San Giorgio Maggiore

San Giorgio Maggiore is really worth a visit, to explore the beauty and tranquillity of this site; 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. The 360-degree panoramic view from its Campanile, is the finest in Venice.

Apart from the Basilica, the former monastery now houses the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, one of the most prestigious international cultural institutions. You can visit this outstanding monumental complex with a guided tour, that can be highly recommended.

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. Enjoy the extraordinary architecture of the Grand Staircase, Refectory and Library; all magnificently restored to perfection.

Finally, relax in the wonderful gardens and woods; admire the Sir Norman Foster designed Chapel and see the Glass Museum and Music Theatre.



San Giorgio Maggiore – BRIEF HISTORY

Isola di of San Giorgio Maggiore, 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.  On such occasions, the view from the campanile, shows only the highest parts of Venice’s buildings rising out of the cloud; a magical effect to witness.

However, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiori promises much more.

A short hop across the Basin by Waterbus No. 2 (vaporetto) from San Zaccaria; 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.

BelowThe old church, monastery and gardens; in the de’ Barbari map of 1500.

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 Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore 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.




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.


Left: Floor plan, showing Latin Cross construction.




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 and wide clusters of supporting Corinthian columns and pilasters. The Venetians were the first to use white stucco for church interiors.

The interior of the church is very open and has works by Tintoretto: ‘Ultima Cena’ (The Last Supper) and ‘Raccolta della Manna’ (The Fall Of Manna. The beautifully carved wooden sanctuary has been made by Albert van den Brulle from Antwerp in Belgium, together with Gasparo Gatti from Bergamo. It shows episodes from the life of Saint Benedictus.

The Facade. Another temple front, it’s a development of Palladio’s earlier design for the facade of San Francesco della Vigna. In the niches either side of the doorway are statues of the church’s two saints, Stephen and George; by Giulio del Moro from Verona. The two portrait busts commemorate Doge Tribuno Memo, who granted the land here to the Benedictines in 982 and Doge Sebastiano Ziani; a generous donor to the 13th century rebuilding. The set is completed by a central plaque, with its epigraph commemorating the 1610 completion under Doge Leonardo Doni.




Cosimo de’ Medici when he was banished from Florence and in 1433 took refuge here. He brought his architect Michelozzo with him, who designed and built a library to show Cosimo’s gratitude. This was demolished after a fire in 1614 and replaced with Longhena’s library, built in the 1640’s.

There are two cloisters. One was Giovanni Buora’s “Cloister of the Bay Trees”, begun in 1516 and completed by Buora’s son Andrea in 1540. The other is Palladio’s untypical “Cloister of the Cypresses”, begun the year before he died in 1579; but not completed until the mid- 17th century.

Suppressed in 1806, the monks were moved to Santa Giustina.

In 1808, an airship was built in the church and in 1929, the complex became a barracks and ammunitions store. In 1951 the ruined monastery was taken over and restored by art patron Count Vittorio Cini and renamed in memory of his son Giorgio; who had been killed in an air crash in 1949.


It now hosts conferences and courses and so is not generally open to the public, except when there are guided tours. Some Benedictine monks remain.



The tower is 63m (206ft) and has electromechanical bells.

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.

(My tip on entering the church, is to make for the lift for the campanile. If there is no or hardly any queue, take the lift first and visit the main church interior later).

History. The original campanile that stood in front of the church, collapsed in 1442 during a storm and was rebuilt. This tower again collapsed in 1726.

A new tower was built behind the church, in 1729 by Scalfarrotto. This one itself collapsed in 1774, killing one monk and wounding two others. It can be seen with its onion dome, in a view painting by Guardi, called “Saint Mark’s Basin with San Giorgio and the Giudecca”, now in the Accademia.

The campanile was then rebuilt in 1791 by Fra Benadetto Buratti.

In 1993 the wooden angel on the top of the campanile was struck by lightning. It now stands in front of the ticket office for the campanile. A lift takes you to the top, giving panoramic views towards San Marco and into the monastery’s cloisters.



Explore the beauty and tranquillity of this site.  The former monastery now houses the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, (photo left: to the right of basilica); 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:

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.


The Basilica in Art
Monet, Turner, Guardi, Carlevarijs, Canaletto…

The Basilica in early printed books
A Venetian edition of the Golden Legend of 1494 has an illustration depicting “The Translation of Saint Lucy to San Giorgio Maggiore”. 

A mean Ruskin wrote:
“It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard. Observe, also, that when Palladio had got his pediment at the top of the church, he did not know what to do with it; he had no idea of decorating it except by a round hole in the middle … Palladio had given up colour, and pierced his pediment with a circular cavity, merely because he had not wit enough to fill it with sculpture. The interior of the church is like a large assembly room, and would have been undeserving of a moment’s attention, but that it contains some most precious pictures”.

A just as mean Effie Ruskin wrote:
“to my mind a very corrupt form of architecture and very ugly, half Greek Temple-ish and half anything else you like, the inside heavy and unimpressive”……
Letter to her mother, 15th December 1849.

E. M. Forster wrote:
…”and then came Venice. As he landed on the piazzetta a cup of beauty was lifted to his lips, and he drank with a sense of disloyalty. The buildings of Venice, like the mountains of Crete and the fields of Egypt, stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong. …but oh these Italian churches! San Giorgio standing on the island which could scarcely have risen from the waves without it, the Salute holding the entrance of a canal which, but for it, would not be the Grand Canal”!
A Passage to India

The church in film:
“In memoria di me” (In memory of me) an Italian film released in 2007, was filmed in the monastery and the church. And very handsome they both look too, especially at night with atmospheric lighting!



Back to the History and Architecture blog post category

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This