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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of The church of Santa Maria Assunta (I Gesuiti)

What is Santa Maria Assunta?

The church of Santa Maria Assunta, or Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta detta I Gesuiti in Italian, commonly known as ‘I Gesuiti’ is an elaborately decorated 18th-century church in Venice that was originally founded in the 12th century by the Crociferi, or Cross-bearers.


The church of Santa Maria Assunta (I Gesuiti)

Santa Maria Assunta History

This High Baroque church is known colloquially as I Gesuiti because it was built by the Jesuit order of priests in the early 18th century. Its ostentatious interior has always divided opinion. The 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin dismissed it as 'the basest Renaissance’, but even he had to admit that the church was worth visiting, if only ‘to examine the imitations of curtains in white marble inlaid with green’. This kitsch intarsia marble, which resembles flocked wallpaper and also extends up the walls, is remarkable for its beauty and craftsmanship.


But the church’s history is also bound up with an older religious order. The Crociferi, or Cross-bearers, had a uniquely medieval remit; they were devoted to the pilgrims and soldiers who made the perilous journey to the Holy Land during the Crusades. In 1155, the Crociferi built a church on this site, with an adjoining monastery and hospital, dedicated to the care of sick and injured Crusaders. After the Crusades ended it became a hospice for poor women. Parts of the Crociferi estate have survived; just southwest of the church is the Oratorio dei Crociferi, a prayer hall which contains several frescoes by the Venetian artist Jacopo Palma il Giovane. The medieval church’s brick campanile (or bell tower) was incorporated into Santa Maria Assunta, although its belfry was an 18th-century addition.


Despite its strong Catholic tradition, the Venetian Republic was a secular administration for many centuries. The power-hungry Holy See felt threatened by this stance, so in the 15th and 16th centuries several popes attempted to undermine the city in order to gain spiritual dominion over it. In 1606, Pope Paul V banned any performance of sacred rites there. The Venetian authorities responded by expelling the Jesuits, who were perceived as being loyal primarily to Rome. Upon their return to Venice, over 50 years later, the order was allowed to purchase the former Crociferi estate, on the edge of the old city. The peripheral location of the order’s new home was intended to reflect their disadvantaged position in Venetian society, but they were determined to win back favour and influence.


A wealthy local family called the Manins helped to fund the new church, which was bigger and grander than its Crociferi predecessor. It’s thought that the Jesuits made it so ornately beautiful because they were desperate to attract followers. However, they also wanted a church that represented their own exuberant brand of spirituality. The order inherited several masterpieces from the Crociferi, which were incorporated into Santa Maria Assunta. These include the Assumption of the Virgin by Tintoretto and Titian’s moody interpretation of the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence.


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