Past and present in the cult of Saint Roch in Venice. Can Contemporary Art help us in order to be a better community?
Talking about many centuries ago and Contemporary Venice at the same time, I would like to tell you stories with an eye on European History and particularly about Saint Roch starting from his biography, as well as about how residents in Venice want to be a strong community and open their arms to the world according to the cosmopolitan way of life always characterizing this city.
Giovanni Antonio de Sacchis called Pordenone (1483/4-1539) was originally born in Friuli and was considered a rival by Tiziano Vecellio (1487/1576). He spent the last ten years of his life in Venice.
You can see a self-portrait of the artist frescoed on one of the pillars of the Duomo in Pordenone.
Not so many of his Venetian works are still visible. We can only admire a preparatory sketch preserved at the Victoria&Albert Museum in London to decorate the façade of Ca’Talenti, a building which does no longer exist.
In this sketch you have the impression that Mercury is going to fly over the roofs flying out of a window and the soldier Marco Curzio is riding his horse attempting to jump across the wall.
Artists could watch many prints, engravings, etchings inspired from Florentine and Roman artists. We know that Giorgio Vasari sent his drawings of the Medici Tombs by Michelangelo to the art critic Pietro Aretino who was the most famous Florentine living at the time in Venice together with Jacopo Sansovino, the architect.
At the same time, the members of the Grimani family welcomed the painter Salviati to their palace at Santa Maria Formosa. You can find another post about this superb palace written by my colleague Erika Cornali.
The artist Pordenone also frescoed the presbytery and the dome in the Church of Saint Roch, in the sestiere of San Polo.
Along the left aisle in the same church we can still admire his canvas Saint Martin and Saint Christopher.
It is a very dynamic and sculptural work. Saint Martin is the first saint who did not die as a martyr, while we do not really know if Saint Christopher existed or not.
There is a certain resemblance between this horse and the one in the previous picture.
Titian painted a fresco representing Saint Christopher at the bottom of a private staircase situated in the Doge’s Apartments in which you can notice a very strong influence from Michelangelo.
The people used to pray these Saints asking for help especially when a pestilence occurred, also because they represented good examples of charity.
Saint Roch (1345-79) is considered one of the patrons of Venice and he helps in case of plague and epidemics. He is also considered the patron of dogs and pets in general. He had a predestination to be a saint still as a child, as they said he had a red cruciform sign on his chest.
Tintoretto represented him as a pilgrim in this church.
It seems that he was born in a family of noble origins, they were rich and pious. When he was born, his parents were very old and we do not know their last name: their names were Jean and Libère.
There are a few examples of this in the Bible: Abraham and Sarah could not have children, Saint John the Baptist was born to elder parents, as well as Samson and Samuel. Sanctity was not for him a human conquest, but a matter of grace. He was born in Montpellier, France during the Hundred Years War and during the Western schism when the Pope used to live in Avignon.
Saint Roch was very pious, and he studied Medicine there. Montpellier was at the time famous not only for its University, but also for its relevant cultural life and a crossroad for different communities like the Occitan, Christian, Hebrew and Islamic ones.
After his parents died, he left for a pilgrimage, visiting many Italian cities which were suffering for the epidemic of plague. He spent a few years near Rome, he could heal a Cardinal and he went to Rome in order to meet pope Urban V. Saint Roch used to touch the sick people on their forehead drawing a cross on it.
He started going back home and continued to heal many people, but he got sick near Piacenza, so he found a cave in a forest where he had a shelter. Gottardo (a local nobleman) and his hunting dog helped him. Gottardo became a pilgrim, too.
Gottardo also wrote a biography of Saint Roch named Acta breviora, published in Colonia at the end of the Fifteenth Century, while the traditional chronology is based on a text written by a Venetian nobleman called Francesco Diedo, who had been a rector in Brescia on behalf of the Venetian Republic.
Once Rocco felt better, he decided to go back to France, but the territory between Piacenza and Voghera was in the middle of a conflict between Milan and the Papacy.
Saint Roch did not provide detailed information about his identity, he was accused of being a spy on behalf of the Pope and they took him to Voghera, where he spent the last five years of his life. Before his death, he could suddenly see an angel. He asked the angel to intercede in favour of people who had the plague after his death.
He died on August 16th between 1376 and 1379 in Voghera.
This day is still considered a solemn festivity in which the Doge attended a mass in this church to say thank you to the saint from Montpellier, while the Guardian Grando in the Scuola Grande of Saint Roch offered a great banquet in the Great Hall.
See the posts on the Scuola Grande di San Rocco written by my colleagues like or the video made recently by Monica Gambarotto.
The Doge used to go back to the Doge’s Palace along the Grand Canal by boat, while in Campo San Rocco the celebrations continued and in the Eighteenth Century this place was a celebrated location to sponsor contemporary artworks such as those painted by Canaletto.
Saint Roch’s relics were originally preserved in the church of Sant’Enrico in Voghera and then sold to the Confraternity Scuola Grande di San Rocco at the end of the Fifteenth Century as some documents from the Council of Ten witness.
In Montpellier you can find the pilgrim’s stick of the Saint and part of his jaw sent back to France in 1858 upon a request made by a priest and with the Vatican’s permission.
The cult of Saint Roch went from Italy to Germany and to the Netherlands and France. In Nuremberg a family of Bavarian merchants (Imhoff) commissioned an altarpiece in honour of Saint Roch in the church of Saint Laurence.
The festivity of Saint Roch is popular still nowadays among the Venetians. We participate to the rituals, but also to the annual traditional concert offered to the population for free in the night of August 16th. Come and participate, you too!
There are also many more details to tell about this church and the history of music. Recently in 2019 it has been used in a series of performances related to a contemporary artwork named 435 bridges and a few shortcuts (a collateral event at the Biennale Arte 2019) by the American artist David Horvitz who asked some Venetian children to play the organ. They played Stravinsky’s work Three easy pieces. The curator of this significative and original project is a lady born in Portugal, currently living in Paris, but also Venetian in her soul whose name is Silvia Guerra from Lab’bel.
In recent times this church was chosen by the Patriarch of Venice Francesco Moraglia to perform a special service asking Saint Roch to help the Venetian community and the world during the recent Sars-Cov2 pandemic.
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