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Baroque bling

Titian's Martyrdom of St Lawrence

The Jesuits, banned from the Republic in 1606 for supporting the Pope during the Great Interdict, were permitted to return to the Republic only in 1657 – a permission subject to a review every three years. Because the city had forbidden the construction of new churches, the Order purchased the church of the Crociferi (who had been earlier suppressed for moral backsliding) and demolished it, hiring Domenico Rossi to design a new one (1715–29). When the Jesuits were suppressed again in 1773 the church became a school and barracks, but the Jesuits returned in 1844 and to this day occupy the nearby monastery.

After the charms of nearby Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the Gesuiti has the sad air of a fat, overdone girl who can’t get a date, no matter how much money her parents lavish on her appearance; the parents in this case were the Manin family (who also produced Venice’s equally unloved last doge); who paid both Rossi and Giambattista Fattoretto for a façade larded with saints and angels, pinned to the wall with bars, wearing iron haloes that bleed rust over the white marble. Over the door: the Manin coat of arms.

The Jesuits were convinced that the glory and richness of this world could bring the faithful closer to that of the next: Baroque architecture, after all, grew out the lavish Roman Mannerist style known as the ‘Jesuit style’. This kind of ecclesiastical theatre, which delighted in trompe l’œil (as in the remarkable ceiling of San Pantalon) here reaches new heights of mouldering excess; what at first sight looks like green and white damask along the walls, curtains around the pulpit, and grandmotherly carpeting leading up to the high altar – is all really very expensive marble intarsia, carefully carved to resemble swags of fabric. Rarely has more money been spent for such a slight result, although it is certainly unique.

Under Jesuitical gold and cream stucco frosting, the eye is drawn to the Bernini-inspired baldacchino over the high altar, with fat twisted macaroni columns of verde antico and a huge dome and marble globe. The Manin family financed it as a tribute to themselves (something that, for a high altar, could happen only in Venice); many of them are buried underneath.

The only work of art that can top the interior decoration is one inherited from the previous church: Titian’s restored Martyrdom of St Lawrence (1558, first altar on the left, lighting best around noon), one of his finest religious works, a revolutionary night scene of the Saint roasting on a Roman gridiron, lit and composed with a dramatic Tintoretto-esque touch.

Also on the left is a chapel with an early Assumption of the Virgin by Tintoretto. The Sacristy houses a cycle of paintings on the Eucharist by Palma Giovane.

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Campo dei Gesuiti

vaporetto: Fondamenta Nove

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Image by PD Art