The Island of San Giorgio Maggiore is really worth a visit, to enjoy a few hours of its history, architecture, peace and tranquillity; away from the crowds. The view of the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, with its famous Palladian styled Basilica in classical Renaissance style; is from the waterfront at the Piazzetta San Marco, one the great classic views of Venice and probably amongst the most admired by artists and photographers. It forms the focal point of the view from every part of the Riva degli Schiavoni. In winter, when the cold mountain air meets the warmer lagoon water; typical sea mists roll in. Occasionally, only the highest parts of the buildings can be seen to rise out of the cloud; a magical effect to witness.
However, the Island of San Giorgio Maggiori promises much more. A short hop across the Basin by Waterbus No. 2 (vaporetto); it is such a worthwhile place to visit to enjoy its history, culture and peaceful atmosphere. For the full experience with guided tours, allow up to half a day.
The origins of San Giorgio Maggiore date back to 790, when a church was first built on what was then called the “Island of the Cypresses). In 982, Doge Tribuno Memmo, gave the island to the Benedictine monk Giovanni Morosini who founded a monastery. Unfortunately, in 1223 an earthquake destroyed all the buildings and everything had to be rebuilt.
The island stayed in the hands of the Benedictines until the early 19th century, when Napoleon claimed it as a military area. He built a warehouse for the artillery and a dock with two small towers; which can be seen from the Riva degli Schiavoni. When Count Vittorio Cini bought the island in 1951, the monastery was destroyed after almost 150 years of military occupation. In honour of his son Giorgio, he restored the island to its original beauty and created an international cultural centre – the Fondazione Giorgio Cini; essentially re-integrating the San Giorgio Maggiore island into the cultural life of Venice. His legacy continues with new projects and programs; the latest example being the recent opening of a music theatre with a fine view over the lagoon.
The view from the top of the campanile. The view of the whole of Venice, the lagoon and the islands, is without doubt one of the finest in the city. The bell-tower (approx. 60m in height) was rebuilt in 1791; after the previous one collapsed in 1774. Take the elevator to the top inside the Basilica. Looking north, allows you to see the finest views of the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale. Besides the stunning views, the queues are also limited; by comparison with bell-tower in the Piazza San Marco.
The Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore. Its fine Palladian church of San Giorgio Maggiore with magnificent white marble facade and campanile provides one of the great views of Venice’s skyline. The original church was founded in 790, followed by an adjoining Benedictine monastery in 982; but both were unfortunately both destroyed by an earthquake in 1223. The monastery was rebuilt in 1443, being replaced in 1541 to a design by Baldassare Longhena. Around 1565, work began on a new church by the great Vicenzan architect, Andrea Palladio (1508-80); featuring a majestic four-columned portico. This was his first complete church design, successfully solving the problems of combining classical forms into a contemporary building.
The sparse interior space reflects the facade design and is luminous with white walls, lit by high windows. The Venetians were the first to use white stucco for church interiors. Artworks include paintings by Tintoretto and Bassano, with a superb carved wooden choir behind the alter. A lift to the top of its campanile provides arguably, Venice’s finest viewpoint.
The Fondazione Giorgio Cini. Explore the beauty and tranquillity of this site. The former monastery now houses the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, one of the most prestigious international cultural institutions. The foundation has its own institute and residential research programmes – the Branca Centre. It is dedicated to the lasting artistic, cultural, and scientific legacy of Venice. Postgraduate scholarships are offered to those interested in studying Italian culture, especially that of the Veneto, with an interdisciplinary approach in one of the following fields; art history, literature, music, drama, early printed books, Venetian history and comparative cultures and spiritualities. Candidates are required to propose a research topic specifically focused on the archives and documents kept in the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice.
All the buildings have been completely restored with a lot of attention for detail and the use of fine materials. The result is a really extra-ordinary experience. You can visit this outstanding monumental complex with a guided tour, which can be highly recommended.
Guided tours. Three tour itineraries are offered (taken from the CINI website). For further information in English, regarding opening, tour itinerary options and timings; contact the CINI foundation at this link, to copy and paste into your browser: www.cini.it/en/guided-tours
1.The first itinerary (approx. 1 hour) takes you on a tour of the monumental buildings of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini; including the two cloisters, the Palladian Refectory with the Wedding of Cana, the Photography Room, Longhena’s Grand Staircase and Library, the Nuova Manica Lunga Library and the Borges Labyrinth.
2.The second itinerary combines the tour of the “Wood” with the ten Vatican Chapels, designed by internationally renowned architects and “Expanded”.
3.The third itinerary combines the tour of the Fondazione Cini with the “Wood”, the Vatican Chapels and “Expanded”.
Video guides are available in six languages ( English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and Russian).
The visits show you the three inner gardens: one with four cypresses, one designed by Palladio and one labyrinth that shows the Borges name. The latter was inspired by ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, one of the best-known stories of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges; who loved Venice. You also visit the refectory designed by Palladio, where the monks used to eat and where now some of the more prestigious meetings are held. Against the wall is a huge copy of the painting ‘Le Nozze de Cana” (The Wedding at Cana) from Paolo Veronese. The original was stolen by Napoleon, when he occupied the island and can be seen at the Louvre in Paris.
Finally, you see the ancient Longhena Library, with the original bookcases by Franz Pauc from 1671. This is a very impressive room compelling you to browse the old books. Afterwards, you visit the new library ‘Nuovo Manica Lunga’, which was finished in 2009 and is built according to the latest library technologies. The design is magnificent with natural light coming in from the ceiling. The former cells of the monks have been transformed into small meeting rooms.
A walk along the small port, you can reach the Glass Museum (Le Stanze del Vetro), at the rear of the monastery. This used to be the former “convitto” or boarding school. It is a rather small museum, but the access is free; a good reason to visit. They organise temporary exhibitions and there is a large glass sculpture “Qwalala” by Pae White, outside the building. There are frequently guided tours at the weekend; but you can also ask for a private tour, in exchange for a donation for research.
As part of the 2018 Architecture Biennale, the Pavilion of the Holy See was located in the park of San Giorgio Maggiore. Ten well-known architects from all over the world, (such as Norman Foster Flores & Prats and Sean Godsell), were asked by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (Pontifical Council for Culture) and curator Francesco Dal Co to design the Chapel. The final design by Norman Foster is stunning.
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