The island of San Giorgio Maggiore gazes back at St Mark’s Square with an unblinking eye. A magnificent white facade, designed by Palladio cloaks the elegant church of San Giorgio Maggiore. A bell tower that is similar to St Mark’s famous campanile mirrors the architecture of St Mark’s. A fitting reflection of the glory of Venice. The island was a monastic and religious centre for the Benedictine Monks for centuries.
SAN GIORGIO MAGGIORE – The island was gifted to the Benedictine Monks by the Venetians in the 10th century. At the time the area was salt marsh and mud flats. Giovanni Morosini drained the land and founded a monastery, he then became the first abbot. Today there is a magnificent church and a large abbey complex, including cloisters, refectory and living quarters for the monks. There are gardens, a port, a theatre and even a labyrinth. In the 1950s the island became home to the Cini Foundation. An organisation that hosts and supports artistic and cultural events This year it’s the Architectural Biennale in Venice. There’s an unusual Bedouin Tent in the vegetable garden behind the church. Whilst in the church a vast metallic pyramid structure dominates the central crossing below the dome.
NOT VITAL – Not Vital is the Swiss Architect responsible for the pyramid structure. It sits solidly, reflectively under the central dome of the Basilica of San Giorgio. It’s monumental and vast and strange. I liked it. At first I was completely confused I thought the art work was called ‘Not Vital’. A strange title. Fair enough I thought to myself – true it’s not essential. Then I realised that Not Vital was actually Mr Not Vital – possibly pronounced Veet-al in the manner of Gore Vidal (pronounced Veed-al). So once I knew what I was dealing with from Mr Not Vital I was able to concentrate on admiring the metallic bulk before my eyes. Scrawled along the side of the pyramid are the words ‘A Place to Watch the sunset’. Ironically there are signs everywhere saying ‘do not climb’ so watching the sunset for the average visitor would be quite tricky.
The Benedictines as an order have always had a great respect and love of art – whenever there’s an art event in Venice, the monks graciously permit temporary exhibitions in San Giorgio. Two years ago Sean Scully, an Irish artist created the colourful Jacob’s Ladder – a multi coloured ziggarat climbing high into this lofty space in the heart of San Giorgio.
BACK in the 16th century the Benedictines commissioned two huge paintings by painter Tintoretto. They hang on either side of the altar. Painted in the 1590s these paintings have been displayed in the church for more than five hundred years. On the left is ‘Manna from Heaven’ a bible story showing food (manna) raining down on people as they faced starvation. On the right is Tintoretto’s version of ‘The Last Supper’. This ‘Last Supper’ is actually quite bawdy in comparison to other ‘Last Supper’ paintings. The table is set off to the left and there’s all manner of chaos going on in the foreground – typically Venetian.
A trip by vaporetto across Bacino San Marco to the island of S Giorgio gives an amazing view across the water to St Mark’s Square and the Palazzo Ducale. The location is popular at Carnival time to show off elaborate outfits. It’s also popular for wedding photos.
ON HIGH – From the top of the bell tower there’s a 360 degree panoramic view of Venice and the lagoon. It’s a wonderful observation point and perfect for understanding the layout of the city, islands, waterways and Adriatic Sea. It is possible to take photos from north, south, east and west. I often spend ages up there moving from side to side of the bell tower, appreciating and absorbing the view from each compass point. I like to imagine the sailing ships of days gone by, coming into the lagoon and anchoring in the Bacino San Marco, waiting to unload their cargoes of silks and damasks, precious stones and spices. Here’s a selection of photos I took just last week. As a viewing point over Venice it is unbeatable. You can even spot the Labyrinth in the gardens behind the basilica, recently opened to the public after being closed for many years.
BEAUTY – The island of San Giorgio mirrors the beauty of Venice. The island is perfect for watching the sunset. A year or so ago some enterprising young Venetians set up the San Giorgio Cafe offering delicious lunches and dinners, snacks and drinks. After years of finding art and architecture on the island, but not much else, it’s a welcome development that refreshments too are now available. I’d strongly recommend coming to San Giorgio at Carnival time for a huge range of costumes, and fantastical personalities strutting their stuff and parading their ensembles. In case you are wondering it is Vaporetto Number 2 from San Zaccaria (one of my favourite parts of Venice) that will get you to San Giorgio in about five minutes – all you have to do is just step on board.
- Venice Carnival 2020 – A visual reminder
- Venice – Carnival 2020
- Wedding Photo by Mirco Toffolo – Venetian photographer extraordinario: www.mircotoffolo.it
- For more on Sean Scully at San Giorgio:
- For more on weddings in Venice: A Perfect Wedding in Venice
- To discover my favourite bit of Venice – 1 minute from S Zaccaria boat stop:
- Venice – there’s treasure in every church
- The San Giorgio Cafe is modern, fitted out in a contemporary style, with quality bar and restaurant offerings.
- San Giorgio Cafe (Facebook): @sangiorgiocafe
- San Giorgio Cafe – Instagram: sangiorgio.cafe
19th June, 2021