Santa Maria dei Miracoli
Santa Maria dei Miracoli, is an exquisite small church in the eastern part of the Cannaregio district. Also known as the “marble church”, it is a very special church, both from a historical-artistic perspective and a sentimental viewpoint for many Venetians; being a popular wedding venue. It houses a remarkable votive image of the Madonna and Child.
It is one of the best examples of the early Venetian Renaissance and was the first church since the Basilica of San Marco to be so completely covered with marble. Unusually all four sides can be seen.
It was designed, built and decorated by Pietro Lombardo, his sons and workshop.
The “Save Venice” organisation, after conducting several years of preliminary research; fully restored the church over a seven year period between 1990 and 1997.
Left: front facade featuring the marvelous cluster of rose windows, with the barrel-vaulted roof mirrored by the top facade.
Right: rear facade view, with the dome, allowing the raised chancel and altar, with the sacristy below. This allowed everyone to see the Madonna’s image from within.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli – History
On this site, a small wooden chapel was built to house a small miraculous image of the Virgin and Child, painted around 1409. It was traditionally attributed to Nicolò di Pietro, but revised more recently to Zanino di Pietro.
Commissioned by Francesco Amadi, the painting was originally displayed outdoors, on the wall of his home; where it became a popular votive image for those who lived in the neighbourhood. Soon after, miracles began to be credited to the image.
Both religious and political officials agreed that a small chapel should be built to house the painting and thanks to offerings left by those who visited the miraculous Madonna and Child; funds were available to build the chapel.
Later in 1481, Pietro Lombardo, his sons and their workshop, were commissioned and contracted by Angelo Amadi; a nephew of Francesco, to begin construction of a new church.
In 1485, Pope Sixtus IV issued a papal bull, granting permission for a larger church to be built in honour of this Madonna. He also ordered that a convent be built at this location, adjacent to the church. Pietro Lombardo received a new contract to expand the modest chapel to a church.
The parish handed over control a to an order of nuns and the Amadi family house, to the right of the church; was given to the Franciscan Order of Poor Clares.
It was run by twelve nuns, moved from the convent of Santa Chiara on Murano. The church was finally consecrated, on 31st December 1489.
Above: The Convent building on the right, originally the Amadi family house.
It was the first church since the Basilica of San Marco to be completely covered with marble and unusually, all four sides can be seen (one from the canal). The arms of the Amadi family are to be seen over the door.
The facade, with the original semi-circular front pediment adorned by rose windows, is set on two orders of different carved marble pilasters and features arcade windows. The cylindrical roofing, perfectly encloses the volume of the church. This arrangement is suggestive of a Florentine Renaissance style, but the decoration and chromatism; clearly indicates Venetian taste. Externally the church appears to look bigger than it really is.
The space consists of a single nave with no columns, decorated with pink, white and grey marble. The superb wooden barrel vault (photo below), consists of gilded wooden coffers and fifty-two panels; that are decorated with the prophets, patriarchs and kings, by Pier Maria Pennachi.
The raised chancel and high altar (photo below), is accessed by a rather steep flight of steps; designed so that everyone below, can see the votive image of the Virgin. There is a domed apse above and the sacristy is underneath the chancel. The railings of the staircase have small statues of The Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel, and Saints Francis and Clare, by Pietro’s son Tulio Lombardo.
The high altar, where the original votive image is displayed, is decorated with sculptures by Tullio Lombardo, Alessandro Vittoria, and Girolamo Campagna.
Above the front entrance, are the old wooden choir stalls (barco); used by the nuns from the adjacent convent to the right of the church. Until the 19th century a nuns’ passageway, also by the Lombardi’s (seen in the old print below), linked the church’s gallery to the nearby convent. It was destroyed around 1810.
Most of the significant artworks have long been removed and are either lost, in the Accademia, or elsewhere.
Whilst some have described the interior as an exquisite “jewel box”; its foremost the perfectly-proportioned and decorated whole that attracts and resonates. You are enclosed in a world of polychrome marble patterns and porphyry and admiration the fine carving skills of the Lombardi.
Left: Votive image of the Virgin and Child
The “Save Venice” conservation program
After funding several years of preliminary research, to determine the exact nature of the building’s damage and decay; a comprehensive treatment of the church began in 1990.
Simultaneously working on the marble sheeting and sculptural decoration of both the building’s exterior and interior; restorers systematically desalinated and cleaned the church’s stonework from 1990 to 1997.
Another major aspect of the campaign, was the conservation of the coffered ceiling with its fifty-two wooden panels depicting saints and prophets and the discovery of frescoes of sibyls in the spandrels, near the ceiling.
Nearly every element of the church was examined and treated, including the intarsia doors in the presbytery, the bronze statuary and candelabra of the high altar and the wooden panel of the miraculous Madonna from which the church gets its name.
A water-tight rose window was installed on the facade, and extensive repairs were made to the church pews. The campaign concluded, with the conservation of the bells in the campanile.
The restoration was initially calculated to cost about a Euro 1 million; however, the final cost may have escalated by four-fold the estimate.
For Further Reading:
The Miracoli restoration is documented in “Santa Maria dei Miracoli: History, Architecture and Restoration” edited by Mario Piana and Wolfgang Wolters and published by the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in 2003, with partial funding from Save Venice.
Left: The exterior showing the terrible state of the marble before restoration.
Above: “The Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and the apse of Santa Maria Nuova” by Bernardo Bellotto
Above: Engraving. Antonio Lazzari c.1830. Note the bridge between the church and convent, destroyed in c.1810.
Above: Engraving. Luca Carlevaris 1703
Details from the sculptural decoration – L: externally above main entrance door. M and R: interior.
Pietro Lombardo, (born c.1435, Carona, duchy of Milan – died June 1515, Venice), leading sculptor and architect of Venice in the late 15th century, known for his significant contribution to the Renaissance building in that city. His sons, Tullio and Antonio, were both respected sculptors of the time; often working together in the family workshop.
Lombardo’s early work shows a Florentine influence, but his mature style is clearly affected by Northern ideas. His first known work was the Monument of Antonio Roselli (1464–67) in the Church of San Antonio in Padua, where he also designed the Casa Olzignan.
About 1467, he moved to Venice, where he spent the remainder of his life, producing numerous monuments and buildings.
Two of Lombardo’s most significant tombs in Venice are in the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo: the Malipiero Monument (c. 1463) and the Doge Pietro Mocenigo Monument (c. 1476–81).
Lombardo was architect and chief sculptor for the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (1481–89), which is considered one of the finest Renaissance buildings in Venice. In 1482, he executed the tomb of Dante in Ravenna and in 1485 began work on his most distinguished monument, the Zanetti tomb in the cathedral at Treviso, for which most of the carving was done by Tullio and Antonio. From 1498 until 1515, he served as master mason of the Doges’ Palace in Venice.
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