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Baldassare Longhena, Jacopo Sansovino, Marco Cozzi,  1492


In 1234 Giovanni Badoer gave The Franciscan friars (or Frari) some marshy land between the parishes of San Toma and San Stin. Then Doge Jacopo Tiepolo gave them some adjoining unreclaimed land in 1236, adjacent to the abandoned Benedictine abbey that they were using. The church that they built, consecrated in 1280, extending the abbey, was much smaller than the one we see today, and faced in the opposite direction. The current church was begun shortly after, in 1340, but work was slow - the old church was still being used in 1415, but it was demolished shortly after this date to complete the east end of the nave, work having been begun at the west end. The new church was finished in 1442 - its façade finished around this time - and consecrated in 1492. Its plan is attributed to Fra Scipione Bon, who has a tomb in the church. The monastery dates from 1256, being renovated after a fire in 1390 and having two cloisters, one by Jacopo Sansovino and the other attributed to Andrea Palladio.

The church
The exuberant, but brick-plain, Gothic façade contrasts with the more restrained façade on the Dominican’s San Zanipolo, built at the same time. It is divided into three parts, reflecting the nave and aisles, with circular windows in each. Over the arch of the doorway is a 1581 Risen Christ by Alessandro Vittoria, flanked lower down by The Virgin and Saint Francis by Bartolomeo Bon in the 15th century. The barely-there lunette fresco is The Virgin Among Angels by Gaetano Zomponi from the 18th century.
Stand in the campo in front of the façade to see the sequence of three entrances and three oculi windows (see photo right) with the stout campanile rising above the middle one. Of the three doorways the furthest, to the chapel of San Marco, has the most impressive decoration - A Virgin and Child Flanked by Angels once thought to be by Jacopo della Quercia, but lately given to Bartolomeo Bon.
In the Campo San Rocco at the other end you can admire the Gothic apse (see old black & white postcard far below). Its moldings were said by Ruskin to be the source of similar designs on the Palazzo Ducale.

The twelve huge round pillars between the nave and the aisles represent the apostles, but the division of the nave and aisles is pretty unobtrusive, giving the impression of a single space dissected up high by tie-beams. The tie-beams are there for stability in a sinking city. And here the bricks have been painted to mask their humble nature. Dominating the centre of the church is the dark wood of the monumental monks’ choir (a rare survival in Venice) erected in 1468. The 124 choir stalls feature fine carving and marquetry by Marco Cozzi, depicting views of an ‘ideal city’. This choir is separated from the nave by a carved marble screen of 1475, an early work from the workshop of Pietro Lombardo.

The nave features some mighty overpowering tombs, the most exhausting being the one for Doge Giovanni Pesaro, designed by Longhena, with the four huge moors bent under a weight of allegorical figures under a canopy of carved ‘brocade’. The pyramidal tomb to Canova is a far calmer and lovelier thing, if not exactly unwacky itself. Its design was copied by his pupils from the memorial Canova created for Maria Christina, daughter of Empress Maria Theresia, in the Augustinerkirche in Vienna (see photo right). His heart is preserved in a barely-visible porphyry urn behind the sinister open door, although the rest of him is buried in Possagno, with a finger said to be in the Accademia. Opposite is the tomb of Titian (erected by the Emperor of Austria in the 19th century) and, a few altars along, Vittoria's statue of Saint Jerome is said to depict Titian at 90. According to the parish records of San Canciano he died in August 1576 of a fever. He was buried here despite the fact that funeral services were prohibited during times of plague for fear of contagion. The plague restriction also probably being the reason that his desire to be buried in his hometown weren't observed.
From the Chapter House, beyond the Sacristy, it’s possible to glimpse the Cloister of the Holy Trinity (see below), one of the two cloisters of the original convent which has housed the Venetian state archives since 1814 (after a period, post-suppression, of use as a barracks). The other is called the Cloister of Saint Anthony and both are usually closed to visitors.









