Madonna dell’Orto situated in the Cannaregio district, is richly decorated in beautiful artworks by Tintoretto and other significant artists.
A church and monastery were founded here around 1350 by the Umiliati order from Lombardy and initially dedicated to Saint Christopher; the patron saint of travellers and the city’s gondoliers. Fra Tiberio of Parma, the leader of the Order, who is said to have been responsible for the original design of the church; is buried here.
HISTORY AND THE ORIGINS OF ITS NAME
The naming of the church has quite a tale about it.
The Venetian sculptor Giovanni De Santi, was commissioned by the parish priest of Santa Maria Formosa; to provide a statue of the Madonna.
Apparently, he rejected the work causing the artist to temporarily place the statue in his “orto” (orchard); after which it is said that the sculpture began to emit a strange glow, especially at night and performed miracles. As the news spread, the garden became a pilgrimage destination for the citizens, in veneration of the statue.
The bishop of the Venetian cathedral requested De Santi, to place the work in a public church to avoid the proliferation of religious fanaticism and unsuitable forms of worship. Following this, the artist proposed to the friars of the newly formed church of San Cristoforo to welcome his work; provided that they accepted 3 of his conditions. Firstly, to be buried at his own expense there, a mass was celebrated his honour forever and most importantly; a large sum of money.
The friars refused on the basis of the third request, however, it was then purchased by the school of San Cristoforo and finally made its official welcome into the church in 1377; being placed on the high altar. In 1414, the sanctuary was definitively consecrated to the Madonna dell’Orto from a resolution of the Council of Ten. Since then the church has been known as Madonna dell’Orto.
After a serious subsidence in the foundations at the north end of the church, the order were given 200 ducats to rebuild. Reconstruction work from 1399 resulted in the complete redecoration of the interior and the construction of the new facade. A new and larger monastery was also built at this time.
In 1462, the Council of Ten expelled the Humiliati, because of their ‘depraved habits’, following a suppression of the order by Pius V. The administration of the church was given to the Regular Canons of San Giorgio in Alga, also known as the “Turchini” or “Celestini”; because of their blue robes. They completed the restoration work by 1473, with the completion of the facade.
Yet again, the Canons of San Giorgio were suppressed by Pope Clement IX and in 1669, Cistercians from San Tommaso on the island of Torcello moved here; administering the church until 1669.
The complex history of the convent, however, does not end here. By the late 18th century few monks were living here and the church was placed under public ownership and became the oratory of the church of San Marziale.
The church was allowed to deteriorate, with buildings being pressed into use as stables, a hay and wine store and a powder magazine until 1841; when some poor restoration was carried out under Austrian rule.
This included ripping up memorial stones, destroying the already damaged ceiling paintings, plastering over the facade and destroying the organ. It closed in 1855 but, after spending some time being used as stables, it was reconsecrated and reopened in 1868 as a parish church; by which time Venice had become part of the unified Kingdom of Italy. Finally in 1931, the church was entrusted to the Congregation of San Giuseppe di San Leonardo Murialdo.
THE EXTERIOR FACADE
The exterior facade, built in 1460–1464, has sloping sides and is in brickwork (unique in Venice), divided in three parts by the two main pilasters strips. The central section has a large rose window which illuminates the inside, whilst the two side sections have quadruple mullioned windows.
The four large pilasters stand out for their grandeur, enriched by gothic-style aedicules, containing the statues of Prudence, Charity, Faith, Hope and Temperance; including that of the central cusp.
The stylistically mixed portal is by Bartolomeo Bon, whose workshop was nearby in San Marziale and features a gothic ogee arch with a renaissance rounded arch underneath with Corinthian columns to the side. The ogee arch is surmounted by a statue of Saint Christopher, with the Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation, on either side. These statues were taken from the 14th century church, the Saint Christopher by Bon and the Virgin and the Angel by Antonio Rizzo.
The upper central section is decorated by small arches and bas-reliefs, with geometrical motifs. The upper sides have six niches each, containing statues of the Apostles; carved by the Delle Masegne brothers and are unique in Venice.
