November 06, 2006

Venice II

The weather definitely went down hill in the third week-it rained Thursday night-Saturday.

Monday 16th October I paid a visit to the church of San Giobbe near the train station, it has a striking Renaissance majolica ceiling in one of the side chapels, although most of its best artworks are in the Accademia, courtesy of removal by Napoleon.

Tuesday evening we had an after hours trip to San Marco, which was amazing. We were allowed in the Baptistry, which is normally reserved for prayer, and the Capella Zen which is never open as its permanently under restoration because it’s flooded a lot. It has a ceiling showing various episodes from the life of St Mark, and is filled by the bronze bier of the Cardinal Zen, which faces a Sacra Conversazione in slightly larger than life size. Bronze is the most expensive of the sculptural materials then in existence, so it shows the wealth which allowed the Cardinal to be buried in what was once part of the narthex of St Marks, the church itself being reserved for the Doges. We then walked back into the nave, which was in darkness, and watched as they brought the lights up, as they do at Easter. The mosaics look wonderful in the half light. The Pala D’Oro, or altarpiece was facing us, then they rotated it to show the ferial side which is painted, and normally on display. Then we walked round behind the Pala D’Oro to see all the beautiful enamel minatures, some of which were stolen from Byzantium, in close up. We also admired the Sacristy door, which is composed of many bronze plaques. Then we went down into the crypt, which spent most of the time under water until about seven years ago. You can see that some of the brickwork has suffered as a result, but the frescos over the altar have survived remarkably well. One can also see the original tomb of St Mark, with steps up to it so that pilgrims could touch the coffin.

Wednesday evening I visited San Francesco della Vigna, a large Franciscan church in Castello, which also has a Bellini picture of the Virgin and Child with Donor, and a Veronese Holy Family with Saints, the church is a very large classical structure, although the lighting is not very good.

On the Thursday evening we had a book launch at the Palazzo, which entailed some very long speeches, but there were drinks and very nice traditional sandwiches afterwards. Later it started raining, though fortunately the worst of it was overnight

Friday 20th October, which was a very foggy day, we went to the northern Lagoon islands. Torcello was settled by people from Altinum (now the site of Marco Polo airport), fleeing the barbarian invasions of Italy, and became the site of the first cathedral in the Lagoon, Santa Maria dell’Assunta. The Basilica contains a large 12th Century Byzantine mosaic of the Last Judgement, influenced by those at Ravenna. Additionally there are some beautiful opus sectile floors, and a fine rood screen which combines paintings of the Virgin and Apostles with beautiful carved marble panels showing Byzantine designs exectuted by local craftsmen. However, it declined from the fourteenth century onwards as it became swampy and malarial. Today there are only about 30 people living on the island.
We then hopped back across to Burano for lunch. This is another island that was originally settled by refugees from the mainland, and is now famous for its lace and painted houses, which are said to have been brightly decorated originally as an aid to returning fishermen. The lace museum is housed in the Scuola dei Merletti, founded in the late nineteenth century to ensure the craft did not die out: there were some old ladies there demonstrating the stitches, and some fine examples of large pieces of antique lace. It is possible to find hand made lace in the shops there still, but there are also a lot of imported pieces. Burano point lace involves a very fine net background, whilst Venetian point lace has thicker bars between the decorative work. After lunch we went to Murano, centre of the Venetian glass industry since 1291 when the Venetian government moved the glass makers here for safety reasons, and to ensure that their secrets did not escape. Over the years Murano has developed some beautiful techniques, being the first place to create crystal glass, and later creating beautiful and slender pieces of filigree patterned, ‘ice’, and metallic based glass. For many years Murano was also the only place in Europe to make glass mirrors.The Museo Vetriano has some specimens from the fifteenth century onwards, including the beautiful Barovier marriage cup, which is delicately painted. There are also some ‘interesting’ nineteenth century specimens, and the courtyard contains marble fragments found on the island. After this we walked to the Dominican church of San Pietro Martire, which houses a lovely Bellini painting of the Madonna and Child with St Mark, St Augustine, and Doge Barbarigo. This combines the Venetian forms of Sacra Conversazione and votive paintings: St Augustine is the Doge’s name saint, whilst St Mark is presenting him to the Virgin in his role as patron of Venice. The painting, which is quite large, ended up on Murano because the Doge left it in his will to the Convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where two daughters were nuns. Finally we visited the church of Santi Maria e Donato. This was founded in the seventh century, but the current building is a beautiful Veneto-Byzantine structure from the twelth century. The double dedication dates from 1125 when the bones of St Donatus were brought there, along with bones from a dragon that he killed. It also features a lovely 1141 mosaic floor, one of the images in which is two roosters carrying off a fox, symbolising the victory of Christianity over paganism.

