Today has been so cold! It was exciting to wake to a white-coated Venice; the snow had fallen softly and evenly during the night, but it was below freezing in the morning and the trodden-down snow very quickly turned to ice. Fortunately the sun eventually melted much of it, but it was still cold: all those chequerboard Veronese-pink-and-Istrian-white marble floors freeze your feet.
Today focussed on Venetian scuole. With the patricians keeping all the government roles to themselves, the cittadini – merchants and suchlike, some of them fabulously rich – were at a loose end, particularly after 1297, when electoral laws were changed to keep power in patrician hands. From the thirteenth century onwards, lay confraternities were formed amongst the cittadini for religious worship and charitable works. They were initially composed of members dedicated to a particular saint or religious practice (self-flagellation anyone?), but later they were also based around trades or national groups. They were divided into six scuole grande and numerous scuole piccole. Their charitable works spread across the city until they became a kind of general welfare service. (I guess that in such a crowded city with the threat of yet another outbreak of plague, you really couldn’t ignore your fellow human.) Napoleon closed down all the scuole with two exceptions.
The first visit was to the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
where Titian (who died of the plague), Canova (or at least his heart) and Monteverdi are buried. It’s a Franciscan church: an enormous space for ministering to people. The rood/choir screen is original, and it frames perfectly Titian’s Assumption (notice horizontal composition and a High Renaissance heroic figures, swot).
I first visited the Frari in 2009, and I recall being bowled over by seeing such paintings in the place where they belong (those steps in the Pesaro Madonna, for example: you are seeing them at the proper angle). Moreover, I entered the church not knowing what I was going to see, and I was immediately struck by the two Pesaro commissions. There’s a quality to them that sets them apart from the other daubs.
Next stop was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (one that Napoleon didn’t close down), established 1478:
Its upper hall is a version of the council chamber in the doge’s palace. The paintings are by Tintoretto and his workshop; I was unimpressed. I was much more taken by the wood carvings by Francesco Pianta. It’s difficult to reconcile the purpose of this scuola – tending to plague victims, of whom San Rocco/Saint Roch is the patron – with all this grandeur. Goodness knows the proportions of the mixture of self-aggrandisement and pious reminder of charitable purposes that all this represents.
What was interesting to consider was the extent to which Tintoretto, Titian and other Renaissance painters manipulate the viewer’s emotions. The quiet lines and careful detail of Byzantine-style paintings ask for concentration and contemplation, but Tintoretto’s Crucifixion is as confusingly, loudly dramatic as any Hollywood blockbuster:
Then came the palate-cleansing church of il Redentore. It’s by Andrea Palladio, completed 1592, and was built as a votive church in thanksgiving for the ending of another plague outbreak. It was never designed as a preaching church or for congregations; it was really only for an annual procession from San Marco on a pontoon bridge across the Giudecca canal, so it should have been much squarer than it actually is. (In fact, it looks very square thanks to Palladio’s trompe l’oeil effect; when you see it side on you realise how long the nave is.) It had to be elongated to accommodate all the altars required for the Capuchin friars who took care of the church. (Rather like Fountains Abbey and the chapel of nine altars.)
And finally the (by then) comparatively modest and homely Scuola [piccola] di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (also spared by Napoleon):
It was the scuola of the Dalmatians resident in Venice. The ground-floor paintings are by Vittorio Carpaccio; they are meticulously detailed story-telling. Upstairs it’s almost like a room decorated in folk art, as if the Dalmatians were nostalgic for familiar decoration, and it was a very different experience from San Rocco.
So, an exhausting but very interesting day. There were also a couple of incidental thoughts. One of our group is a retired Roman Catholic VIP, and I wondered how these churches and institutions would appear to him. I see them only as interesting manifestations of human society and history. As he quietly genuflected in front of the altar at il Redentore, I had a glimpse of how devotion or gratitude to a particular saint could have the power to bring people together in his or her service. There is so much that one can easily mock about religion (as I have with my aside about self-flagellation), but respect for others is more important than a quick chuckle.
And the other thought came to me in the Frari and was reinforced in San Rocco; our study group is only one of dozens roaming around. We are as much a recognisable holiday cliché as selfie-taking Chinese tourists or stag parties.