Art highlights

Claims are often made for the Frari being almost a museum of Venetian Renaissance art, and it certainly contains some of the finest examples in town.
Titian’s Assumption over the main altar dominates the church, and is said to be the largest altarpiece in Venice. His working for the nearby (also Franciscan) church of San Nicoletto della Lattuga (now demolished) may partially explain how such a prestigious commission went to a relatively untested artist. Some sources claim that it was his first public commission. It was commissioned to go above an altar erected in 1516 and was installed by 1518. Ruskin later said that this painting was 'not one whit the better for being either large or gaudy in colour' and complained of its excess of 'fox colour'. The friars who commissioned it (led by the prior, Frate Germano) were a bit shocked too, at its groundbreaking vigorous Virgin. also telling Titian that his apostles were too big in relation to the Virgin - but they stopped complaining when Titian-fan Emperor Charles V expressed an interest in buying it. It spent some time during
the 19th century as the highlight of the Accademia gallery, where it was moved for reasons of preservation and easier access. It was initially the pride of Room 1, as shown in a painting by Giuseppe Borsato (see above) and then room 2 was built to house it. It returned here in 1919. An Assumption by Salviati from the demolished church of Santa Maria dei Servi had taken its place during its long absence. Salviati's painting, now in the Rosary Chapel in San Zanipolo (see photo right) had had to have a two metre high panel added so as to fit in Titian's original's frame, painted by Venetian painter and restorer Antonio Florian with steps and column debris.
Along with this early triumph there's the slightly later and much quieter, but no less impressive, Pesaro Altarpiece (see far above right) which Ruskin thought to be the artist's best work in Venice. (Jacopo Pesaro's mixed motives for commissioning the altarpiece included his bitterness at not receiving due credit for his part in defeating the Turks at Santa Maura in 1502, and that instead the glory had fallen upon his cousin Benedetto Pesaro, one of the brothers who commissioned the Bellini altarpiece mentioned below, which he may also have wanted to outdo. Jacopo belonged to the dal Carro branch of the family and it was the San Benetto branch who had commissioned the Bellini.) These career highlights, along with his over-the-top tomb, gives rise to the Frari being known as 'Titian’s church'.
In the Sacristy (through the door in the centre at the end of the right transept) there’s also a Giovanni Bellini altarpiece to contemplate at length, a Virgin and Child with Saints (also known as the Frari Madonna) (see above right). It has that same power to calm as his later altarpiece in San Zaccaria, despite a somewhat overpowering frame, probably designed by Bellini himself and carved by Jacopo da Faenza. But the architectural weight of the frame, and the way it blends with the pictorial space, helps the feeling of unified space, as does the lack of a historiated predella. Bellini was reputedly not good at painting movement, which 'limitation' gives us something to rest in front of (chairs are provided) after his pupil Titian’s more kinetic works. The Franciscans tended to stress the Virgin's exalted and chosen state, as the Titian Assumption illustrates. This Bellini seems more in keeping with the Dominicans' idea of a more human Virgin but he has, probably at the Franciscans' request, painted Saint Benedict with his bible open at the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, which is the strongest source for the controversial theory of the immaculate conception. The Sacristy was the Pesaro family chapel when, in 1478, Pietro Pesaro's sons commissioned Bellini to paint the altarpiece in honour of their mother, Francescina Tron. The saints include the sons' namesakes - Nicholas, Benedict and Mark.
In the Chapter House down steps off the Sacristy is the tomb of Doge Francesco Dandolo, with a Paolo Veneziano lunette panel of the Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Francis and Elizabeth of Portugal and Doge Francesco Dandolo and his wife (see right) from c.1339, the year of the Doge Francesco's death. In his will Francesco stipulates that 'an honourable and proper tomb ought to be made for us, however with as little pomp and vanity as possible, except that which is fitting for the honour of Venice'.
Palma Giovane's Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, in a chapel in the right aisle, was so unsatisfactory to the friars that they reproached Alessandro Vittoria who had recommended the artist to them.
Two sculptures of John the Baptist, one by Donatello and the other by Sansovino, are equally impressive, as are works by Bartolomeo Vivarini (including his last, in the last lateral chapel to the right of the altar (see further above right) and his nephew Alvise (whose final work is to be found in the first lateral chapel from the left). This last work, the Saint Ambrose altarpiece, was commissioned for the chapel of the Milanese community in Venice, and was finished after Alvise's death by Marco Basaiti, upon which fact is based otherwise shaky theories that Basaiti was a pupil of Alvise. The painting celebrates Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan and was the biggest altarpiece in Venice before Titian's Assumption.

69m (224 ft) electromechanical bells

The second highest in Venice, work on it began in 1361, to a design by Jacopo Celaga, and was completed by his son Pietro Paolo in 1396. It still looks like it did on the Barbari map (see right). It was restored in 1871 after subsidence, with the foundations further reinforced in 1903, following the collapse of the campanile of San Marco. Half way up the campanile are a sculpted Virgin and a Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata. The three-light belfry is surmounted by an Istrian-stone balustrade and an octagonal drum.

The church in art (and not)
Canaletto, oddly, never painted the Frari; and Guardi only seems to have painted the cloister.
Monumento di Paolo Savelli nella Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Frari a Venezia by Vincenzo Abbati (1857) (see right)
There's a watercolour by John Singer Sargent of the Campo dei Frari which depicts the campo and the side of the church and the two side entrances. Outside the Frari, Venice by Walter Sickert, painted in the late 1930s.
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has a watercolour called Chiesa del Frari, Venezia painted in the 1850s by
Gabriel Mariano Nicolai Carelli (see below) which, even more than the Abbati oil painting above it, reproduces my favourite interior photo (far above right).

Opening times

Monday to Saturday: 9.00 to 6.00
Sundays: 1.00 to 6.00
A Chorus Church, but the lack of posters and such around the door and cash booth suggest otherwise.

November 2019
Titian's Assumption high altarpiece and its frame are away being restored until Summer 2021, with a photo in its place. Palma Giovane's Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria is away being restored until 'Summer 2020', with some planks of wood in its place.

October 2020
Titian's Assumption is still away, and the Canova tomb is now behind hoardings having considerable work done on it.

Vaporetto San Toma








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