmer like an iceberg in blue water. During Palladio’s life, the facade was completed after his death, the view of the facade was blocked by a row of small houses in front of it. The houses were demolished by order of Doge Donà. He resented the view from his quarters in the Ducale.

Piazzetta San Marco view of San Giorgio Maggiore big size
Piazzetta San Marco view of San Giorgio Maggiore

Photo: John A. Henderson

Palladio would definitely have been excited about this. A drawing from Palladio’s workshop was found in the Venetian archives. Palladio drew a large three-dimensional portico in front of the facade in this. This was only executed in his villa in Maser. Palladio projects a temple facade on the flat wall, the vertical section. He does this ingeniously. His solution becomes the model for generations of architects after him. The current facade is a much cheaper solution than a portico. The facade barely has any deep niches and ‘holes’ such as in the library, so there is much less shadow- and light effects, just like in the San Michele. In this church, for which Palladio had control over the entire design, the interior and facade are perfectly compatible. The small and large orders, the high bases can be seen in the interior.

San Giorgio Maggiore 
San Giorgio Maggiore  facade Palladio Venice
San Giorgio Maggiore nave view choir large size
San Giorgio Maggiore nave view choir Palladio Venice


The church’s interior is extremely light due to the combination of white Istrian stone and white stucco. Furthermore, the windows are cleverly placed, so a sea of light can flow in. New to the natural lighting is that it was a conscious effort to achieve certain effects.

San Giorgio Maggiore nave view choir           Nave view entrance zoom in
Installation d’Anish Kapoor 2003-2006  Ascension
San Giorgio Maggiore schip met zicht op koor Palladio Venetië

Photo: Xavier de Jauréguiberry

San Giorgio Maggiore
San Giorgio Maggiore Palladio interieur Venetië

Palladio used white in his churches on purpose, as he says:

“Among all colours what is most suited to Temples is whiteness so that the purity of the colour and of life is highly pleasing to God”

Palladio, The Four Books of Architecture, p. 82.

Adding to this, the Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trent demanded a lot of light in churches. The paintings and sculptures that had to educate the faithful and stir up one’s religious feelings were to be highly visible. Additional windows were installed in many of the churches such as the San Salvatore. The Santa Giorgio Maggiore is, however, no manifesto of the Counter-Reformation. This church is too unique; completely in a category of its own in the context of Venetian tradition. Palladio prevents a ‘multiplicative’ effect of rooms in the San Giorgio Maggiore, which is the case in the many domes of the San Marco or the Santa Giustina in Padua. So no matter where you are in the church, you are always aware of the central point of the church. It therefore works as a central-plan building, even though it is a basilica. (cross-section and plan of the San Giorgio Maggiore)

The large dome was placed exactly in the middle of the entrance and the main altar, the windows in the tholobate and the roof lantern provide a lot of light. The four areas that touch the crossing with barrel vaults are clearly distinguishable from the vaults in the aisles, which have lower cross vaults. Palladio was able to unify that what is almost impossible, which is the cross shape, the basilica, and the central-plan building. Palladio uses the colossal composite order and half-columns in the interior, just like for the facade. The small pilaster order is a point of orientation for the church visitor that serves as a reference for the enormous dimensions. The pillars with the half colossal composite order and the pilasters with the composite order are a repetition of the same motif. The colossal order on high bases emphasise the views in the church. Large, thermal windows in the nave and transept provide abundant light from above. On the spot, I will show you with a piece of A3 paper that the Roman thermae modelled for the blueprints of this church. Bath houses had a smart concatenation of completely different areas. Despite of this concatenation of areas, there was a clear unity in the building, which can also be seen in this case. The thermal window (windows from Roman bath houses) was rarely used before Palladio. After the San Giorgio Maggiore, thermal windows were applied in almost all churches, especially after the demands of the Counter-Reformation that churches needed to be lighter.

San Giorgio Maggiore  main altar Chancel part located behind           Floor
San Giorgio Maggiore  main altar with underlying choir Palladio

Just like in Sansovino’s church, the San Francesco della Vigna, the chancel of the monks was placed behind the main altar, and not in front like in the Frari church. Palladio copies this in his churches in Venice.  He also applies the windows on the back side with the backlight, which almost resembles a divine apparition coming toward the church visitor. In the San Giobbe and the San Francesco della Vigna, monastic churches this type of chancel already proved its advantage. The view on the main altar was perfect and the monks could sing and pray freely.

  San Giorgio Maggiore choir   Saint George
San Giorgio Maggiore choir Palladio

Palladio and Sansovino had to have been aware of the chancel from Bramante in the Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. This was new for a Benedictine church. The chancel in the Santa Giustina in Padua was located in front of the main altar. The chancel in the Santa Giorgio Maggiore was divided and quite large, with as many as forty-eight seats. According to the tradition of the Benedictines, singing took place seven times a day. The height of the chancel was significantly lower than the church, so the sounds of the singing and the organ were sent into the church. The day the Doge attends the church, on the day of St. Stephen, the sounds of the chancel of the San Giorgio Maggiore come from behind the main altar, while the chancel of the San Marco comes from the transepts. The layout is perfect for a divided chancel, Coro spezzato, a chancel behind the main altar and two chancels in the apses of the transept. This idea must have been based on the multiple apses of the Santa Giustina, which also had a divided chancel. But the choirs could not have always sounded beautifully, since there are too many rooms and domes. At the time, people thought wooden ceiling or roof trusses provided the best acoustics. The effect of a flat wooden ceiling is that it largely absorbs the echoes to create better sound. That is why Sansovino opted for a wooden ceiling. In Rome it was discovered around the same time that low barrel vaults, like those in the Il Gesù, provide even better acoustics. Vignola’s discovery from 1568 spread quickly across Italy. The wooden ceiling of the San Francesco della Vigna was replaced by a low barrel vault in 1630.

This church in Venice also contains a number of remarkable pieces of art, such as works by Tintoretto.

Tintoretto Last Supper big size            Video Khan Academy Last Supper (4.55 minutes)
Tintoretto 'Last Supper' San Giorgio Maggiore

Tintoretto ‘Jews in the desert’ large size

If we have time we will take the elevator and go up to the Campanile. This provides a stunning view of the city. We take boat 82 again and sail from the Canale della Giudecca to the second church Palladio built: Il Redentore.

View from the campanile of the San Giorgio Maggiore big size
view from campanile Santa Giorgio Maggiore Venice

Photograph: Herbert Mertens mouseover goc53

Click here for continuation day 4