The church of San Giorgio Maggiore, the most prominent landmark across the Bacino San Marco from the Piazza San Marco, has been home to a Benedictine monastery since 982. After receiving the head of St George (sold to Venice for 100 ducats in 1462 by the Greek island of Aegina), a major restoration project was undertaken in the 16th and 17th centuries, endowing it with its present buildings by Palladio and Longhena to create a major Late Renaissance and Baroque architectural showcase.
All fell into decline in the 19th century, when Napoleon suppressed the monastery and confiscated its property and artworks; in compensation, with a keen sense of the absurd, he made the itty-bitty island a free port (you can still see its twin Lilliputian lighthouses designed by a professor of architecture for the occasion).
And although only a handful of Benedictines remain (and welcome guests in their five simple guest rooms: to book, ring +39 041 241 4717), most of the complex has been beautifully restored as part of the Giorgio Cini Foundation.
Palladio’s church, like St Mark’s Campanile, is such an integral part of Venice that many visitors, having seen it painted on a hundred pizza parlour walls, look at it without really seeing it. Its importance in the history of architecture is in Palladio’s solution to the Renaissance problem of sticking a classical temple façade on a church with naves and side chapels.
The dissenting opinion, as usual most thunderously expressed by Ruskin, is that the problem was ridiculous to begin with and the result couldn’t be ‘more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism’, etc.
But even if, like Ruskin, you find the façade, a white mask of recycled classicism stuck on good red brick, ridiculous, it’s hard to deny that its colour and clean lines are effective where they are, hanging between the water and sky, bathed by a diaphanous, ever-changing light as magical as the variations in Monet’s series on the cathedral of Rouen.
The interior is equally white and clear of cluttering detail, but it's just as theatrical as the façade in its play of light and shadow. To compensate for the exceptional length of the nave and aisles, Palladio subtly raised the height of the floor near the high altar. On the entrance wall is the Tomb of Doge Leonardo Donà (d. 1612), the great humanist and friend of Galileo and Sarpi, who calmly snapped his fingers at the Great Interdict of 1606.
Above the first altar on the right, Jacopo Bassano’s dark Adoration of the Shepherds is illuminated entirely by the Child, who seems almost radioactive; the 15th-century wooden Crucifix on the next altar is equally unnerving in its vivid agony. The painting over the third altar, with its striking diagonals, is from the workshop of Tintoretto.
The high altar, black in contrast with the prevailing whiteness, is topped by a statue of Christ with a triangular halo, standing on a globe. On either side of the chancel hang the two masterpieces of Tintoretto’s old age, The Fall of Manna and an extraordinary, dynamic Last Supper (1594). The chapel on the right holds Sebastiano Ricci's Madonna Enthroned with Saints. To the left of the high altar, in the Morosini Chapel, is the Resurrection with St Andrew by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto.
In the choir, Scenes from the Life of St Benedict (1590s) are told with Counter-Reformation fervour in the carvings on the wooden stalls and lectern.
On the balustrade stand two bronze saints, George and Stephen, by Nicolò Roccatagliata (1593). Stephen’s body was brought to this church from Constantinople in 1100, and on his feast, the day after Christmas, all Venice would sail over in fairy-lit boats to pay homage to his relics.
From the choir a door on the right leads into a corridor containing the Monument to Doge Domenico Michiel (d. 1130), proudly described as the ‘Terror of the Greeks’ and the ‘Lament of Hungary’; at the end is the Cappella dei Morti, or ‘Chapel of the Dead’, containing Tintoretto’s last painting, rather appropriately a Deposition, completed by his son Domenico.
The photograph here is of Carpaccio’s St George Slaying the Dragon – a later variation on the canvas in San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, more autumnal in tone, although judging from the leftovers, the dragon’s appetite is as fierce as ever. The original is housed in a locked room where the Conclave of 1799–1800 (on the run from Napoleon) met to elect Pius VII.
Left of the choir, you’ll find the lift up to San Giorgio’s campanile. Although its forerunner collapsed in 1791, as all Venice’s bell towers seem cursed to do sooner or later, the replacement offers a view rivalled only by the one from St Mark’s (which it closely resembles) and includes a bird’s-eye view into the cloisters of the monastery.
Hours Mon-Sat 8.30am-12.30pm, 2.30-6pm; Sun 8am-11am, 2.30-6pm. Sun 11am Mass with Gregorian chant
Adm Free for the church; €3, €2 students for the campanile
Vaporetto: San Giorgio Maggiore
Images by: O Palsson, Rob Young