Between 1575 and 1576 the city of Venice was beset by the Bubonic Plague, which reaped over 50,000 victims. On 8th September 1576 the ruler of Venice, Doge Alvise Mocenigo, proclaimed a solemn vow to dedicate a temple to the Most Holy Redeemer should the plague cease. Mocunigo further promised that Â‘every year, on the day that this city should be declared free of contagion, His Holiness and successors shall solemnly go and visit the aforementioned church, to perpetuate the memory of the blessings received.Â’
Palladio’s Church of the Redeemer in Venice is one of the great buildings of the Italian Renaissance. I was in Venice two weeks ago and took the following photographs to illustrate this article.
Between 1575 and 1576 the city of Venice was beset by the Bubonic Plague, which reaped over 50,000 victims. On 8th September 1576 the ruler of Venice, Doge Alvise Mocenigo, proclaimed a solemn vow to dedicate a temple to the Most Holy Redeemer should the plague cease. Mocenigo further promised that ‘every year, on the day that this city should be declared free of contagion, His Holiness and successors shall solemnly go and visit the aforementioned church, to perpetuate the memory of the blessings received.’
A site for the new church was chosen near the small church of St Mary of the Angels and the Capuchin friar's hermitage, situated on the Giudecca island. Particular attention was paid to what shape and form the new temple should take. A longitudinal plan seemed the best way to offer a suitable area for the numerous worshipers who were expected to flock to the temple, and at the same time, the proposed lay-out would also maintain the traditional shape of the cross, often evoked as a symbol of redemption during outbreaks of plague.
The commission was awarded to Andrea Palladio, an architect who was known for his capacity of harmonising functional aspects with symbolic values. The first stone was laid on the day of the ‘Invention of the Holy Cross’ (3rd May 1577). The plague was declared dispersed, and on 21st July 1577 a procession to the church was led by the new Doge, Sebastiano Venier, the hero of Lepanto.
Church of the Redeemer as seen from the campanile of San Georgio Maggiore
Church of the Redeemer as seen across the Giudecca
The facade is composed of three parts: two narrow and smooth lateral sections which terminate in a triangular pediment, a motif repeated higher up, serving to mediate the change between the austere facade and the second floor, which contains an impressive dome and two small bell towers that give a soaring sense of movement. The church is set upon a raised plinth and is preceded by a solemn stairway of fifteen steps.
The facade corresponds directly to the interior: the central section, which is almost square, anticipates the nave, while the two lateral sections indicate the spaces occupied by the double sequence of chapels which delimit the lateral areas of the centre aisle.
In entrance is framed by a portico with triangular pediment. The door panels, plated with lead, were created in 1667 and designed by Zandomenico Gornizai.
Statues of St. Mark and St. Francis occur in the two niches flanking the door. Six other statues are visible: on the lantern of the dome is the Redeemer (1592), made of wood covered in lead. This statue may be the work of Gerolamo Campagna. At the centre of the middle part of the facade is Faith with two Angels at each side (1673); at the outermost points of the lower half gables are St. Anthony of Padua and St. Laurence Giustiniani (18th century).
Statue of St Francis
Statue of St Mark
Upon entering the church, Palladio’s scenography and design are breathtaking: the harmony of proportions, combined with the vast luminosity of the space, is characteristic of all Palladian structures. The white marmorino wall surfaces add greatly to the effect of this space punctuated by refined Corinthian columns and semi-columns.
The internal area is divided into three sectors: the nave, the presbytery with its dome and votive altar and, last of all, the Friars' chorus. The nave is dominated by a barrel vaulted ceiling articulated into sections to let in abundant quantities of light through Diocletian windows. A series of four narrow sections line the walls, all defined by gigantic semi-columns. Within these sections are the deep cavities of the side chapels.
The chapels are rectangular, covered by barrel vaulted ceils and with lesser Diocletian windows on the rear walls: the lateral walls are curved into large niches with a door in the centre allowing access. This narrow passageway continues down the central nave, turns around the lateral apse and comes to the sacristy and the choir.
Once beyond the large triumphal archway is the presbytery: the cupola is placed on a high tambour, which is placed on a round arch held up by pilasters. The inlayed rosette on the flooring mirrors the space covered by the cupola. The middle apse, which holds the main altar, is closed off by four Corinthian columns. The two side apses are designated as the surroundings for receiving the high authorities of the republic and the senate during solemn occasions.
The Friars’ chorus is just visible beyond the columns behind the main altar. The architectural austerity was explained by Palladio: ‘while this church is to be officiated by the Capuchin order, I have devised that the chorus behind in the rear should be of humble structure.’ The five windows illuminating the church give way to a scenographic effect around the Crucifix, creating a back-light effect. Meanwhile, the four columns which follow the curve of the central apse reveal an austere and simple place of sober linearity in the wooden benches.