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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of Santa Maria Formosa in Venice

What is Santa Maria Formosa?

Santa Maria Formosa is a 15th-century church that was designed by Mauro Codussi and built on a site chosen by Saint Magnus in the 7th century.

Santa Maria Formosa

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Santa Maria Formosa History

The Lombards were a Germanic people who ruled over much of Italy from the 6th century onwards. By the 7th century, these invaders from the north had largely adopted the Christian beliefs and customs of their Roman subjects, but tensions between pagans and Catholics could still spark conflict.

In the 630s, Saint Magnus, Bishop of Oderzo (a town about 70 kilometres northeast of Venice), must have fallen out with his pagan neighbours because he took refuge in the remote islands of the Venetian Lagoon. Given his Germanic first name, it’s possible that the bishop had Lombard ancestry himself. During his time here, Magnus founded no fewer than eight of Venice’s earliest churches. One of these is Santa Maria Formosa, which translates as ‘Buxom Saint Mary’s’. This strange and somewhat surprising name comes from a divine vision that inspired him in AD 639. A voluptuous apparition of the Blessed Virgin instructed him to build a church under a white cloud in Venice – and so he did.

The original church would have been a modest wooden structure, with a thatched roof and a Greek-cross layout (where all four arms are of equal length). It became the parish church of the guild of cabinetmakers, whose heroic legacy, along with the cult of Saint Mary, has played a significant role in the life of Santa Maria Formosa over the centuries.

In the year 943, the annual Festa delle Marie was in full swing in the streets and alleyways of Venice. Twelve betrothed girls from poor families had been chosen for a special blessing ahead of their wedding. In an act of charity by the state, a calculated gesture to appease the lower classes, these girls were placed under the patronage of the city’s wealthiest families. The girls’ benefactors would prepare them for married life with a substantial dowry, to be presented to them in wooden boxes as part of the festival. But during the celebrations, the young women were abducted – along with their dowries – by a group of pirates, and ferried away to the horror of the watching crowds. A valiant group of cabinetmakers quickly came to their rescue. The women were brought back alive, while their abductors were killed and thrown into the sea. Venetians believed this rescue to be an intercession by the Virgin herself, and so the heroes of the story – the local artisans – were rewarded with an annual visit to their church, Santa Maria Formosa, by the doge of Venice, along with a symbolic procession of twelve young women.

Santa Maria Formosa was rebuilt and redesigned in the late 15th century by Mauro Codussi, with the two façades and the charming bell tower added slightly later. Codussi preserved the Greek-cross layout of the original church when he gave it this lovely Renaissance form. Within the slightly disorientating but bright interior, you’ll find a glorious altarpiece by Jacopo Palma il Vecchio and a delightful triptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini.

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