San Francesco della Vigna, built originally on a vineyard in Castello is with the “Frari”; only one of two Franciscan churches in Venice.
Tradition says that his church was built where Saint Mark was driven ashore by a storm on his way back from Aquileia. Here, he was told by an angel “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus” and that the lagoon “was to be his resting place and that the city that shall rise on these lagoons, will call you its protector”.
The original medieval church was built by Franciscans in 1253, on the site of a tiny chapel in a “vigna” or vineyard; that was donated by Marco Ziani in 1253, for construction of the monastery. It was a triple-nave Gothic church, by Marino da Pisa and this church can only be seen now, on Barbari’s map of the city.
A monastery housed the “Frati Minori dell’Osservanza” (the Observants); while the “Conventuali” occupied the “Frari”, in the district of San Polo.
By the 16th century, the church building was in desperate need of repair.
Two main impulses led to the reconstruction of this church; one was the reform sweeping the order of the Franciscan Observants and the other was the wishes of Doge Andrea Gritti for burial rites; whose family palace was adjacent to the church. It also helped with revitalising the area.
Above: “View of the Campo and the Church of San Francesco della Vigna” by Francesco Guardi. Left: Front facade by Palladio, said to be his first ecclesiastical commission.
Doge Andrea Gritti sponsored the reconstruction, to designs by the Florentine architect Jacopo Sansovino. The design was to be in sober Renaissance style, incorporating the advice of the Franciscan friar, Fra Francesco Zorzi.
Fra Zorzi based the sizing of the various elements on the number three, because of its association with the Trinity: the nave should be nine paces wide and 27 paces long, each side chapel three paces wide. In 1534, this Doge laid the foundation stone for the new church and work was substantially completed by the end of 1554; although consecration was not until 1582.
However the white stone facade (1564-1570), was not based on Sansovino’s design, but instead was to a design by Andrea Palladio. It is thought that the patrician Daniele Barbaro, lobbied for the commission to be switched from Sansovino to Palladio in 1562; convincing the new sponsor Giovanni Grimani, that it was of a more modern design concept.
Sansovino’s design is now only preserved on a medal (left), with Gritti’s profile on the reverse side; which shows the dome originally planned but never built. When Gritti died in 1538, he was buried inside the church.
(Note. Inside the church, each chapel was sold for 200-350 ducats to aristocratic donors, raising much needed construction funds, granting the rights to place their coat-of-arms in the chapel and to bury their family there. For the right to be buried in the floor of the chancel in front of the high altar, Doge Andrea Gritti paid 1000 ducats).
Approaching the church from the south over a small canal bridge, one of the first views of it is framed by the Palladian-style overhead gallery supported on striking red and white columns; built in the mid-19th century by Alvise Pigazzi.
It linked the former Convento delle Pizzochere to the west of the church, which was acquired by the Observant Franciscans in 1838, with the Palazzo Nunciato. This palazzo had previously belonged to Doge Andrea Gritti, who is buried in the church. The palazzo’s housing the Papal Legate is commemorated by the nearby “Salizzade della Gatte”, or alley of the female cats; a clever corruption – legate with la gatte!
Both buildings were taken over by the Italian government in 1866, for use as a military tribunal.
Interestingly this was Palladio’s first-completed ecclesiastical commission, erected in 1568 and its fine structure has particularly good three-dimensionality.
He had hoped that the building which half obscures his facade would be demolished, but it was not to be and so the facade can only be appreciated partially or viewed obliquely (as in the above photograph).
Palladio addressed the challenge of linking the central nave with the side aisles in the façade in an innovative manner. The Corinthian columns in both the centre and the sides are perched on the same high plinth, though the central four columns are taller and wider than the lateral ones. The lateral columns support half-pediments that mimic the angle of the central full pediment. Above the central portal is a semi-circular window, subdivided into three parts. The facade contains two large bronze statues of Moses and Saint Paul (1592), actively stepping forward from their shallow niches, sculpted by Tiziano Aspetti.
At the top of the tympanum, an eagle unfolds a banner stating “Renovabitur”. Below, a frieze dedication of the church states: “Deo utriusque templi aedificatori ac reparatori” (God, builder and restorer of both temples) is engraved. Four marble plaques state: “Ac cede ad hoc / ne deseras spirituale / non sine iugi exteriori / interiorique bello (Enter here / not abandoning the spirit / not without detaching yourself from the exterior world / and making your interior beautiful“.
