The Bird-eye view of Venice by Jacopo De’ Barbari has always fascinated me. VENETIE MD is simply a masterpiece: calli, campi, canals, palazzos and churches: everything is perfectly represented in this exceptional woodcut that gives us a perfect idea of how Venice was in the year 1500.
In this post I would like to take into consideration only three places and see how they were in 1500 or, as in the case of the Salute church, what was there before the new construction.
The church of Holy Mary of Health (Salute)
Imposing and majestic, this church is placed at one end of the Grand Canal: it is one of the most photographed churches in town.
Before it was built, though, its spot was occupied by the church, scuola and monastery of the Holy Trinity.
Observing de’ Barbari’s View in detail, we can notice that there were two courtyards, one of them with a portico. This area was separated from the nearby St. Gregory’s church by a canal, which is today called the Salute canal. The complex was built around 1256 on request of Doge Rainer Zen in order to thank the Teutonic Knights, who had fought with Venice against Genoa in St. Saba’s war.
In 1630 the Senate decided to build a majestic church in honor of the Holy Mary for her intercession in putting an end to the terrible epidemic of plague that had affected the city.
The project was designed by architect Baldassarre Longhena, who succeeded in creating a structure that still nowadays amazes not only the visitors, but even the Venetians themselves.
On top of the gigantic dome we can admire a sculpture of the Holy Mary represented as Sea Captain, since her aim was to protect the city in the Lagoon. More than 110,000 wooden piles were used to reinforce the soil to support the incredible weight of the church, which was consecrated only in 1687.
All the sculptures representing Apostles, Prophets, Saints along with modillions, tympani and columns made this building the most relevant expression of Baroque architecture in Venice.
The Rialto Bridge
Between 1494 and 1496 Vettor Carpaccio painted “The Miracle of the Holy Cross at the Rialto Bridge” for the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista (the painting is today at the Accademia Galleries).
The miracle is represented way up high in the left corner of the canvas, hardly visible at first sight. The wooden bridge, instead, is painted in detail and catches everybody’s attention. We can clearly see that it was a draw bridge that allowed sail ships to reach the mercantile heart of the Most Serene Republic.
In the View we can see this very same bridge, although here what is really impressive is the pilings that support the bridge and the amount of ships docked along the Grand Canal.
In 1588 the Senate decided to have the bridge rebuilt and the project was commissioned to architect Antonio da Ponte.
The new bridge, completed three years later, was much stronger, consisting of more robust materials such as limestone and bricks. It is quite fascinating still today, because of its single arch, its relevant height (7,5 meters, i.e. almost 25 feet), its 24 little shops, its three stairs. Something like 12,000 wooden piles were used to support its weight.
St. Michael’s island
Let us now leave Venice and enter the Northern Lagoon on the way to Murano. The first island we meet is San Michele (St. Michael’s Island), which is today the cemetery. What was there in the past? We can find the answer once again in de’ Barbari’s View.
There used to be two separate islands, each with its own monastery. San Cristoforo (St. Cristopher’s island) was between San Michele and Venice. Then the two islands suffered several complicated changes up till when in 1810, by Napoleonic decree, both the church and the monastery in San Cristoforo were suppressed and destroyed. Later, in 1839, the canal between the two islands was covered giving origin to a large island for the Venetian graves.
San Michele is characterized by the white façade of the Renaissance church projected between 1468 and 1479 by architect Codussi.
So here I am, waiting for you: I would like to take you on a guided tour to discover Venice, as it is today and as it was in the past.