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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice

What is Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari?

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is a basilica in Venice that was founded in the 13th century and is known as ‘the Frari’. It boasts the largest altarpiece in the city which was painted by Titian.

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

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Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari History

In the Veneto-Byzantine tradition most churches served small individual parishes. Then the mendicant orders from central Italy arrived in the region: the Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians. With them came imported timber, confraternities, palaces, and vast churches. The Dominicans (or Preacher Friars) founded the enormous Santi Giovanni e Paolo in 1246. The Augustinians built Santo Stefano in the 13th and 14th centuries in the sestiere (or district) of San Marco. But the largest and most refined of these gargantuan Gothic edifices is the Franciscan (or Order of Friars Minor) Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, simply known as ‘the Frari’.

The church, dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is an imposing mass of exposed brick. It’s now decorated with Renaissance masterpieces in painting and sculpture, and contains a variety of funerary monuments, yet still retains its medieval Gothic magnificence. A church was founded here in 1250, but work didn’t commence on the present building for another 80 years. By 1391, the choir, transepts (the arms of the cross shape) and campanile (or bell tower) were erected – the bell tower remains the second-tallest after the one in St Mark’s Square. The altar was then consecrated in the mid-15th century and the entire church – over 100 metres in length – in 1492. The Frari and the Dominican Santi Giovanni e Paolo bear some striking resemblances. In part, they both emulate and surpass their orders’ Florentine churches. Constructed at similar times, they reflect Dominican—Franciscan rivalry. The Frari, however, with its unified brick, swooping curves and exquisite Gothic doorway, excels in its architectural harmony.

Inside, the mighty columns and long beams frame, and immediately draw the eye to, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, completed in 1518. It’s an enormous artwork; at nearly seven metres in length, it’s the largest altarpiece in all of Venice. Between the blue sky of Earth and the stunning golden Heavens rises a shocked-looking Mary, draped in deep, intoxicating red. This incredible display of drama, movement and colour consolidated Titian’s place as a worthy rival to Michelangelo and Raphael.

Another of Titian’s works in the Frari is the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro, located in the left aisle. Again, colour and composition are skilfully combined to draw the eye and tell a story. Unusually, the Madonna and Child are not the viewer’s central focus. Instead, they are set to one side and higher up, part of a compositional triangle. As you look down from the foreboding columns there is Saint Peter dressed in shimmering blue before a soldier holding aloft the standard of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI. Humiliated by their defeat, his captives hide their faces. This clever painting is really depicting the triumph of the Pesaro family, with Bishop Jacopo Pesaro and his brother depicted kneeling on either side of Saint Peter. Jacopo, Titian’s patron, had commanded the Venetian fleet to victory at the Greek island of Santa Maura (present-day Lefkada) in 1502. The painting’s dynamic composition celebrates the raised profile of the Pesaro family.

Another masterpiece of the church is Giovanni Bellini’s triptych in the Sacristy painted in the late 15th century. It was commissioned to commemorate Franceschina Pesaro, who died in 1478 and is buried in the Frari. The four saints shown surrounding the Madonna – Nicholas of Bari, Peter, Mark, and Benedict – bear the same names as Franceschina’s sons and husband.

Before you leave, make sure not to miss the pyramidic mausoleum of celebrated Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, erected by his pupils in 1827. The marble tomb was actually based on Canova’s own design for Titian’s funerary monument (a project that was never completed due to a lack of funds). Opposite this, on the right aisle, you’ll find the monument eventually erected in honour of Titian (nearly 300 years after his death), a mass of marble that’s generally considered to be the burial place of the great Venetian master painter.

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