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I Frari (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari)

biggest and most interesting of the many big and interesting Venetian churches

LINK to Maps of Venice




The Franciscan "Friars Minor" arrived in Venice around the time of  Saint Francis' death in 1226.  They were given an empty piece of land in San Polo on which they built a small church, which became known by Venetians as Santa Maria dei Frari - the church of the Friars (Minor). 


By 1250 a new and bigger church had been built, but it too proved too small, and around 1330 work started on the magnificent basilica which is still there today.  This was finally consecrated in the late 14 hundreds. 


On the South side of the basilica was the equally huge Franciscan friary complex ("Ca' Grande dei Frari") which eventually sported two cloisters and accommodation for more than 300 friars.  


Following Venice's capitulation to Napoleon in 1805, this and the other monasteries of  Venice were suppressed (closed, relieved of many valuables (looted), and in some cases, like the adjoining San Nicoletto monastery for elderly monks, sold for demolition).   


The friary became a barracks for a short time, but in 1815 all the archives of the thousand year "Serenissima" - the Republic of Venice - were transferred here, where they have remained for nearly 200 years. 


The basilica itself survived remarkably well (especially when you see what the French did to many abbeys), and underwent a comprehensive renovation in the early 1900s. 







The (mostly unused) north entrance is contained within an enormous baroque monument to the otherwise unremembered Doge of two years (1658-9) Giovanni Pesaro.  To its left is the out of place pyramid monument to the architect Antonio Canova (1757 - 1822), originally designed by him to be Titian's monument. 


Infinitely more rewarding than both of these is the painting you can just see to their right (shown below) -  Titian's "Ca' Pesaro Madonna" which was painted 1519 - 26, after he had finished his groundbreaking altarpiece Assumption.  It represents another milestone of Venetian painting and the first time a Madonna had not been centre stage in such a work.  


The painting was commissioned by Jacopo Pesaro - bishop of Paphos and naval commander of the papal fleet which beat the Turks at Santa Maura in 1502.  He is shown on the left with a prisoner Turk and the Borgia papal standard.  In the centre is Saint Peter and on the right Saints Francis and Anthony (as in Padova).  Bottom right of the painting (and below) are other members of the Jacopo's brothers and his nephew Leonardo (looking at the painter).


Titian (Tiziano Vecello) lived into his 90s - from 1485 to 1576.  He was taught by Giovanni Bellini.












To the right of the apse is a large monument to Doge Foscari (1373 - 1423 - 1457), employer of the condottieri Gattamelata, Carmagnola and Colleoni, who belligerently expanded Venice's domains and ran the economy into the ground - eventually suffering the ignomy of being sacked.   On the left  (see above) is another Doge monument - the grandest of the Venetian Renaissance - to Nicola Tron.  He was only in the seat for two years (1471-3) but donated all of his considerable fortune to the Republic to help it out of the economic hole which was the ongoing legacy of Doge Foscari. 



This was the blockbuster painting that propelled Titian from "promising" to "happening Venetian painter".  It is his huge "Assumption of the Virgin" painted in 1516-8.  The painting  was returned in 1945 to its rightful place from the Accademia , where it had been since 1817 apart from two periods of exile during world wars.  It has since been very well restored.  Luckily this is one of the few places in the basilica where there are chairs - sit and enjoy for a long time!  The doctrine of the bodily assumption of the Virgin into Heaven was believed by Catholics but rejected by protestants. 





Further to the right of the apse - a life sized John the Baptist, dated 1438 and now the only Donatello statue in Venice (not much evidence of Florence generally in Venice).  Now restored to its full glory after the lengthy removal of two rather clumsy repaintings.





Lunette above the tomb of Doge Francesco Dandolo (Doge  1329-39), showing a mature looking baby Jesus blessing the Doge, who is being introduced by Saint Francis.  The painter, Veneziano, who was the first distinctive personality in Venetian painting, was active between 1333 and 1358.  Derivative similarities with the Madonnas of Siena's Duccio  (1260 - 1319) and A Lorenzetti (1278 - 1348) are obvious.  Venice started down this track a bit late, but ......


.....  by the time of Giovanni Bellini (1430 - 1516 (86)) a hundred years later, they had well and truly broken away from the Byzantine / gothic past and produced their own incomparably beautiful style, including a gentle perfection in perspective and the rendition of light. 


This Bellini triptych, painted in 1488, is in the sacristy, and another reason for a long sit down.  Can you tell where the painting ends and the elaborate frame begins? 


Giovanni Bellini, prolific painter of beautiful Madonnas (see also his Madonnas in the Accademia and San Zaccaria), was Titian's master.



Back in the middle of the nave, the inlaid ("intarsia") stalls of the choir were the work of the Cozzi family of Vicenza in the mid 1400s.  It is now the only example in Venice of a choir in its original position in the nave.  Despite this, the church is still full of soaring spaciousness and light - in stark contrast to the truncated nature of many English cathedrals, where a combination of choir, high screen and organ pipes all to frequently blocks the "down nave vista" completely.



As befits such a great space, I Frari has two organs - one on each side of the choir.  They date from the 1700s and were both restored in the 1970s.



A monument to Titian was finally erected in 1853 (he died in 1576).



The large cloister - the monastery buildings house the archives of the 1,000 year "Serenisima" (Venetian Republic)



The apse is across from the entrance of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco - over the top showcase for huge paintings by Tintoretto (1518 - 1594).


Lunch at the Trattoria S Toma, Campo S Toma, San Polo, Venice

One of the few gastronomic and ambience recommendations in a city where we found both factors difficult to find at anything like a reasonable price.  After the meal in the Campo we discovered that there was also a large leafy garden section at the back - and it was full of Italians - always the best recommendation!  That's the destination next time! 


The Campo S Toma is close by I Frari - that's the I Frari campanile in the background.  On the other side of the Campo is the old Scuola dei Calegheri (shoemakers) - now a library -  with a relief of S Mark healing the cobbler Ananias (and some shoes).

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