Jam-packed with art, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was the Franciscan rival to the Dominican Santi Giovanni e Paolo, on the other side of town; from St Mark’s campanile the two stand above the higgledy-piggledy of Venice like a pair of brick bookends.
The original Frari, founded in 1250 (just after St Francis’ death), was no sooner completed in 1330 than the current Gothic pile started to rise right next to it. Based on a design by Friar Scipione Bon, it wasn’t completed until 1469.
For Venice, the exterior is very severe, showing only a hint of the native delight in decoration. Venice’s second tallest campanile is its most memorable feature, though there are some good carvings that liven up the stark exterior: a 15th-century Tuscan bas-relief of the Madonna, Child and Angels on the north door, and another nearby with a statue of St Peter; on the west side the Gothic door has works by the school of Bartolomeo Bon and others by Alessandro Vittoria. A Gothic edging along the cornice, like dripped icing on a cake, unites the mass of bricks; the curved ‘crowning’, added afterwards to make the façade higher, was a bid to upstage Santi Giovanni e Paolo.
Around the left side, near the door, you’ll see some small plaques marking the level of the acqua alta of 20 August 1902 – that was a bad one; the plaques are almost three feet high. Right after that the church underwent a major restoration that lasted decades.
1 Tomb of Pietro Bernardo
2 Tomb of Titian
3 Monks’ Choir
4 Tomb of Iacopo Marcello
5 Tomb of Beato Pacifico
6 Memorial to Benedetto Pésaro
7 Monument to Paolo Savelli
9 Chapter House
10 Chapel of St Massimiliano Kolbe
11 Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin
12 Tomb of Doge Nicolo Tron
13 Tomb of Doge Francesco Foscari
14 Cappella Cornaro Piscopia
15 Cappella Emiliani
16 Monument of Bishop Jacopo Pésaro
17 Tomb of Doge Giovanni Pésaro
18 Tomb of Canova
The long cruciform interior is pinned together by wooden tie beams, which visually not only unite the vast space, but add an interesting abstract quality to the run-of-the-mill Gothic aisle bays and ceiling. On ground level, the eye is drawn through the arch of the monks’ choir in the nave to Titian’s vividly coloured Assumption in the sanctuary.
The plain brick walls are covered with works of art and monuments ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, beginning (inside the front portal) with the very vertical Tomb of Pietro Bernardo (d. 1538), believed to be one of Tullio Lombardo’s last works, but lacking the 800-stanza heroic poem that the deceased specified in his will. The other monument on this wall, the Tomb of Procurator Alvise Pasqualino (d. 1528), is by Lorenzo Bregno.
Both of these men ordered tombs long before they died; a sound policy, seeing the monument Titian got (the second altar on the right). It is a tradition in Italy to give the greatest artists the most unartistic memorials, and the Tomb of Titian is even worse than Michelangelo’s in Florence. Titian died age 99 in the plague of 1576, and was the only casualty of that epidemic to get a church burial, owing to his fame; the massive inanity piled on top of his presumed burial place with an Austrian eagle on top was added in the 19th century. Titian wanted his extraordinary Pieta for his tomb, but the friars hated it and eventually gave it to the Accademia.
The first altar, to the right, is dedicated to St Anthony of Padua; it has attracted some unusual ex-votos, including a pair of brass epaulettes left by some grateful general or bandmaster. The third altar (to the left of Titian) is graced by Vittoria’s statue of St Jerome, one of his finest works, and said to be a likeness of Titian at the age of 93.
The newly restored Monks’ Choir, the only one in Venice to survive in place in the centre of the nave, was built in the 1460s, and has a marble choir screen by Bartolomeo Bon and Pietro Lombardo, but even more impressive are its three tiers of choir stalls, carved by Mauro Cozzi and decorated with intarsia designs.
In the right transept are four markedly diverse tombs: first, the Tomb of Iacopo Marcello (d. 1484), a fine piece of Renaissance quirkiness attributed to Giovanni Buora; it is followed by the hyper-florid Gothic terracotta Tomb of Beato Pacifico by Tuscans Nanni di Bartolo and Michele da Firenze, with ranks of putti and angel musicians, and sweeping arches echoing those of San Marco.
Over the sacristy door, the marine Memorial to Benedetto Pésaro commemorates a Venetian capitano del mar who died in Corfu in 1503, with reliefs of Ionian island fortresses (Lefkas and Kefalonia) and battle galleys. To the left is the Monument to Paolo Savelli (c. 1405), his wooden equestrian statue stuck high up on a shelf; Savelli, from Rome, was the first condottiere to earn a monument in the city, and the first to have a horse under him.
The Sacristy contains perhaps the most compelling and spiritual altarpiece Giovanni Bellini painted, his 1488 Triptych of the Madonna and Child, with SS. Nicholas, Peter, Mark and Benedict, still in its original frame, in the place Bellini intended it to be seen.
Sharing the sacristy is a marble tabernacle by Tullio Lombardo; if it’s open, another door leads down into the Chapter House, housing a 17th-century clock and the Sarcophagus of Doge Francesco Dandolo and his Dogaressa, topped with a fresco by Paolo Veneziano, believed to be the first portrait of a doge painted from life.
