Indulge in a real aesthetic hunt of the beautiful Venetian Gothic style
(by Marc Ryckaert, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons)
The Church Madonna Dell’orto is a religious building located in the sestiere of Cannaregio. The church is named after St. Christopher but is commonly known as “of the Our Lady of Madonna dell’Orto”.
The church was built by the congregation of the Humiliated in the mid-14th century, who came to Venice under the leadership of their Superior General Friar Tiberio de’ Tiberi from Parma, who is buried in the church itself. It was dedicated to God, the Blessed Virgin and St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers and ferrymen, a choice probably suggested by the church’s location near the lagoon and the islands facing the mainland.
The popular name, on the other hand, by which it is commonly known, derives from the belief that the statue of the Virgin placed in it was miraculous. In fact, it is said that the statue was sculpted by Giovanni De Santi and commissioned by the parish priest of Santa Maria Formosa, who, not finding it to his liking, rejected it while it was still being made. The sculptor temporarily placed the unfinished statue made of soft stone in the garden of his house. Shortly thereafter, the sculptor’s wife noticed that the statue was giving off strange glows during the night. The news soon spread throughout the city, and the place became a place of pilgrimage. Following the occurrence of several miracles and the consequent increase in popular veneration, the bishop of St. Peter of Castle induced De Santi to move the statue inside his house or a church to avoid improper forms of worship. The artist, therefore, offered it to the friars of St. Christopher’s with three requests: that he be buried at his own expense in front of the place where the statue would be placed, that a suffrage mass was celebrated for him in perpetuity, and that he be paid a large sum of money.
The friars granted the first two requests, but needing to be in a suitable financial condition to purchase the statue, the school of St. Christopher intervened and bought it for the sum of 150 ducats. On June 18, 1377, the figure was solemnly transported to the church. The building rested on weak foundations, so, in 1399, major rebuilding was begun, financed also by two hundred gold ducats allocated by the Major Council on November 11 of that year.
In 1414 the Council of Ten granted the church the official use of the name ” Our Lady of Madonna dell’Orto”, which was already established at the popular level. In 1462 the Humiliati were driven out, and the church was assigned to the pious congregation of the Canons Regular of San Giorgio in Alga. When this was suppressed (1668), the church convent passed to the Congregation of Cistercian Monks from the Abbey of St. Thomas of Burgundy. In 1787 the Cistercians also ceased their activities there, and the church became public administration with a rector and some priests at its head. In 1810 it was declared an oratory of St. Martial, and in 1841 the Austrian government ordered its general restoration at its own expense. Restoration of the facade took place in 1845, work on the rest of the building was begun in 1855 but was not completed. The church was then given to the military, which made it a straw and wine storehouse. In 1864 restoration work was resumed and completed in 1869.
The church is undoubtedly one of the emblematic sites of Venetian Gothic architecture. The facade and cloister are from the four-year period 1460-1464, with statues from the late 15th century. From the same period is the domed bell tower, finished in 1503. The interior is embellished with several paintings by Jacopo Robusti known as Tintoretto, now buried in the right aisle, and of which the contract, dated May 14, 1565, is still preserved. The field in front of the church also has unique features: it is one of the few remaining in Venice, with the traditional terracotta brick pavement, placed in a herringbone pattern.
The salient brick façade tripartite by two thick pilasters, much more prominent than the alter wings, reflects in its lines the partitioning of the interior. It is one of the most beautiful and attractive in Venice, especially for the expedient; back then very innovative and one unique remaining of the city’s courses of niches with statues of apostles framing the wings. This is supposed to be an ornamental refinement shortly after the church was built, and it is assumed that the statues are all the work of various Tuscan sculptors already active in St. Mark’s.
Also characteristic is the alternation of white stone and pink marble present both on the framing of the large open Gothic floral pierced windows on the two wings (redone faithfully following the models in the 1842-1843 restorations) and on the two vertically aligned rose windows in the centre as well as on the portal. The large rose window was designed by Bartolomeo Bon, as was the portal, conceived at the expense and care of the School of St. Christopher in 1460 but finished posthumously in 1483. The portal, developed around a squared opening, presents us with a crescendo of refined mouldings: the inner edge is bordered with a twisted motif while at the edges of the jamb is a herringbone motif enriched with iterated symbols of St. Christopher. The whole is enclosed a first white and pink mixed-line frame with a notched border. The complex is defined on the sides by two columns set against the wall by Corinthian-style capitals. The capitals and corbels corresponding to the barbed motif support a cornice/archway with plant motifs. Above is a succession of arches: a round arch, echoing the two-tone and mouldings of the piers below, surrounds another enclosing a porphyry lunette, the whole culminating in an inflected arch flamed with plant curlicues.
Finishing the decoration are the three summit statues: in the center St. Christopher emerges above the rose window, and at the sides, above polygonal piers with the symbol of St. Christopher, the Virgin Mary Announced and the Archangel Gabriel.
It should be mentioned that the symbols of St. Christopher are legacies of the Humiliati: these are the Greek letter Χ in the beginning of “Χριστόφορος” (Christopher) and a palm tree (or the leaves) that refer to the passage from the Palms “The righteous flourishes like palm trees” (Ps. 91:13).
At the apex of the framing of the central body, nestled between the three-lobed hanging arches, an additional bas-relief can be seen: it is a tondo with the Virgin and Child supported by angels, presumably the work of Giovanni Bon or his milieu.
Above the pilasters and on the spire of the facade are five tall Gothic aedicules, which, remaining empty until the 19th century, were supplemented with 18th-century statues representing Prudence, Charity, Faith, Hope, and Temperance, taken from the demolished church of Santo Stefano in Murano.
The basilica has three naves, with double-framed pointed arches supported by massive Greek marble columns, some of them monolithic. It has a rectangular plan with no transept; at the back is the presbytery with a splendid polygonal apse. The walls are entirely finished with a regal (“faux ammattonato”) texture.
What makes this church world famous are the ten canvases by Jacopo Tintoretto, who lived and worked in the nearby Campo Dei Mori and whose remains now rest in the apsidal chapel of the left aisle. In addition to these marvellous works, the church holds other masterpieces, including a Crucifixion by Palma the Younger from the demolished church of Santa Ternita, and St. John the Baptist between Saints Peter, Mark, Jerome and Paul, a masterpiece by Cima da Conegliano executed between 1493 and 1495.
On the left side, unlike the right side, limited by the presence of the cloister, the only surviving element of the convent, four funerary chapels of some important families have been opened. Starting from the entrance, one first encounters the Valier chapel of refined Renaissance architecture. The chapel housed a small but fascinating Madonna and Child by Giovanni Bellini, dating from 1480, which was stolen in 1993. Next are the Vendramin Chapel and the Morosini Chapel, in Gothic style by architects Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon. Finally, closing the sequence is the elegant Contarini chapel, where the funerary busts of six members of this family are preserved. The busts are placed on plinths on which as many touchstones bear engraved epigraphs; they are placed above an elegant yet simple architectural framing consisting of aedicules arranged three per wall, limited by slender Corinthian columns and surmounted by tympanums.
On the right side of the church are located the side altars and an important funerary monument that Girolamo Cavazza (1588-1681), a diplomat in the service of the Republic of Venice, had built for himself in 1657 after being admitted to the Patriziato.
The ceiling is wooden coffered, the work of the 1931 restoration, but inspired by that of the nearby cloister in the typical style of Gothic buildings of the time.