Called San Giorgio Maggiore to differentiate it from
San Giorgio in Alga, another lagoon
island church, there had been a church on this island, originally known as the Isola dei
Cipressi, from as early as 790, built by the Partecipazio family. 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, called Saint George the Martyr. 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 (The Feast
of Stephen) 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, and 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, although
the monks here kept an arm relic.
The 10th-century church
and monastery were seriously damaged by a fire in 1205 and 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 1566 a year after his commission and provision of a
wooden model. The church was also
realigned at this time, its façade 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. The first public event to take place in Palladio's
almost-finished church was the translation of the aforementioned relics of
Saint Stephen on 15th August 1581, from the altar of the old church, which
was to be demolished. In 1610 Palladio's Istrian stone façade 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
Another temple front, it's a development of Palladio's earlier design for the
San Francesco della Vigna.
In the niches either side of the doorway are statues of the church's two
titular saints Stephen and George by Giulio del Moro, from
Verona. The two portrait busts commemorate Doge Tribuno Memo, who granted
the land here to the Benedictines in 982, and Doge Sebastiano Ziani, a
generous donor to the 13th-century rebuilding. The set is completed by the
plaque in the centre with its epigraph commemorating the 1610 completion
under Doge Leonardo Doni.
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.
By the 16th century
churches were no longer being built with screens between the nave and
choir, so this has the typical Palladian retrochoir for the friars up four
steps behind the high altar.
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 Miracle of the
Saint Lucy of 1596 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, recent scholarship has
it that these works are all largely the work of Jacopo's son Domenico. These are
The Fall of Manna to the left of the altar, typologically paired
revolutionary diagonal Last Supper to the right, best viewed from
the choir behind the altar; and an Entombment, all three dated to
1592-94. This last Last Supper was the last one of the very many
(at least nine, nearly all for scuole del sacramento) that he painted.
The Entombment was painted
for the altar of the Capella dei Morti (mortuary chapel of the
monks) here in the last two years of Jacopo's
life, and completed in the year of his death, 1594, making it the last
work to come out of his workshop while he was still alive. Although mostly the work
of Domenico, the composition is undoubtedly Jacopo's.
Joseph of Arimathea, supporting Christ’s head, is said to be a
self-portrait. This church is said to possess eight works by Tintoretto
and his studio.
Also a brighter Risen Christ with Saint Andrew and the Morosini Family
by Jacopo and (mostly) Domenico Tintoretto. This work, a Martyrdom of Cosmas and Damian,
The Stoning of Saint Stephen are usually now given to Tintoretto's
workshop. The Coronation of the Virgin
over the high altar is credited to Jacapo and Domenico.
Carpaccio's Saint George Killing the Dragon
from 1516, now in the winter choir here, was long thought to have been made for an abbey near Treviso
now said to have been commissioned by the Benedictine monks for a small
altar in the medieval church here, pre-Palladio. The predella has four
panels showing the attempts of the prefect Dacian to put the saint
to death. Although Dacian was a Roman prefect he and his henchmen are
depicted in Ottoman dress to give them contemporary resonance.
Also here are works
by Sebastiano Ricci and Palma Giovane.
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
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, but it is to be seen, with its onion dome, in a Guardi view
in the Accademia, painted just before the collapse, called Saint Mark's
Basin with San Giorgio and the Giudecca. The campanile was then 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
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
Rocco Marconi's Christ and the Adulteress of
c.1515/20 is now in the Accademia.
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, Jesus's first public
miracle, with its symbolic and Eucharistic resonance, 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'. A
calm Christ sits in the middle of the bustle, with the family to his
right, our left, and clerics to his left. The detail evident in the faces,
costume, and hairstyles does not extend to the food, but the sugar balls
and melon suggest they are on the desert course but if so why are the
servants behind the balustrade still carving meat. But the figure carving
lamb above Jesus presumably has a Eucharistic meaning. 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. (In the mid-17th
century the French ambassador to Venice had tried to buy it. Having had
this request refused he made do with Veronese's Feast
in the House of Simon from
Santa Maria dei Servi.) It was cut into
pieces, rolled up and taken to Paris, taking ten months to get there and
suffering much on the journey. When it needed to be moved to make room for
the building of boxes along the walls for the congregation of Napoleon's
marriage to Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, the difficulty of moving
it caused Napoleon to lose his temper and order it burnt but. His looting
was always more about his aggrandisement than it was art-appreciation. When other looted paintings were
returned the French said that the Wedding Feast at Cana was too
fragile to move and offered an insultingly inferior painting in exchange, which was
accepted, by the then-ruling Austrians - The Banquet at the House of
the Pharisee with Mary Magdalene at Christ’s Feet of c.1653 by Charles Le Brun,
now in the Accademia (see right), taken from the Church of the
Carmelites on the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. Denon concealed from the
Austrians that the Le Brun was worth thirty thousand francs, against the
one million the Veronese was worth. But the Veronese has been moved
many times since, during various remodellings of the room it's currently
in, the Salle des Ètats, and especially during WWII, around various safe chateaux. It was further damaged during cleaning at the Louvre in 1992,
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 (see below right) commissioned from the Madrid firm
Samson by Giovanni Battista Langetti from
1665 went to the Accademia, having been in San Zanipolo in between. It's
now on display in the new Saloni Selva-Lazzari rooms dedicated to 17 and
18th century religious art on the ground floor
The church in art
Monet, Turner, Guardi, Carlevarijs, Canaletto...
The church in early printed books
A Venetian edition of the Golden Legend of 1494 has an
illustration depicting The Translation of Saint Lucy to San Giorgio
Maggiore (see right). An event mentioned in
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
...to 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
Letter to her mother, 15th December 1849.
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.
Mon-Sat: 9.30-12.30 and 2.30-6.30
Vaporetto Isola San Giorgio
The Cini Foundation website
Cosimo de' Medici when he was banished from Florence in 1433 took
refuge here. He brought his architect Michelozzo with him who designed and built a
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. It
now contains geometric symmetrical parterres. The
second is Palladio's untypical Cloister of the Cypresses, begun in 1579,
the year before he died, but not completed until the mid 17th century. It
contains four tall cypress trees. Beyond is a modern garden, a
labyrinth celebrating the life of Jorge Luis Borges (bottom right in photo
left) - it spells out his name when seen from above. It was opened
in June 2011 on the 25th anniversary of the writer's death.
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
ruined monastery was taken over and restored by art patron Count Vittorio Cini,
and renamed in memory of his son Giorgio, who had been 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.
Photo above courtesy of the internet.