The herring-bone patterned brick pavement in front of the church, is a fairly rare survival feature.
Erected in 1332 but rebuilt with the addition of a belfry in 1503, it has a statue of the redeemer on top of the oriental-looking onion dome and apostles perched on the edges; all by the Lombardo workshop. The tower was restored in 1819, following a storm and is 56 metres (182 ft) high. The bells were replaced in 1883 and are now rung using an electro-mechanical system.
The interior is characterised by a rectangular plan without a transept. Rows of columns of wonderful striped Turkish marble with archaic capitals, retained from the original church; separate the nave from the aisles.
Dominating the space are the exquisitely chiselled wooden coffered ceiling, wooden tie beams and the polychrome floor with geometric designs that creates a perfect balance with the regularity of the top decoration. The presbytery is spectacular, crowned by a pentagonal apse.
The fame and beauty of the church are undoubtedly linked to the name of the famous painter Tintoretto who lived in the nearby Campo dei Mori. The Robusti family bequeathed to the sanctuary ten splendid works; moreover, in the left side of the apse rests the sacred remains of the artist himself.
The church is also enriched by other masterpieces, among which are the canvas depicting Saint John the Baptist among Saints Peter, Mark, Jerome and Paul, by Cima da Conegliano (1495) and the poignant Crucifixion by Palma il Giovane, made for the church of Santa Ternita, but moved here.
Left: Tintoretto’s memorial stone is in the chapel to the right of the chancel.
Of great interest are also the four funerary chapels built on the left side of the church, which house the remains of four of the most important Venetian patrician families: the Valier chapel, the Vendramin chapel, the Morosini chapel and the Contarini chapel.
The interesting historical-artistic mapping of the Venetian nobility continues on the right side with the splendid funerary monument of Girolamo Cavazza, diplomat of the Serenissima; built in 1657, to a design by Giuseppe Sardi.
Placed behind the facade above the entrance, is a splendid pipe organ built in 1878; one of the most important in Venice.
There are 10 paintings by Tintoretto here; only the Scuola Grande di San Rocco possibly beats this church for admirers of Tintoretto’s work. From 1547, this was the parish church of Jacopo Tintoretto and his family, having moved to the nearby Fondamenta dei Mori, from near San Cassiano in that year. His ashes were interred here in the 19th century, along with those of his wife and eight more family members. His memorial stone is in the chapel to the right of the chancel, which was previously the chapel of the Bonetti family; including painters Marietta and Domenico.
In the Apse, either side of the choir stalls are a monumental pair, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf” and “The Last Judgement” both thought to have been painted around 1563. They fit exactly into their spaces, as they were probably painted in situ. It is said that amongst the bearers of the Golden Calf you’ll find portraits of Giorgione, Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto himself.
In the high vault of the Apse behind the altar, “The Five Cardinal Virtues”, from c.1565 are by Tintoretto too, except the middle painting, “Faith”; which is visibly by a different 17th century artist; Pietro Ricchi from Lucca.
Directly behind the altar and each side of the “Annunciation” (1590) by Jacopo Palma il Giovane, from the church of Santa Maria Nuova of Vicenza; are “The Beheading of St Paul” and “The Vision of the Cross to St Paul”.
Over the door to the Capella di San Mauro, “The Presentation of the Virgin” is from 1553. It was painted to outshine Titian’s huge painting of the same subject in the Accademia and even emulates the older artist’s characteristic colour scheme. Apparently, Tintoretto had a mere ten days as Titian’s pupil.
The very-evident obelisk is also a steal from the Titian, but is also a not-unusual inclusion in paintings of this subject of this period, representing the sun and symbolising the triumph over death. The 15 steps represent the 15 psalms recited by pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem. This painting was once the outer doors of the organ, with the two paintings currently either side of the high altarpiece on the inside of the doors.
In the Contarini Chapel, there is a notable St. Agnes by Tintoretto.
