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Baldassare Longhena, Jacopo Sansovino, Marco Cozzi,  1492


There seems to have been a community of Conventual Franciscans in Venice by 1225, and in 1234 Giovanni Badoer gave the 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, was much smaller than the one we see today, standing on the site of the nave of the current church, and faced in the opposite direction, towards the north-east. 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 finally 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 mouldings 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 intarsia by Marco Cozzi, depicting views of an ‘ideal city’. This choir for the friars is separated from the nave of the lay congregation by a carved marble screen of 1475, an early work from the workshop of Pietro Lombardo.
This screen is strictly to be called a pulpitum, as it has a marble pulpit at each end, and is the best preserved example of such tramezzi, most of which were destroyed in Italy in the late 16th century.
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). Canova's 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.

Titian’s Assumption over the main altar in its enormous limestone frame (the work of Lorenzo Bregno and his brother Giambattista) 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 the high altar erected in 1516, the year that Giovanni Bellini died, Giorgione and Sebastiano del Piombo having been dead and departed to Rome, respectively, for a few years too. These facts may also explain why Titian got the job. It was installed by 1518. The ornate frame is topped by a sculpted Risen Christ flanked by the figures of Saints Francis and Anthony of Padua all life-sized. 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, Fra Germano da Casale) 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 in 1816 for reasons of preservation and easier access. It was initially the pride of Room 1, as shown in a paintin
g 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 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. Figures at the top of the frame hold the family coat of arms and bishops' mitres, the latter to commemorate Jacopo's holding the honorific title of Bishop of Paphos. This frame is also, like the Assunta's, thought to be the work of Lorenzo Brego.
These career highlights, along with his over-the-top tomb, gives rise to the Frari being known as 'Titian’s church'.
The Crucifix in the  presbytery was restored in 1992, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the church's consecration. Beneath 19th-century repainting a 13th-century crucifix was found, painted in tempera.
Palma Giovane's 1595 Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, over an altar in the right aisle, was unsatisfactory to the friars at first, but they were talked around by Alessandro Vittoria who had recommended the artist to them. It is a bit violent, which is why they objected to.
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, the Saint Mark Triptych, in the last lateral chapel to the right of the altar) 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 of c.1503, was commissioned for the chapel of the Scuola Milanese, 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.

The Sacristy is accessed through the door at the end of the right transept which is the centre of the tomb of Benedetto Pesaro.  The Sacristy (see photo right) was the Pesaro family chapel from 1478. Upon entering you are confronted by Francesco Cabianca's 1711 reliquary altar, in the centre of which is the relic of the Magdalene's oil mixed with Jesus's blood collected under the cross. This was bought by Melchiorre Trevisan in Istanbul in 1480, on the same trip that he took Gentile Bellini to the court of Sultan Mehmet II. The marble wall tabernacle where the miraculous relic was originally kept is in here too.
In the apse of the Sacristy is a Giovanni Bellini altarpiece to contemplate at length, a Virgin and Child with Saints (also known as the Frari Madonna). 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. Pietro Pesaro's sons commissioned Bellini to paint the altarpiece in honour of their mother, Franceschina Tron Pesaro, who had died in 1478 and who is buried here. The saints include the sons' namesakes - Nicholas, Benedict (whose classical wall tomb we have just walked under) and Mark, and the father's, Peter. In the arch above the apse is an Annunciation fresco pair attributed to Jacopo da Montagna dating to the late 15th century and likely completed just before the Bellini triptych.
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 (or Hungary) and Doge Francesco Dandolo and his wife (see right) from 1339, the year of the Doge's death. Dandolo's widow Elisabetta commissioned Paolo after her husband's death. In his will Francesco had stipulated 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'.
From the Chapter House, beyond the Sacristy, it’s possible to glimpse the Cloister of the Holy Trinity (see photo below), named for the early-18th century wellhead topped by a sculpture group of The Trinity by Francesco Penso, known as Cabianca. This sculptor also created statues for the façade of the Gesuiti and for San Simeone Piccolo. This is one of the two cloisters of the original convent which has housed  the Archivio di Stato, the Venetian state archives, since 1814 (after a period of use as a barracks, post-suppression). The other is called the Cloister of Saint Anthony and both are usually closed to visitors, although in July 2021 news came of
a state-funded building project to extend access to the Archivio, as well as a Venice in Peril project to restore the Trinity wellhead.

69m (224 ft) electromechanical bells

The second highest in Venice, after that of San Marco, 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.

Lost art
Formerly on the altar of of the Scuola di Sant'Antonio here (first on the right) Saint Anthony of Padua with Saint Bonaventure and the Blessed Luca Belludi, from c.1480 by Lazzaro Bastiani is now in the Accademia. It shows Saint Anthony preaching to the two Franciscan beati from up a nut tree, which he originally did above his congregation - not a commonly-depicted episode from his legend.

The church in art (and not)
Canaletto, oddly, never painted the Frari; and Guardi only seems to have only ever 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 right) 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
No longer a Chorus Church

Vaporetto San Toma








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