In the northwestern section of Venice, in the Cannaregio district, we find a brick building that is very unique for both its size and shape for the city. We are referring to the Scuola Grande of MISERICORDIA, which opened its doors again after a successful long and a expensive restoration that cost approximately 9 million Euros. The newly restored building will be used as a multifunctional venue to host events, congresses and exhibitions.
Let’s try and retrace its troubled history.
We need to start by explaining its original function as a Scuola Grande. In the past, in Venice there were the prestigious Scuole Grandi and the humble ‘minor’ Scuole Piccole.
Both were devotional lay confraternities, different in their composition. Among their members, the Scuole Grandi had the notable citizens, while the actors of the so called Scuole Piccole were the Venetian traders of the various crafts and the gentlemen’s clubs made of foreigners belonging to the several foreign communities present in the multicultural old city.
The members of the Scuole prayed together their patron Saint to whom their club was dedicated and in her name they performed charitable works, such as dowries, scholarships and emergency relief for the poor.
For example, among the charitable actions of the Scuola of Misericordia alone, there was the donation of 60 dowries a year to young girls in need, besides the release, on Easter day, of prisoners guilty of minor debts, i. e. not exceeding 40 gold ducats. Throughout the entire existence of the Serenissima Republic, these ancient Venetian confraternities supported the State, were the main focus of social life, as well as a useful safety-valve.
Let’s focus now on the history of its establishment. The poorly preserved conditions of the Old Scuola, founded in 1308, made the members of the brotherhood decide to build a far more imposing structure towards the end of 15th century. For their new headquarter the members announced 2 contests and from the 2nd one only the name of a new architect, still unknown in Venice, emerged. This architect was Jacopo Sansovino, from Florence.
Before arriving in Venice, Sansovino had spent some years in Rome, where he first acquainted himself with the language of classical architecture from old imperial time. However, the actual building we see today doesn’t reflect his plan. Luckily, we are left with his drawings that show how the building would have looked like had its construction not being interrupted.
Sansovino wanted to introduce his idea of architecture borrowed from ancient Rome in a peripheral area of the city with no major sights. He designed an ambitious façade characterized by 2 superimposed orders with projecting columns topped by Corinthian capitals – both outside and inside.
A superb “corintha machina“ was the name given to the project for the Scuola by Aretino, Tuscan poet and playwright, as well as the architect’s great friend, who also lived in Venice at that time.
Sansovino’s project remained on paper, due to the high cost involved and the difficult financial situation of the Scuola; but above all due to sharp disagreements between Sansovino and the members of the confraternity.
Only after his death, in 1570, the lower hall based on his drawings could be built. We have a large space divided into 3 naves by 2 rows of paired half columns on high pedestals topped by Corinthian capitals. On the upper floor, hosting the sala del Capitolo, the meeting room for all the brothers of the Scuola, the walls were frescoed with a gallery of 12 major prophets placed within a trompe l’oeil architecture between the windows. The work was attributed to followers of Paolo Veronese.
The story of the Scuola ends with the fall of the Republic, taken by Napoleon’s imperial troops who suppressed all those ancient institutions and looted important art treasures from them.
The destiny for this “brick Giant“ will follow an unusual path. After World War II, it will be turned into a gymnasium, into the official headquarter of the prestigious Venetian Basketball club REYER, where all its important matches will be played until the end of the 70’s. With the building of the new sports hall at the beginning of the 80’s the ancient Scuola was left abandoned and closed.
In his documentary on the story of the prestigious Reyer Basketball Club, Carlo D’Alpaos defined the site “the most beautiful gym in the world“.
Only Venice with its magic powers can bring to life such amazing fusions between important historical buildings of the past and everyday modern life.