(Recent restoration. Between 1994-95 “Venice in Peril’s” funding enabled restoration. The facade of Istrian stone required considerable effort to prevent it from becoming detached from the body of the church. After stabilisation, the entire facade was washed and the black incrustations were removed with biological packs and micro-sandblasting. Conservation work was also carried out, on the Tiziano Aspetti bronze statues of Moses and St Paul).
The 12th century campanile was repeatedly damaged by lightning and then demolished in 1489.
The current tower (left) was designed by Bernardo Ongarin and built between 1571 and 1581, being modelled after the one in St Mark’s Square. The designer is buried at its base, commemorated by a plaque. It is one of Venice’s tallest campaniles at 69 metres (224 feet), along with that of the Frari and St Mark’s Basilica. It features electromechanical bells.
The interior is in the shape of a Latin cross with a single nave and no aisles, featuring plain Istrian stone Doric pilasters; but with deep side chapels. The harmonious and plainly pleasing interior is in keeping with the austerity of the Observant Franciscans’ beliefs.
There are five chapels on each side of the nave, some more decorated than others, but most plain and Franciscan; all the better to show off the colours of their altarpieces and artworks.
The choir, which in the past was occupied by the monks during services, is behind the altar.
The chapels of the church house masterpieces that both were made for this church, or were moved here mainly in the 19th century from shuttering churches, oratories, and monasteries. They belong to some of the most prominent aristocratic families in Venice.
Chapels to the right
1st, Bragnadin or of St Catherine of Alexandria.
The first chapel on the right is dedicated to the Bragadin family and patronised by Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The chapel was acquired in 1537 by Girolamo Bragadin, Procurator Procurator of St. Mark and the coat of arms of the Bragadin family are placed on either side of the altar. The painting of the altarpiece depicts “Catherine of Alexandria with Saints Jerome, John the Baptist and the Apostle James” by Giuseppe Porta (mid-16th century).
On the right, is a painting depicting “the Last Supper” by Francesco Rizzo da Santacroce and on the left, the “Resurrection of Christ” by Giovanni da Asola. In the middle of the chapel, can be seen the tombstone of Bragadin Girolamo Bragadin (1545).
2nd, Badoer-Surian or of the Immaculate Conception
The chapel was dedicated in 1535 to the Virgin by Piero Badoer, Procurator of San Marco. It also contains the tombs of Surian family, (1563). The chapel has four flanking 18th century canvases, originally from the Oratory of the Stimmate; depicting on the right the “Sacrifice of Isaac” by Pittoni and “Rebecca at the Well with Eleazar”, by Nicola Grassi. To the left is, the “Samaritan at the Well” by Francesco Polazzo and the “Healing the Congenitally Blind” by Angelo Trevisani.
3rd, Contarini dalla Porta
The chapel contains an alabaster statue of St Louis of Toulouse and a canvas by Palma Giovane depicting the “Virgin with Saints” (1628). The ceiling completed in 1789, depicts the Scenes of Life and Death of St Peter of Alcantara including the “Saint on the City Walls”, “St Theresa of Avila”, “St Peter” and “Queen Isabel of Spain”, the “Death of the Saint” and “Glory of the Saint”; all by Francesco Fontebasso.
In the walls are allegorical depictions of “Faith, Hope, and Charity” to the right, by Jacopo Marieschi and “Religion and Meditation” to the left, by Francesco Maggiotto.
It also houses the tomb of two Contarini doges: Alvise, (1676 to 1684) and Francesco (photo left), (1623 to 1624). Both busts are the work of Antonio Gai.
4th, Malipiero Badoer
The chapel contains an altarpiece depicting “The Resurrection” by Paolo Veronese.
The chapel has the heraldic shield of the Barbaro family; a red circle on a white background, granted to admiral Marco Barbaro after his 12th-century victory in Jaffa. The painting of the altarpiece is by Battista Franco, it is an oil on canvas representing the Baptism of Christ between Saint Francis and Bernardin of Siena. These two figures, appearing well on either side of the central group, are masked by the two columns.
The right pulpit
It was erected at the expense of Matteo Goretto, with an underlying altar dedicated to Saint Matthew, with a painting depicting the apostle by Francesco Montemezzano. Above the pulpit is another painting by the same author, “La Vergine Assunta” (late 16th century).
Left: “The Resurrection” by Paulo Veronese
Chapels to the left
1st, The Grimani chapel
It is dedicated to the Grimani family under the patronage of the Magi. It was purchased in 1537 by Vettor Grimani, procurator of San Marco.
