Indulge in a real aesthetic hunt of the beautiful Venetian Gothic style
(by Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons)
The basilica of Sainte Mary the Glorious of the Frari, or “i Frari,” is the largest of the churches in Venice. It is located in the eponymous Campo Dei Frari in the San Polo district and is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary.
In 1231, under Doge Jacopo Tiepolo, Franciscan friars worked to reclaim the so-called Badoer Lake, a marshy piece of land in the contrada San Stefano Confessor (San Stin), which, with the addition of land donated by Doge Renier Zen (1253-1268), became the site where the first church dedicated to Our Lady. TheVenetians immediately called it St. Mary Dei Frari (i.e., “of the friars”), and the adjoining monastery were born. This first church, however, was already insufficient for the faithful who flocked there for Mass, so a second church was built on April 28, 1250, dedicated to Santa Maria Gloriosa, which had a large chapel and two small chapels on either side. It had three naves, was about fifty meters long, and the foundations of the apses lapped the “Frari brook” at the point where the stone bridge later built by the friars in 1428 stands.
Within about eighty years, the church was again too small, and plans were made to invert its architectural structure, turning around the apse and bringing the main elevation of the new church in the direction of the canal. Instead, the part near the rio, which was buried, was demolished, and the Frari field with the well for fresh water.
Around the year 1330 work began, supervised by Jacopo Celega and later finished by his son Pier Paolo in 1396: with three naves, a transept and seven apses. The eighth was added thanks to the generosity of Giovanni Corner in 1420, with the creation of the chapel of St. Mark.
In the years 1432-1434, Bishop Pietro Miani of Vicenza had the chapel of St. Peter built at the foot of the bell tower to be buried there when he died.
Construction of the church in the following years proceeded slowly, so much so that the facade was not finished until 1440 and the high altar consecrated in 1469, but the cornice, consisting of two fluted columns joined by an elegant entablature and surmounted by three statues, the work of Lorenzo Bregno, was not erected until 1516. The church was consecrated on May 27, 1492, to the name of Santa Maria Gloriosa. New impetus was given to the construction and decoration of the church by the Pesaro family, to whom the sacristy was granted in 1478 as a family chapel and burial place: the ninth apse, polygonal in shape, was erected; the high altar, later decorated by the altarpiece with Titian’s celebrated Assumption, was finished; and in the side aisle the Pesaro altar with the altarpiece of the same name. In the 19th century the Franciscans were removed from the church, which was returned to them only in 1922.
In general, the basilica, in the shape of a Latin cross, is characterised by a “Franciscan” style because, despite its imposing size (102 meters high, 32 meters wide), it has no spires, pinnacles or flying buttresses, so that it is simple and essential in its lines and decoration.
The splendid facade of the basilica is tripartite, with pillars reduced to simple pilasters in the late Gothic style. We find in it the typical materials of Venetian Gothic: terracotta and Istrian stone. In the central part above the portal at the top of the ogival arch rests the Risen Christ by Alessandro Vittoria (1581), while, on the left, stands the Virgin and Child and, on the right, St. Francis, statues by Bartolomeo Bon (shortly after 1430) and in the “lunette” is an almost illegible fresco by Gaetano Zompini (18th cent.) depicting the Immaculate among angels. Corresponding to the naves are three circular rose windows in white Istrian stone. The one on the left, white, bears in its carved frame the lion of Venice and the fleur-de-lis of Florence to indicate the interior chapel of the Florentines; the one on the right, somewhat smaller and bichromatic, bears carved the figure of St. Anthony, signalling the presence of an old chapel inside of the same name.
On the side, we find the Romanesque-style bell tower, 70 meters high (the tallest in Venice after St. Mark’s). It was begun by the Venetian Jacopo Celega (1361) and finished by his son Pier Paolo in 1396. The interior has two canes, linked by a ramp that was used to bring up the material for construction; they are like two bell towers, one inside the other, lightened, the one inside, by large round-headed windows, while small single-lancet windows let in tenuous light inside. It is all terracotta except for the white stones dividing the three orders, the columns, the arches of the belfry, and the small columns of the loggia above.
In 1490 it was damaged by lightning and modified in the terminal spire still present: instead of the lead pyramid, similar to that of St. Mark’s bell tower, the present polygonal drum crowning was built.
Twelve mighty columns, symbolic of the apostles, support the “sky” of the basilica, formed by beams, ribs, keystones with figures, sails and ogives, which intertwine, surpass and chase each other harmoniously. In the shape of a Latin cross, the church has three naves with a transept. The six apsidal chapels, with a polygonal plan, span the entire transept, while the aisles are divided from the central one by six pairs of large pillars crowned by capitals, in two orders with hooked leaves, on which the ribbed cross vaults are set. The fifth pair, at the entrance to the chancel, has trefoil piers. In the central apse, circular piers are replaced by elegant multi-step pillars. The impression of height is mitigated by the double order of wood-clad “chains,” while spaciousness is delimited by the presence of the artistic chancel placed in the centre of the church.
Inside there are 17 monumental altars and many works of art, including two paintings by Titian. It also houses tombs and funerary monuments of numerous personalities associated with Venice, including Claudio Monteverdi, Titian himself, Antonio Canova, as well as numerous doges.
This concludes our walk to discover the typical features of the Venetian Gothic style, which characterises most Venetian buildings, secular and religious. Summing up, we could say that sinuous and light forms define it with imaginative and articulated (but not “loaded”) shapes. Usually, the materials adored are terracotta and Istrian stone, which create the typical alternation between red brick and white. Especially catching the eye of the passerby are the facades of the buildings, which are particularly well-kept and decorated to compensate for the usually simple architectural structure, also due to structural reasons. Finally, we also tried to understand when and how this style, which contributed to making Venice so unique, came about.
What really sets this city apart is the fact that the facades of the buildings themselves represent a beauty that is accessible to all and makes Venice an open-air museum.
For those who feel like continuing their visit and hunting for Gothic facades, the following are a few pointers, but there are certainly many more: palace Dandolo, palace Pesaro – Papafava, palace Ariani, palace Garzoni, palace Barbaro in San Vidal and palace Soranzo.