A gloomy Gothic barn, the brick house of God known officially as Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is one of the city's most significant artistic storehouses. The Franciscans were granted the land in about 1250 and completed a first church in 1338. At this point they changed their minds and started work on a larger building, which was finally completed just over a century later. The church is 98m (320ft) long, 48m (158ft) wide at the transept and 28m (92ft) high - just slightly smaller than the Dominicans' Santi Giovanni e Paolo - and has the second highest campanile in the city. And while the Frari may not have as many dead doges as its Dominican rival, it undoubtedly has the artistic edge. This is one church where the entrance fee is not a recent imposition: tourists have been paying to get into the Frari for over a century. At the entrance you are brought face to face with the long sweep of church with Titian's glorious Assumption above the high altar.
In the second bay, on the spot where Titian is believed to be buried (the only victim of the 1575-76 plague who was allowed a city burial), is a loud monument to the artist, commissioned nearly 300 years after his death by the Emperor of Austria. On the third altar is a finer memorial, Alessandro Vittoria's statue of St Jerome, generally believed to be a portrait of his painter friend.
To the right of the sacristy door is the tomb of the Blessed Pacifico (a companion of St Francis), attributed to Nanni di Bartolo and Michele da Firenze (1437); the sarcophagus is surrounded by a splendidly carved canopy in the florid Gothic style. The door itself is framed by Lorenzo Bregno's tomb of Benedetto Pesaro, a Venetian general who died in Corfu. To the left of the door is the first equestrian statue in Venice, the monument to Paolo Savelli (d.1405). The third chapel on the right side of this transept has an altarpiece by Bartolomeo Vivarini, in its original frame, while the Florentine Chapel, next to the chancel, contains the only work by Donatello in the city: a striking wooden statue of a stark, emaciated St John the Baptist.
Commissioned by the Pesaro family, this contains one of Giovanni Bellini's greatest paintings: the Madonna and Child with Saints Nicholas, Peter, Benedict and Mark (1488), still in its original frame. 'It seems painted with molten gems, which have been clarified by time,' wrote Henry James, his eye, as ever, firmly on the prose structure, 'and it is as solemn as it is gorgeous and as simple as it is deep.' Also in the sacristy is a fine Renaissance tabernacle, possibly by Tullio Lombardo, for a reliquary holding Christ's blood.
The high altar is dominated by Titian's Assumption, a work that seems to open the church up to the heavens. In the golden haze encircling God the Father, there may be a reminiscence of the mosaic tradition of Venice. The upward-soaring movement of the painting may owe something to the Gothic architecture of the building, but the drama and grandeur of the work essentially herald the Baroque.
On the right wall of the chancel is the monument to Francesco Foscari, the saddest doge of all. The story of his forced resignation and death from heartbreak (1547) after the exile of his son Jacopo is recounted in Byron's The Two Foscari, which was turned into a particularly gloomy opera by Verdi. The left wall hosts one of the finest Renaissance tombs in Venice, the monument to Doge Niccolò Tron, by Antonio Rizzo (1473). This is the first ducal tomb in which the subject is upright; he sports a magnificent bushy beard grown as a sign of perpetual mourning after the death of his favourite son.
In the centre of the nave stands the choir, with wooden stalls carved by Marco Cozzi (1468), inlaid with superb intarsia decoration. The choir screen is a mixture of Gothic work by Bartolomeo Bon and Renaissance elements by the Lombardi family.
In the third chapel, with an altarpiece by Bartolomeo Vivarini and Marco Basaiti, a slab on the floor marks the grave of composer Claudio Monteverdi. The Corner chapel, at the end, contains a mannered statue of St John the Baptist by Sansovino; this sensitively wistful figure could hardly be more different from Donatello's work of a century earlier.
Another magnificent Titian hangs to the right of the side door: the Madonna di Ca' Pesaro. This work was commissioned by Bishop Jacopo Pesaro in 1519 and celebrates victory in a naval expedition against the Turks, led by the bellicose cleric in 1502. The bishop is kneeling and waiting for St Peter to introduce him and his family to the Madonna. Behind, an armoured warrior bearing a banner has Turkish prisoners in tow. This work revolutionised altar paintings in Venice. It wasn't just that Titian dared to move the Virgin from the centre of the composition to one side, using the splendid banner as a counterbalance; the real innovation was the rich humanity of the whole work, from the beautifully portrayed family (with the boy turning to stare straight at us) to the Christ child, so naturally active and alive, twisting away from his mother (said to be a portrait of Titian's wife) to gaze curiously at the saints clustered around him. The timeless 'sacred conversation' of Bellini's paintings here becomes animated, losing some of its sacredness but gaining in drama and realism.
The whole of the next bay, around the side door, is occupied by another piece of Pesaro propaganda - the mastodontic mausoleum of Doge Pesaro (d.1659), attributed to Longhena, with sculptures by Melchior Barthel of Dresden. Supporters of the Baroque have some difficulty defending this one, with its 'blackamoor' caryatids, bronze skeletons and posturing allegories.
The penultimate bay harbours a monument to Canova, carried out by his pupils in 1827, five years after his death, using a design of his own that was intended for the tomb of Titian. His body is buried in his native town of Possagno, but his heart is conserved in an urn inside the monument. The despondent winged lion has a distinct resemblance to the one in The Wizard of Oz.
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