The vault (below) is richly decorated by fifteen medallions known as “Roman” (circular boxes alternated with square boxes). The seven angelic virtues are found in the squares and in the eight circles the human virtues by Battista Franco called Semolei (1561).
The altar whose altarpiece shows the “Adoration of the Magi” in 1564 by Federico Zuccari, was painted in oil directly on the marble. This choice explains the state of the work. On both sides in niches are the “allegory of the Peace” in bronze by Tiziano Aspetti, who made the statues of the Palladian facade of the church.
Above the altar are three frescoes with the centre one “The resurrection of Christ“, on the right: “Elijah cured the son of the widow” and left: “Elijah and the chariot of fire“, by Battista Franco. On the right side is a framed fresco “Resurrected Lazarus” (1561) by Federico Zuccari.
2nd, Montefeltro or of St Anthony Abbot
Nicola da Urbino, Count of Montefeltro in 1397, drew up a will giving the Procurator of San Marco 2000 gold coins. He asks that a third of this sum be allocated to the constitution of a chapel in the church of San Marco. The vow was not respected and it was only 150 years later, that the chapel was erected during the reconstruction of San Francesco della Vigna.
The altar and the marble altarpiece date from 1561, credited to Francesco Smeraldi. The three statues are by Alessandro Vittoria (1563). In the centre is San Antonio Abatea, to the right Saint Sebastian and on the left, St. Roch.
On the left side of the chapel is a work by Parrasio Micheli, “The Fall of the Manna“; whilst on the right side is another painting by him representing the “Sacrifice of Melchizedek”.
The chapel (left) was designed by Tommaso Temanza. It is dedicated to Saint Gherardo Sagredo, an ancestor who died in 1046 and was declared blessed in 1076.
The pendentives depict the four evangelists and four virtues by Tiepolo.
The cupola has a fresco painted by Pellegrini. The chapel has a statue of the Blessed Gherardo by Andrea Cominelli and other sculptures by Justus Le Court and Enrico Merengo. On the walls are two funeral monuments, with busts to the Doges Nicolò Sagredo (ruled 1675-76) and Giovanni Sagredo (ruled 1676-91), both by Giovanni Gai.
The chapel has a painting of “San Bernardo da Siena” and works by Giuseppe Porta.
5th, Giustinian or “della Salute”
The chapel has a canvas by Paolo Veronese (left), depicting the “Holy Family with St Catherine and Anthony Abbot” (circa 1560).
It is dedicated to the Priuli family and patronised by Pascal Baylon.
It is closed by a polychrome marble balustrade. On the right wall is a painting of “Addolorate XVII”, attributed to Antonio Vassilacchi. Below in the wall, is the stone where Justine of Padua knelt for his martyrdom (which comes from the old church of Santa Giustina, now destroyed).
The polychrome marble altar is surmounted by a niche in red marble from Verona, where there is a wooden statue of Pascal Baylon (1691), by Marchiò Molziner. On the altar is a glass sarcophagus, containing the body of Santa Cristina (martyred at 13 in the year 297); a relic moved here following the destruction of the church Santa Giustina in 1810.
The Monument to the Doge Marcantonio Trevisan
The monument is by Girolamo Campagna, found above the door giving access to the Saint-Chapelle, the sacristy and the cloisters. The Doge’s tomb is in the centre of the transept facing the choir. On the right side of the door is a statue of St. Louis of Toulouse.
The Holy Chapel
Accessible from the left arm of the transept, is the “Madonna and Child with Four Saints and Donor” of Giovanni Bellini (1507).
The Sacristy (below) is organised with a central altar and two laterals.
On the left side is seen the “Adoration of the Mages”, a copy of the painting by Federico Zuccari in the Grimani chapel, which is very degraded being painted in oil on marble. This copy was made in 1833 by the painter Michelangelo Grigoletti. On the other side of the left altar, are two works by Palma the Younger; “San Bonaventura nello studio” and “San Diego de Alcalá in estasi”.
The central altar shows a painting by Giuseppe Angeli (1709-1798), “The Immacolata e Santi” of 1760.
On the right side of the altar, can be seen a door of John of Capistrano; painted around 1710 by Nicola Grassi. From the same author on the right side is, “Antony of Padua”.
