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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice

What is San Giorgio Maggiore?

The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore is a 16th-century Benedictine church designed by Andrea Palladio that was an important seat of learning in the Middle Ages.

San Giorgio Maggiore

San Giorgio Maggiore History

San Giorgio Maggiore is one of the most exquisite churches in Venice, proudly standing guard over the entrance to the Grand Canal. This tiny island (from which the church derives its name) was once occupied by a Benedictine monastery after Abbot Giovanni Morosini successfully asked a 10th-century doge to grant it to his order. Before the Napoleonic suppression and plunder of the Venetian monasteries, San Giorgio Maggiore was favoured by humanist scholars, and became a renowned centre for learning. It was also one of the richest monasteries in Venice, no doubt in part due to its closeness to the doge, whose palace overlooked the complex. The monastery welcomed notable guests such as Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I and the exiled Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo de’ Medici, who gifted the monks a splendid wooden library that was later destroyed by a fire. Today, it’s still an oasis of peace, offering a glorious view of the bustling Grand Canal.

However, the first church on the island pre-dated the monks’ arrival. Built in the 8th century, it was dedicated to Saint George, the warrior saint who acted as the guard and patron of the Grand Canal. It was built at the behest of the Venetian authorities and rebuilt several times subsequently. The present building was largely the work of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who worked on the entire complex from 1565 till his death 15 years later. He didn’t witness the completion of the project, however, and the façade was completed by Simone Sorella in the early 17th century. While Rome was occupied by French troops in 1799, San Giorgio Maggiore had the distinction of being chosen as the place where the conclave gathered to elect Pope Pius VII (a rare privilege indeed).

Palladio’s Neoclassical church, with its temple-inspired façade covered in dazzling white Istrian stone, is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Either side of the main doorway stand two statues in niches: Saint George on the right and Saint Stephen on the left. Stephen’s body was transported here from Constantinople in the 12th century, and from that date on the monks added his name to the church’s dedication. Henceforth the doge and his entourage of high-ranking officials would make two additional annual visits to the church: a candlelit procession on Christmas Day to celebrate the miracles of Saint Stephen and a visit on the 26th of December (his official feast day), when the ducal procession would pay their respects to his treasured relics.

Within the bright interior, Palladio’s design manages to trick the eye of the spectator, conveying the impression of a longer building. The illusion is reinforced by the large central space, separated by high columns, with an elegant dome right at the centre. Flanking the High Altar, you’ll find two dramatic and brilliant late works by Jacopo Tintoretto, including The Last Supper, his final depiction of the famous scene. The artistic masterpiece of the monastery was its refectory, built by Palladio and once decorated with the monumental The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese. Its huge size (approximately seven metres by ten) was meant to reflect the dimensions of its surroundings, the result of close collaboration between two masterminds of the Renaissance. Unfortunately, it was later stolen by French troops, who had to cut the painting into pieces to send it to Paris, where it’s currently on display at the Louvre.

Exploring the rest of the complex is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the peaceful atmosphere of the place. The two cloisters are superb, as well as the labyrinth in which to lose yourself, dedicated to the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Before you leave, make sure you head up to the campanile (or bell tower), from which you’ll enjoy panoramic views over the glistening lagoon.

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