The most beautiful Gothic church in Venice, the Madonna dell’Orto was built by Fra Tiberio of Parma in the mid-14th century and originally dedicated to the giant saint Christopher, the patron of the boatmen who used to sail from here to the north lagoon.
Before long, though, Christopher was upstaged by the miracles performed by an equally large and rather ungainly statue of the Madonna by Giovanni de’ Santi in a nearby vegetable garden (orto). Eventually the Madonna came out from the cabbages for a place inside the church, which was altered in the early 1400s and rededicated.
A 15th-century Istrian stone statue of St Christopher Carrying Baby Jesus, by Tuscan sculptor Nicolò di Giovanni, still holds pride of place over the doorway (a late work of Bartolomeo Bon); he keeps company with two rows of Apostles (by the Dalle Masegne brothers) in niches along the cornice. The distinctive onion dome on the campanile was added in the Renaissance.
The Madonna dell’Orto was Tintoretto’s parish church, and he and his talented children, Domenico and Marietta, are buried within. There’s a rather dubious tradition that he was forced to take refuge in its sanctuary after adding cuckold’s horns to a portrait he had made of a doge. The furious doge, the story goes, would only forgive the painter on the condition that he fill the church with art, which Tintoretto did with his usual demonic speed in only a few months, to the doge’s chagrin (even Aretino once suggested that he ought to change his prestezza del fatto, or ‘quickness of the deed’, into pazienza del fare, or the ‘patience of the doing’. But if it was quick work, it was cheap; he only asked for his expenses).
In the 1860s the church suffered a misguided restoration that destroyed its once-celebrated organ. Some of the damage was corrected in the 1930s, and much of the rest tidied up after the 1966 flood, an early effort of the Venice in Peril Fund.
The interior is fairly traditional Gothic, culminating in a vaulted apse. The first altar on the right glows with Cima da Conegliano’s St John the Baptist and Saints (1493) standing in a ruined classical pavilion, with a brown city in the background, more Tuscan than Venetian in its austerity.
After the fourth altar is a pair of organ doors where Tintoretto painted his delightful Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple (1552), a compositional cousin to Titian’s in the Accademia, though very different in light and colouring, with the child Mary lit in a kind of holy spotlight.
Further up, the Cappella di San Mauro contains the enormous stone statue of the Madonna that gave the church its name. Tintoretto lies under a simple slab in the chapel to the right of the choir, the site of two of his more mastadonic works: The Making of the Golden Calf (with a self-portrait, fourth from left, holding up the calf) and a Last Judgement that gave Ruskin’s wife Effie such a case of heebie-jeebies that she refused to ever return to the church.
Back in the apse are Tintoretto’s less harrowing Vision of the Cross to St Paul and Beheading of St Paul, flanking an Annunciation by Palma Giovane; Tintoretto also painted four of the five Virtues in the vault (the painter of the centre one is unknown).
In the left aisle, the Contarini chapel has two busts of family members by Vittoria (in the centre) and another Tintoretto, St Agnes Raising Licinius. At the end, in the elegant Cappella Valier (1526) is Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna (1478) set in a sculpted tabernacle.
Outside in pretty Campo Madonna dell’Orto, local kids play Venetian court football; on the left they bounce the ball off the 16th-century Scuola dei Mercanti (Merchants’ Guild), and hope the ball doesn’t fall into the canal or hit one of the jet-black outboard hearses usually moored by the bridge.
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Vaporetto: Madonna dell'Orto
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Images by: John Lord