The altar on the right, is attributed to Sansovino in 1559. On the wall of an entrance on the left side is “The Communion of San Bonaventura” by Nicola Grassi and on the left “San Francesco comfortato dall’angelo”, by the same author.
Left of apse choir, Badoer-Giustinian
In the late 15th century, the noble Venetian Girolamo Badoer commissioned a carved choir screen and altarpiece for their family chapel, dedicated to St. Jerome. Its construction was completed in 1509.
In 1534, Jacopo Sansovino was commissioned to rebuild the church. Agnesina Badoer Giustinian (c. 1472–1542), the Badoer heiress who had married into the Giustinian family, asked that the earlier works by the Lombardo family, be incorporated into the new chapel. Agnesina and her children are buried here as well as her second husband, procurator Girolamo Giustinian (1470–1532).
Right Wall (above). At the bottom level is a funeral inscription from 1690. Above it (level 2) are bas-reliefs from the 15th century: two evangelists by Tullio Lombardo and Amedeo Lombardo, followed by six prophets of Pietro Lombardo (15th century). Level 3: the christological cycle, by Pietro Lombardo.
The altar. The frontal shows the last judgment; the altarpiece is a marble triptych of St. Jerome and four saints, with pilasters separating the arches; the friezes and the pediments by the Lombardo family.
Left wall. Below is the funeral inscription from 1688. Above it (level 2), six prophets and two evangelists. On level 3, the christological cycle. All are by Pietro Lombardo.
In 1999, the Badoer-Giustinian Chapel underwent conservation treatments, funded by the non-profit organisation “Save Venice Inc”.
Choir and Main Altar
The choir is complex, with a lateral vestibule on either side of the liturgical choir and a choir of brothers. The two are separated by the main altar and a partition. On each side, there is an apsidal chapel. On the right side of the vestibule is a picture by Palma il Giovane: “The flagellation”. Below is an icon, “Madonna dell’Umiltà”; an anonymous work of the end of the 14th century.
On the left wall, can be seen the funerary monument and the epitaph of the doge Andrea Gritti, who died in 1538; a work of the Palladian school of the mid-16th century. On the right wall is the monument of Senator Tridiano Gritti, who died in 1474.
The high altar. The design and the sculptures are attributed to Girolamo Campagna in the second half of the 16th century. Initially the two groups of four wooden columns, contained the statues of Francis of Assis and Antony of Padua. The centre has the unusual characteristic of not having an altarpiece; but a cross.
In 1649, Baltasarre Longhena was commissioned to modify the altar. Above the eight Corinthian columns, it has a cornice in the baroque style. On the pediment of the triumphal arch, the “Eternal Father” and on the sides, the “Annunciation“, in painted wood; are attributed to Girolamo Campagna.
Above: Choir and Main Altar
The Chapel Giustinian dei Vescovi
This small chapel was under the patronage of Peter of Alcántara. It was financed and dedicated to the Giustinian “dei Vescovi” (family of bishops), because this branch of the family had a good number of prelates in these ranks. The vault is decorated with stucco of the 18th century, with a central medallion “Saint Peter of Alcantara in Glory” (1765) by Francesco Fontebasso.
On either side are the stalls of the 18th century. On the right wall can be seen “The death of Peter of Alcántara” (1765), by Francesco Fontebasso, “Penance and meditation” (1789) by Francesco Maggiotto, “Peter of Alcántara and the “Queen of Spain”, (1765) by Francesco Fontebasso.
The altar displays “Francis of Assisi receiving the infant Jesus of the Virgin”; early 17th century by Sante Peranda. On the left wall can be seen “The ecstasy of Saint Peter” (1765) by Francesco Fontebasso, “The theological virtues” (1785) by Jacopo Marieschi, “Peter of Alcántara shows Teresa d’Avila the way to paradise” (1765) by Francesco Fontebasso.
Altar for the Morosini di Sbarra family
The altar features “The Enthroned Madonna and child” (c. 1478) by Antonio da Negroponte. A lunette was added to the painting later, depicting “God the Father and the Holy Ghost” (early 16th century), by Benedetto Rusconi.
The transept has a side portal called the Holy Land portal, with a monument to Domenico Trevisan; while in right wall is a portrait of “Saint Lawrence of Rome”.
Daily 8.00-12.30, 3.00-7.00.
Opening times are said to be rather unreliable at present. On my last visit in late 2019, the area was subject to improvement and reconstruction work.
To see other favourite Great Churches in the “History and Architecture” category, click the links below:
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