From the chapter house you can look into the Frari’s monumental Palladian cloister. Here too is the elaborate Rococo Reliquary of the Holy Blood of Christ (1711) by the Venetian Francesco Penso, known as Cabianca, with fine gilt wood carvings by Andrea Brustolon. One of the most precious relics in the city, it was brought from Constantinople by the Venetian Fleet Commander Melchiorre Trevisan.
The first chapel in the choir has an altarpiece by Bartolomeo Vivarini (Madonna, Child and Saints, 1482), notable also for the original frame; in the second, the Chapel of St Massimiliano Kolbe, are two 14th-century wall tombs, the one on the left of a knight, Duccio degli Uberti.
The next chapel, nearest the high altar, belonged to the Florentines, who hired Donatello to make its rustic but gilded wooden Statue of John the Baptist in 1438, his earliest work in the Veneto, and, like many of his Baptists in Florence, one who obviously lived on locusts and water.
But who is that hot number in the red dress floating over the high altar? Titian’s enormous Assumption of the Virgin (often called simply the Assunta), painted in 1516–18, was the painter’s first public commission in Venice. It caused a sensation for its extraordinary colour and revolutionary spiralling composition of the Virgin ascending into Heaven, and did much to make Titian’s reputation, the way the David did Michelangelo’s.
For all that, the good friars hated it at first—too many striving humans, not enough angel action—but they graciously agreed to accept the work only after they heard that Emperor Charles V, Titian’s great patron, wanted to buy it. Later Franciscans, sharing the taste of their 16th-century predecessors, shuffled the thing away into storage, where it remained until this century.
But this questionable Assumption has perhaps suffered more at the hands of its friends. ‘The Most Beautiful Painting in the World’ according to some critics of generations past – such a tribute itself betrays the essential kitsch sensibility lurking at the heart of the work and the age that created it, the dotage of the expiring Renaissance. After the Bellini in the sacristy its virtues seem mere virtuosity, and its big-eyed, heaven-gazing Virgin as spiritual and profound as a Sunday school holy card. Pious sentimentality, especially on such a grand scale, rarely appears elsewhere in Venetian art or even in Titian’s own œuvre. One wonders what the artist thought about it in his old age.
In the chancel, to the left of the Assumption, the Renaissance Tomb of Doge Nicolò Tron (d. 1473) by Antonio Rizzo offers a serene and lovely antidote with its Renaissance allegories. To the right is the Tomb of Doge Francesco Foscari (d. 1457), who wore the ducal bonnet the longest, reigning 34 years before the Senate pressured him to retire; he died a week later of a broken heart.
Among the chapels to the left of the sanctuary the third contains the grave of the first great opera composer, Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), marked by a plain slab; the crowded altarpiece of St Ambrose that shares the chapel with him was begun by Alvise Vivarini and finished by Marco Basaiti.
The fourth chapel, the Cappella Cornaro Piscopia in the left transept, is usually locked, but you can see through the grille Bartolomeo Vivarini’s crystal clear painting of St Mark Enthroned with Four Saints, a beautiful early Renaissance Tuscan Tomb of Federico Corner set in monochrome fresco, attributed to Andrea Mantegna, a marble freize by Tullio Lombardo, and Sansovino’s broken but beautiful marble St John on the font. Don’t miss the carved wooden bench back in the transept, a masterpiece of Gothic tracery.
Continuing down the left aisle, a door leads into the Cappella Emiliani, with its numerous statues by the 15th-century school of Jacobello Dalle Masegne; next to it is the fine Monument of Bishop Jacopo Pésaro (d. 1547), and Titian’s Madonna di Ca’ Pésaro, commissioned in 1519 by the same bishop. This painting, nearly as revolutionary in its time as the Assumption, had a more lasting influence on Venetian art, especially in its diagonal composition. Titian’s wife Celia modelled for the Madonna, and paying her homage below are members of the Pésaro clan, including the Bishop (kneeling on the left); some Turks he captured in the Levant are dragged into the scene as well.
There’s no known reason, though, for the ungainly, ragged Moors created to hold up the next monument, the dreadful Tomb of Doge Giovanni Pésaro (d. 1659), though the sculptor, a certain Melchiorre Barthel, at least carved pillows for them to make the load lighter. Of all the stupefying tombs in the Frari, this one takes the cake. It rises nearly to the church’s roofline, with decomposing bodies on top to add an endearing Hallowe’en note, together with some funhouse dragons and skeletons.
Next comes the Tomb of Canova, with a nearly full-sized pyramid, its door left ajar (a conceit taken from ancient Roman funeral steles); the ensemble, including sorrowful mourners and a sad, crouching winged lion, was designed by the sculptor as a tomb for Titian, but ended up being executed after his death as his own memorial, although only his heart is buried here. Finally on the left, the Cappella degli Crocifisso has a 17th-century Baroque inlaid Crucifixion by Josse de Corte.
Images by: Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, Mark Longair, Creative Commons, Patrick Denker, Harshlight, Creative Commons License