This magnificent Baroque church, queening it over the entrance of the Grand Canal, is almost as recognisable an image of Venice as St Mark's or the Rialto bridge. It was built between 1631 and 1681 in thanksgiving for the end of Venice's last bout of plague, which had wiped out at least a third of the population in 1630. The church is dedicated to the Madonna, as protector of the city.
The terms of the competition won by 26-year-old architect Baldassare Longhena presented a serious challenge, which beat some of the best architects of the day. The church was to be colossal but inexpensive; the whole structure was to be visually clear on entrance, with an unimpeded view of the high altar, the ambulatory and side altars coming into sight only as one approached the chancel; the light was to be evenly distributed; and the whole building should creare una bella figura - show itself off to good effect.
Longhena succeeded brilliantly in satisfying all of these requisites - particularly the last and most Venetian of them. The church takes superb advantage of its dominant position and pays homage to both the Byzantine form of San Marco across the Grand Canal and the classical form of Palladio's Redentore, across the Giudecca Canal.
The architect said he chose the circular shape with the reverent aim of offering a crown to the Madonna. She stands on the lantern above the cupola as described in the Book of Revelations: 'Clothed in the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.' Beneath her, on the great scroll-brackets around the cupola, stand statues of the apostles - the 12 stars in her crown. This Marian symbolism continues inside the church, where in the centre of the mosaic floor, amid a circle of roses, is an inscription, Unde origo inde salus (from the origin comes salvation) - a reference to the legendary birth of Venice under the Virgin's protection.
Longhena's intention was for the visitor to approach the high altar ceremoniously through the main door, with the six side altars only coming into view upon reaching the very centre of the church, where they appear framed theatrically in their separate archways. However, the main door is rarely open and often the central area of the church is roped off, so you have no choice but to walk round the ambulatory and visit the chapels separately.
The three on the right have paintings by Luca Giordano, a prolific Neapolitan painter who brought a little southern brio into the art of the city at a time (the mid 17th century) when most painting had become limply derivative.
On the opposite side is a clumsily restored Pentecost, by Titian, transferred here from the island monastery of Santo Spirito (demolished in 1656). The high altar has a splendidly dynamic sculptural group by Giusto Le Corte, the artist responsible (with assistants) for most of the statues inside and outside the church. This group represents Venice Kneeling before the Virgin and Child, while the plague, in the shape of a hideous old hag, scurries off to the right, prodded by a tough-looking putto. In the midst of all this marble hubbub is a serene Byzantine icon of the Madonna and Child, brought from Crete in 1669 by Francesco Morosini, the Venetian commander responsible for blowing up the Parthenon.
The best paintings are in the sacristy (opens at 10am). Tintoretto's Marriage at Cana (1551) was described by Ruskin as 'perhaps the most perfect example which human art has produced of the utmost possible force and sharpness of shadow united with richness of local colour'. He also points out how difficult it is to spot the bride and groom in the painting.
On the altar is a very early Titian of Saints Mark, Sebastian, Roch, Cosmas and Damian, saints who were all invoked for protection against the plague; the painting was done during the outbreak of 1509-14. Three later works by Titian (c1540-49) hang on the ceiling, violent Old Testament scenes also brought here from the church of Santo Spirito: The Sacrifice of Abraham, David Killing Goliath and Cain and Abel. These works established the conventions for all subsequent ceiling paintings in Venice: Titian decided not to go for the worm's-eye view adopted by Mantegna and Correggio, which sacrificed clarity for surprise, and instead chose an oblique viewpoint, as if observing the action from the bottom of a hill. More Old Testament turbulence can be seen in Salviati's Saul Hurling a Spear at David and Palma il Giovane's Samson and Jonah, in which the whale is represented mainly by a vast lolling rubbery tongue.