The churches of San Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore feel like a shot of oxygen after trooping through the smoky light and elaborate ornamentation of San Marco. Palladio’s cool, expansive spaces epitomize Venetian serenity – and they remain surprisingly empty even in the high season. In spite of their iconic status, not many people cross the basin to see them up close. We took the three-minute vaporetto ride and rediscovered some of La Serenissima’s most sublime architecture.
On the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, we toured the monastery with Palladio’s refectory and cloister as well as his church. On Giudecca, we found the dock in front of Il Redentore laden with boatloads of white flowers. They turned out to be wedding décor, but we found them a perfect complement to the restorative quality of Palladio’s work.
Palladio may not be a household name, but he is probably the most-imitated architect of all time. His buildings in northern Italy earned him a pre-eminent spot amongst Renaissance architects, while his published work amplified that influence exponentially. Along with studies of ancient Roman monuments, he produced a four-volume treatise, I quattro libri dell’architettura, which became the ultimate sourcebook for Neo-Classical architects. Examples of Palladianism include the White House in Washington, D.C. and the Berlin Opera House.
Palladian Refectory and Cloister on San Giorgio Maggiore Island
In the mid 16th century, Palladio transformed residential and civic architecture across the Veneto region, especially in the city of Vicenza. His arrival in Venice around 1560 coincided with the beginning of an extensive construction program on San Giorgio. The small island and its monastic colony belonged to one of the wealthiest and most powerful congregations in Italy, whose members recognized the site’s potential to become a focal point of the city.
Palladio started with the renovation of the monastery’s refectory. He turned the length of the allotted space into an advantage, crafting a sequence of spaces with an open axis running between them. Visitors can glimpse the rear spaces before actually reaching them, creating a sense of anticipation and emphasizing the importance of the final room. Elements like barrel-vaulting drew upon ancient Roman structures, but Palladio used them in new combinations. He integrated older parts, such as windows left over from the previous century, by framing them like antiques.
The Palladian cloister complements other structures on the site by echoing their forms with subtle variations and exquisitely-framed views. Alternating triangular and rounded pediments echo the spacing of the arches, creating a gentle rhythm far removed from the tumult of the larger city.
The Giorgio Cini Foundation sponsors guided tours of the monastic complex. Helpful staff at the café answered our questions, as we hadn’t reserved in advance. We chose the basic tour, which includes work by Baldassare Longhena as well as Palladio, followed by the Borges Labyrinth tour, which was just plain fun. Nearby, we stumbled upon a stunning exhibition of mid-century modern glass lighting at Le Stanze del Vetro. We also recommend taking the lift to the top of the bell tower for what many consider the best view of Venice.
San Giorgio Maggiore Façade
San Giorgio Maggiore was Palladio’s first opportunity to design an entire church. His revolution began with the façade, which had become a serious conundrum for architects of the era. In order to dominate piazzas and streets, churches needed to convey monumentality. In Renaissance Italy, nothing conveyed monumentality like classical temples. Unfortunately, medieval churches had evolved into a shape which didn’t match temple fronts: they were too tall and narrow, with an awkwardly high section in the middle. Many structures still sported raw fronts. Since façades encapsulated the issue of reconciling religious architecture with civic life, this was no small debate.
Palladio came up with a radical and deceptively simple solution: layering two temple-front designs to obtain the correct shape. A pair of church façades in Venice gave him the chance to try the idea on a smaller scale. The San Pietro di Castello and the San Francesco della Vigna used different scales to distinguish their layers and similar shapes to unite them. This delicate balance required a rigorous application of proportions and judicious use of ornamentation.
With San Giorgio Maggiore, Palladio took his prototype from local feature to city landmark. By continuing the Venetian tradition of cladding buildings in pure white marble, he ensured that his designs would harmonize with their surroundings. He factored in the church’s appearance from across the entire basin as well as the effects of light on the water. The church’s careful positioning showed an exceptional understanding of the city’s unique landscape.
