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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of the Madonna dell’Orto in Venice

What is the Madonna dell’Orto?

The Madonna dell’Orto is a 15th-century church adorned with impressive paintings by Renaissance masters, which holds the tomb of Jacopo Tintoretto.

Sculptures on Madonna dell’Orto

Madonna dell’Orto History

This landmark church was originally built in the mid-14th century at the behest of Fra Tiberio da Parma, general of the Umiliati order of Benedictine monks. (Tiberio was said to have actually designed the structure himself.) The church and its monastery were initially dedicated to Saint Christopher, patron saint of merchants and sailors. According to tradition, the sculptor Giovanni de’ Santi was commissioned to produce a statue of the Madonna and Child for the church of Santa Maria Formosa. Near the completion of the work, he presented it to his client, who considered it unworthy. The statue was thus left abandoned in an orto (or orchard) nearby until it was reported that each night shafts of light emanated from the Virgin’s head. The miraculous stone sculpture was acquired by the friars of this church and placed proudly on the High Altar (you’ll still find it here today, much restored, in the Chapel of Saint Mauro).

The monks of the order of Umiliati were expelled in the mid-15th century for their perceived 'depraved habits' and thus the church was rebuilt with a new doorway by Bartolomeo Bon and his workshop, the artist who created the grand Paper Gate at the Palazzo Ducale (or Doge’s Palace). The brick façade is amongst the finest examples of the Venetian Gothic style. The structure is fronted by an elegant portal, framed with white and rose marble, and crowned with a statue of Saint Cristopher (to whom the church is dedicated), flanked by two elegant columns supporting statues of the Announcing Angel and the Virgin. The two opposing sloping galleries feature the Apostles looking out from their own niches, executed by the delle Masegne brothers, who worked on the prestigious fabric of the Palazzo Ducale. At the church’s peak you’ll see the bell-tower with its onion-shaped dome, which neatly demonstrates the influence that Middle-Eastern architecture had on Venice in the Middle Ages. As a complement to this historic structure, in front of the church survives one of the city’s very few original brick churchyards, finely framed with trachyte stone.

Front of Madonna dell’Orto next to the canal

The interior is divided by elegant marble columns, with a traditional white and rose floor. Within you’ll find a number of extraordinary paintings by famed artist Jacopo Tintoretto, who lived nearby. (In fact, you’ll find the tomb of the painter in the chapel on the right of the choir, marked by a modest slab.) Either side of the High Altar hang two dramatic 15-metre-high works by the Renaissance master: the Last Judgement, which skilfully draws the viewers’ attention in a vertical manner and The Making of the Golden Calf – considered some of his most important commissions. Whilst behind the altar you can admire his Vision of the Cross to Saint Peter and the Beheading of Saint Paul, which flank the magnificent Annunciation by Jacopo Palma il Giovane. This church is far more than it first appears; it offers you the chance to explore 15th-century Venice in all its glory.

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