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 is one of the best examples of the early Venetian Renaissance, including a covering of fine coloured marble on all four sides, a false colonnade (pilasters) on the exterior walls and a large semi-circular pediment. It was the first church since the Basilica of San Marco to be so completely covered with marble and all four sides can be seen.
It’s also probably the earliest example of superimposed orders of pilasters (different on the lower and upper levels) in Venice. The large semi-circular gable echoes the barrel-vault inside.
Unlike many other churches in the city, which over time have been modified to different period styles, the church of Miracoli is essentially original. It was designed, built and decorated by Pietro Lombardo, his sons and workshop; perhaps at the most in two close phases.
The “Save Venice” organisation, after conducting several years of preliminary research; fully restored the church over a seven year period between 1990 and 1997.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli Left: front facade Right: rear facade
The church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli was originally built to house a small miraculous image of the Virgin and Child painted around 1409; that was traditionally attributed to Nicolò di Pietro, but revised more recently to Zanino di Pietro.
Commissioned by Francesco Amadi, the painting was displayed outdoors on the wall of his home where it became a popular votive image for those who lived in the neighbourhood. Over seventy years later, 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 such a structure.
Pietro Lombardo was commissioned and contracted by Angelo Amadi, a nephew of Francesco; to begin construction in 1481.
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.
A year into the building work it was decided to remove the church from parish control and hand it over to an order of nuns, so the Amadi family house nearby was given to the Franciscan Order of Poor Clares and ran by twelve nuns who came from the convent of Santa Chiara on Murano.
Above: The Convent building on the right, opposite the church.
The facade, with the original semi-circular front adorned by rose windows, was realised on two orders of arcades carved in marble, and the cylindrical roofing, perfectly enclose the volume of the church. The arrangement in the underlining of the spaces, throughout pillar sheets of different colours and cornices, suggest a Florentine Renaissance style, but the decoration of the chromatism clearly responds to a Venetian taste.
The arms of the Amadi family are to be seen over the door
The marbles and stones used on the exterior are Pavonazzo (white with black and grey veining), Broccatello Rosso (pale red), Verona marble (deep red), Porphyry (purple), Verd Antique (dull, dark green), Alabastro a Pecorella (little sheep alabaster) (red) and Serpentine (dark green).
The space consists of a single nave, a wooden barrel vault and a chancel up a steep flight of steps, raised so that everyone can see the venerated image of the Virgin.
There is a domed apse above and the sacristy is underneath the chancel. There are no columns to complicate the space and add rhythm, and no great paintings. It’s not just the details that appeal, it’s simply the perfectly-proportioned whole; as you are enclosed by the polychrome marble patterns and porphyry and admire the fine carving skills of the Lombardi. It’s reminiscent of San Miniato in Florence, but so much smaller. Some have described the interior as an exquisite “jewel box”!
Above the entrance is still preserved the old wooden choir stalls (barco) of the nuns from the adjacent convent to the right. Until the 19th century a nuns’ passageway (to be seen in the two old prints), linked the church’s gallery to the nearby convent, which was also the work of the Lombardi; but which was almost totally destroyed in 1810.
The railings of the staircase up to the chancel have small statues of The Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel, and Saints Francis and Clare, all by Pietro’s son Tulio Lombardo.
The miracle-working painting of The Virgin and Child by Niccolo di Pietro is above the altar. On either side of the altar are bronze statues of Saint Peter and Saint Anthony Abbot. They are by Vittoria, who was a pupil of the Lombardi and are the only later additions to their work.
The ceiling features fifty square panels depicting mostly Old Testament prophets, patriarchs, kings and others. The pendentives are Sibyls (east side) and Old Testament Heroines (west side). They are all by Pier Maria Pennacchi and assistants and date to just before 1515.
Until the 19th century a nuns’ passageway (to be seen in the old print below) linked the church’s gallery (barco) to the nearby convent which was also the work of the Lombardi, but which was almost totally destroyed in 1810.
The paintings on the underside of the barco are attributed to Marco Vecellio, Titian’s nephew, and dated to the 1580’s or 90’s. The main subjects are The Virgin and Child, Saint Francis and Saint Clare, the last two reflecting the order occupying the convent.
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 façade, and extensive repairs were made to the church pews. The campaign concluded with the conservation of the bells in the campanile.
Above: “The Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and the apse of Santa Maria Nuova” by Bernardo Bellotto
The restoration was calculated to cost about a Euro 1 million, however the final cost may have escalated by four-fold the initial estimate.
Left: The exterior showing the terrible state of the marble before restoration.
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: Note the bridge between the church and convent, destroyed in 1820.
The Church in films and art
Orson Welles’ 1951 film version of Othello, sets the wedding of Desdemona and Othello in this church.
“The Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and the apse of Santa Maria Nuova” by Bernardo Bellotto (see above). Also, “Santa Maria dei Miracole e Santa Maria Nova” by Ippolito Caffi.
There are two small paintings of the rear of the Miracoli, one called “A Market Scene“, by James Holland in the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight. He painted quite a few versions of the same scene (similar to Bellotto’s) in oil and watercolour, one of which was owned by John Ruskin’s father.
Ruskin was less impressed with the church and wrote:
“The most interesting and finished example in Venice of the Byzantine Renaissance, and one of the most important in Italy of the cinque-cento style. All its sculptures should be examined with great care, as the best possible examples of a bad style. Observe, for instance, that in spite of the beautiful work on the square pillars which support the gallery at the west end, they have no more architectural effect than two wooden posts. The same kind of failure in boldness of purpose exists throughout; and the building is, in fact, rather a small museum of unmeaning, though refined sculpture, than a piece of architecture. Its grotesques are admirable examples of the base Raphaelesque design examined above. Note especially the children’s heads tied up by the hair, in the lateral sculptures at the top of the altar steps. A rude workman, who could hardly have carved the head at all, might have been allowed this or any other mode of expressing discontent with his own doings: but the man who could carve a child’s head so perfectly must have been wanting in all human feeling, to cut it off, and tie it by the hair to a vine leaf. Observe, in the Ducal Palace, though far ruder in skill, the heads always emerge from the leaves, they are never tied to them“.
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