It should be noted that the façade we see today on San Giorgio Maggiore wasn’t built until 1607-1611, several decades after Palladio’s death. There’s been some debate about how much it deviates from his original designs.
San Giorgio Maggiore Interior
In a radical decision, Palladio continued the all-white palette of the façade on the interior. Italians traditionally covered the insides of their churches with frescoes. Palladio, however, claimed that white’s purity would be more pleasing to God. It’s probably not a coincidence that he found patrons to approve his scheme in Venice, long known for its progressive taste and willingness to push at Rome’s ecclesiastic norms.
Venetians, who had recognized the beauty of all-white façades sparkling in the lagoon, already understood the transcendent power of light reflected across a white surface. Palladio heightened the effect with a generous amount of large, high windows and also by limiting visible materials to stucco and marble.
Like many churches in Venice, San Giorgio Maggiore now hosts art exhibitions.
Il Redentore and City Pageantry
Il Redentore, on the adjacent island of Giudecca, gave Palladio an opportunity to refine his new church model. The major distinction between the San Giorgio Maggiore and the Redentore relates more to their patronage than their design.
The Senate pledged to build a large church in thanks to Il Redentore (“Christ the Redeemer”) for the end of a devastating outbreak of the plague in 1576. By this point, the Venetian Empire had passed the peak of its power, with life in the city focusing less on trade and more on pageantry. The basin in front of San Marco had long been the center of aquatic spectacles, and the new church extended the grand theater out to encompass Giudecca Island. It also added another major event to the calendar, in which the Doge and other dignitaries crossed a temporary bridge of boats to pray in the church.
Deciding on an appropriate style for the new church proved contentious. Senate factions pitted the oldest families, who favored Palladio’s avant-garde classicism, against newer families, who favored a more traditionally Venetian look. Thanks to the architect’s success with San Giorgio Maggiore, Palladio won the commission – but only on the condition that he follow a standard elongated layout rather than a plan based on 360-degree symmetry.
Venice still celebrates the Festa del Redentore procession across the basin, complete with fireworks, every third Sunday in July. Other than occasional events like weddings, the church stays quiet for the rest of the year.
Visiting Palladio’s Churches
The Redentore, like the San Giorgio Maggiore, would be immortalized in views from afar by painters like Monet and Canaletto. For most people, they serve as a dreamy backdrop to the city rather than actual buildings to visit. Ironically, many tourists think they need to travel out to the lagoon’s distant islands for a respite when Palladio’s churches are much closer at hand.
Palladio’s early church façades in Venice
The San Pietro di Castello lies on the Campo San Pietro, near the end of Castello.
The San Francesco della Vigna lies above the Arsenale, at Ramo al Ponte San Francesco.
San Giorgio Maggiore Island
Vaporetto line 2 to “San Giorgio Maggiore” stop
Opening hours: April-October 9-7 & November-March 8:30-6, closed during Sunday Mass.
For information on tours of the monastery, check the Giorgio Cini Foundation website.
Le Stanze del Vetro (“The Glass Rooms”) sponsors free long-term exhibitions in two buildings: one next door to the church, and one behind it.
Take the lift to the top of the bell tower (€6) for what many consider the best view of Venice.
Vaporetto lines 2, 4.1, 4.2, 8, N to “Redentore” stop
Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 10:30-1:30 & 2:30-5. Admission €3 or free with ChorusPass.
Some have credited Palladio with the design of Santa Maria della Presentazione (often called Le Zitelle), a church complex on the end of Giudecca Island. However, the Centro Internazionale di Studi di Architettura Andrea Palladio states that “the majority of scholars have expressed strong doubts concerning such an attribution,” noting the dearth of documentary evidence as well as a lack of characteristic Palladian design.
For more on Palladio, see our post on his buildings in Vicenza.
For more on architecture in Venice, see our post on Venetian Gothic. Our post on the sestiere of Castello covers the San Pietro di Castello and San Francesco della Vigna churches. Our other neighborhood guides include Santa Croce, San Polo, and Cannaregio.