San Francesco della Vigna

Mathematical geometry and a gorgeous Madonna

San Francesco della Vigna

This slice of the Renaissance can seem a bit lost in its remote square, but it's well worth a look even if Ruskin sniffed at it for being 'base'. Its south flank is skirted by a ghostly campo, with a campanile, a Gritti palace (1525) – long the residence of the Papal Nuncio, the Oratory of the Holy Stigmata – and a lofty 19th-century neoclassical portico.

According to hoary tradition, the first church on this site commemorated the spot where the living St Mark the Evangelist came closest to Venice; while sailing from Aquileia to Egypt, his ship landed here during a storm, where he met an angel foretelling the birth and devotion of his future city.

The church is named after the vines growing here in 1253 (one if not the only recorded instance of Venetian wine making) when the Franciscans built their first medieval chapel on the site. The present church was begun in 1534 to a design by Sansovino who had to adjust his usual decorative leanings to match the austerity of his patrons, the Observant Franciscans. Its foundation stone was laid by Sansovino’s friend, Doge Andrea Gritti.

Sansovino never completed the facade, and in 1572 it was given one by Palladio in bright Istrian stone. This seems a bit sad and extravagant without the flickering play of water and light that brings its whiteness to life elsewhere. It was, in fact, falling off the church until the 1990s when the Venice in Peril fund came to the rescue and stuck it back on.

Sansovino’s interior was apparently reshaped with proportions based on the number three and its multiples, according to the mystic theories of Fra Francesco Zorzi (or Giorgi), a keen student of Renaissance philosophy, geometry and author of the esoteric Harmonia Mundi totius cantica tria (1525), a tract that attempts to reconcile Holy Scripture with Plato and the Kabbala (it was never translated into Italian; the National Library of Finland, which is believed to have the only surviving uncensored copy, has put it online here).

The result is a spacious, luminous Latin cross with five chapels along its single nave – an academic, intellectual design more Tuscan than Venetian in spirit.

It contains some exceptional sculptures and paintings: by the door, bronze statues of SS. Francis and John the Baptist by Vittoria and a triptych by Alvise Vivarini.

The third chapel on the right has a pair of tombs of Contarini doges; the fourth chapel, belonging to the Badoer family, has a recently restored Resurrection attributed to Veronese, but better still is Fra Antonio da Negroponte’s shimmering Madonna and Child Enthroned (1450) in the right transept, a golden-robed Virgin in a merry spring bower full of roses and orange trees – one of Venice’s hidden gems from the early Renaissance. It is the only known work of Brother Negroponte (a Greek from Euboea), but it's a delight.

Doge Gritti is buried in the chancel, band there is more art in the marble-clad Giustiniani chapel to the left of the altar, a survivor from the original medieval church. Designed by the Lombardos, its row of prophets are by Pietro and helpers, while the four Evangelists and altar are by Tullio and his son Sante.

On the left side of the nave, perhaps the best work is Gerolamo da Santacroce’s Martyrdom of St Laurence under the pulpit. A Sacra Conversazione (1562) by Veronese is in the fifth chapel on the left; the third, with a bright frescoed ceiling lit by an oculus, is decorated with a quirky combination of chiaroscuro by Giambattista Tiepolo and sculpted garlands; while the second has a fine altarpiece by Alessandro Vittoria, with statues of SS. Sebastian, Roch and Anthony Abbot. A door in the left transept leads out into the simple but lovely 15th-century cloisters, full of flowers and lined with tombs.

Near the entrance, a chapel contains a Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini and assistants: bring coins for the lights – a bargain for one of Venice’s sweetest Madonnas. The main cloister leads into another, larger one, now used as a garden nursery; it has what still might be Venice’s only vineyard (at least in the central city; there are several on the lagoon islands).

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