Other Significant Artists
To the left of the main nave can be seen “God the Father in Glory” works by Tintoretto’s son Domenico and in the Morosoni Chapel, two more of his works, “Angels bearing incense” and “The Nativity and Saint Dominic”. Dominico’s paintings do not stand comparison with that of his father and in this chapel, a Palma Giovane Crucifixion in the highlight of this side of the church.
In the first chapel on the right, is Cima de Conegliano’s fine “Saint John the Baptist with Saints Peter, Mark, Jerome and Paul” (1493-5). It is rare for being in its original stone frame, attributed to Sebastiano da Milano and over its original altar; with Saint John looking for enlightenment towards the church’s window. It radiates after its 1999 restoration and is one of his finest works.
Titian’s “Tobias and the Angel” was moved here from the nearby church of San Marziale, presumably because it’s a less visited church.
Also a couple of impressive works by Matteo Ponzone. His Saints George, Jerome and Tryphon came here, from the church of the Knights of Malta.
Behind the altar, with the Tintoretto’s; the Palma Giovane “Annunciation”, is one of his more original compositions.
The miracle-working statue of the Madonna, much restored with plaster, is in the Capella di San Mauro, along with twenty-eight portraits of Venetian saints and beatified persons painted by various artists in the 17th century. In here also, is a modern portrait of “San Leonardo Murialdo”, the founder of the order which has administered this church since 1931.
Above: Palma il Giovanni “Crucifixion” in Chapel Morosini
In the Chapel Valier (first on the left) is a colour photograph (Left) of Giovanni Bellini’s small panel painting of the Virgin and Child (1480) The painting was stolen for the third time, from the church on 1st March 1993, having been restored in 1969 following its previous theft.
This chapel also had a ceiling painting of “God the Father with Angels” with panels of Musician Angels at the sides. The centre panel fell down during the late 17th century with the Musician Angels, disappearing in 1733.
All are now lost.
Pordenone’s “The Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani with two Canons and Saints Louis of Toulouse, Francis, Bernardino and John the Baptist” of 1528/32, was painted for the altar of the Renier family here; where it remained until Napoleon took it in 1797. It is now in the Accademia, returned in 1815.
Also, in the Accademia is the earlier “The Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani” of 1465, by Gentile Bellini, which was used to replace the above-mentioned Pordenone; when it was taken by Napoleon. Lorenzo Giustiniani founded the congregation of the canons called the “Turchini”, at San Giorgio in Alga in the early 15th century, the order which took over the Madonna dell’Orto in 1462.
Ruskin wrote about the artwork within Madonna dell’Orto:
“An interesting example of Renaissance Gothic, the traceries of the windows being very rich and quaint. It contains four most important Tintorets: “The Last Judgment,” “The Worship of the Golden Calf,” “The Presentation of the Virgin,” and “The Martyrdom of St. Agnes.” The first two are among his largest and mightiest works, but grievously injured by damp and neglect; and unless the traveller is accustomed to decipher the thoughts in a picture patiently, he need not hope to derive any pleasure from them. But no pictures will better reward a resolute study”.
“The figure of the little Madonna in the “Presentation” should be compared with Titian’s in his picture of the same subject in the Academy. I prefer Tintoret’s infinitely: and note how much finer is the feeling with which Tintoret has relieved the glory round her head against the pure sky, than that which influenced Titian in encumbering his distance with architecture”.
He later wrote that the whole picture his now been daubed over, – “chiefly this lovely bit of sky, and is a ghastly ruin and eternal disgrace to modern Venice. The “Martyrdom of St. Agnes” was a lovely picture. It has been “restored” since I saw it”.
Ruskin rhapsodised about the Saint John the Baptist with Saints Peter, Mark, Jerome and Paul : “the whole picture full of peace, and intense faith and hope, and deep joy in light of sky, and fruit and flower and weed of earth”
Monday to Saturday: 10.00 to 5.00
Entrance fee: €3.00
(The church is not part of the Chorus Scheme)
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