On my way back home I stopped off to visit the Ospedaletto or Santa Maria dei Derelitti near the hospital as it is only open Thursday to Saturday afternoons. It has a series of eighteenth-century paintings inside, some of which can be very hard to make out properly, one of which is an early work by Tiepolo. Finally I went to San Giovanni in Brágora, which is actually dedicated to St John the Baptist, and is just around the corner from my house. No one is quite sure how the suffix originated, it may be an area from whence relics of the saint were once brought, a comment on the state of the area as a muddy backwater, or from the Greek for a main public square (agora), as this part of Venice was once home to a Greek community.

Saturday was rather wet, but I went to the Scuola Grande dei Carmini. This was the home of the Carmelite confraternity in Venice, and was decorated by Giambattista Tiepolo. I then walked down to the waterfront past the squero di San Trovaso, where they still make Venetian gondolas-they look very different out of the water, and one can see their asymmetric lines quite well, The squero itself looks Alpine in building style: the original gondola builders came from the Dolomites. I then visited the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione, which has a nice painted ceiling, and the Gesuati, or Santa Maria del Rosario (there is an over-size wooden rosary decorating the façade.) When the Gesuati order was suppressed, the Dominicans took over, and built the church, in a style that partly reflects Il Redentore on the other side of the Giudecca canal. The paintings inside are mainly by Tiepolo, portraying a variety of Dominican saints. After this I went to the Guggenheim museum with some other students from Warwick-this is a modern art collection assembled by Peggy Guggenheim, in a white palace on the Grand Canal that never got further than the first storey. There are some very interesting works of art inside. Finally on my way home I went to La Salute, one of the two large plague churches in Venice, built as part of a vow to the Virgin Mary. The Festa della Madonna della Salute is the 21st November, when there will be a bridge across the Grand Canal so that Venetians can go and pray for good health. The church is built on an octagonal plan, and has a good collection of paintings in the Sacristy, mainly by Titian, with a large Marriage at Cana by Tintoreto taking up one wall.

On the Sunday, as there was no morning communion at St George’s I went and heard Mass at San Marco. It was nice to hear a choir again, although they’re hidden in the gallery on the north side of the altar. I was sitting under the dome showing the Pentecost, so I was able to admire the frescos at the west end during the sermon. There had been water in the Piazza before the service, but it was a lot higher afterwards, so the only way to walk around in the dry was the duckboards. In the evening I went to Holy Communion at St George’s, and was asked to read the Epistle.

Monday 23rd to Sunday 29th October
I spent this week busy working as we had an essay deadline looming just after our return from Travel Week. The subject of my essay was “Assess the contribution of Leonardo Bruni to the development of Renaissance humanism.” I concluded that humanism owed more to its intellectual than its political context: there is a thesis that Bruni et al developed a type of ‘civic humanism’ that was distinctly Florentine, encouraging active involvement in Florentine government as a way of developing individual virtue, and that Bruni was important, especially in writing history and translating texts, but that there were lots of other humanists working in lots of other cities, so we shouldn’t concentrate on him alone. Saturday afternoon I went to the station to buy my train ticket, and admired the palaces on the Grand Canal en route.

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