Saturday, 25 July 2020

X - Fourth act: fourth itinerary

This itinerary passes through the characteristic lower class Sestiere of Castello.  It includes the Church of Sta. Maria Formosa.

Santa Maria Formosa - San Lorenzo - Santa Maria Formosa 

The fourth itinerary is quite unlike the rest of Lorenzetti’s walks in character.  It strikes out into the relatively unknown eastern reaches of Venice.  This is no longer a guided tour of a city you wish to know better; this is another city altogether, though clearly a sibling.  The itinerary culminates in the intimate surroundings of Santa Maria Formosa.  For most tourists this is likely to be as strange and unfamiliar as the rest, even though it lies only a little way off from the Piazza San Marco.  For me, though, reaching it is like coming home.

For once, the initial stages of the itinerary repeat those of another.  I leave the Piazza San Marco under the clock tower, and pass along the bustling Mercerie to the Campo San Zulian.  The previous itinerary had also reached this point, but there Lorenzetti had hurried on with other goals in mind, leaving full contemplation to another time.

Now he stops and points out the curious facade, a window in the pediment, its stones covered with grime and soot, easily missed by those rushing past.  It is as much a monument as a religious building.  There are inscriptions in Greek and Hebrew extolling the virtues of the church’s benefactor, and there is a small relief by Sansovino depicting him.

But Lorenzetti has dived down a tiny alley by the side of the church, and passed over a couple of bridges.  Following him, to my surprise I find myself already in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa; for a moment I feel lost, disoriented: Santa Maria Formosa was supposed to be the conclusion of our walk, and to form the climax of my stay in Venice.  Its sudden, unexpected presence here is like a small but frightening betrayal of all that Lorenzetti’s ordered itineraries stand for.

But I am over-reacting: in fact we are just skirting the campo.  To be more precise I am in the Campiello Querini-Stampalia, near the gallery of the same name.  As is often the case, Lorenzetti makes this gallery a small itinerary of its own, which he places at the back of his book.  Today the gallery is closed, so I have no choice but to follow the main itinerary rather than make a diversion.

I pass over the Fonte Ruga Giuffa, then down the Ruga Giuffa itself.  To the left there is the Palazzo Grimani.  A left turn takes me down the beautifully named Salizzada Zorzi, a transformation of the name Giorgio.  After a bridge and a long, straight road, I emerge in front of the Lorenzetti’s own church of San Lorenzo or St. Lawrence -  Lorenzetti  means ‘the family of the little Lawrences’.  The saint’s death was particularly horrible: he was martyred by being slowly roasted alive on a griddle.

His church is situated at the bottom of a deep courtyard, surrounded on two sides by high buildings, which reaches down to the Ponte Lorenzo where I now stand, a spot little changed from its appearance in Gentile Bellini’s ‘Miracle of the Cross which fell into the Canal at S  Lorenzo’ in the Accademia Gallery.  The church facade is very simple, built of dark bricks, but very strong.  It is also rather melancholy.   As Lorenzetti writes, the church was damaged in the First World War; he also wrote - in 1926 presumably - that it was in the process of restoration.  It still is, a sad state for what is an impressive building.

Once more Lorenzetti takes a small turning which no tourist would ever find except by chance, and having found it would certainly never take.  After passing the Scuola of San Giorgio Schiavoni with its fine collection of Carpaccio paintings - also closed today -  I move on and enter a real warren of backstreets.

There is the Campo Ugo Foscolo, commemorating where that brooding poet lived.  Once it was called dei Gatti - of the cats - apparently a wonderful mangling of the phrase ‘i legati’ - the legates - since the latter used to live here too.  The names generally have a certain charm round here: there is the Ponte della Scoazzera - the bridge of rubbish - and the Campo a Fianco della Chiesa - the square alongside the church.

Lorenzetti’s maps are hard enough to follow when he gives detailed instructions on how to find the well-known streets.  There is no indication of distance either in the text or from the maps, and exactly when you turn left or cross a bridge is unclear.  Around here things are even worse.  I reach the Calle del Cimitero - Cemetery Avenue - but search in vain for Lorenzetti’s next marker, the Calle dietro il Campo della Confraternità - itself named for its relative position.  Uncharacteristically for Venice, there seems to be a large open space, or several smaller ones connected together, with blocks of houses dotted around like islands of an archipelago, making it hard to sense overall direction.  For a period I am lost.

At last I find the exit, which takes me to the Church of San Francesco della Vigna, so named after the vineyard which was left to the original friars in 1253.  The facade is familiar, not because I have seen it before - which I may have done in my previous wanderings in Venice - but because it is a typical Palladian design, with his favourite twin pediments, one piercing the other.  It is built on a massive scale, and unlike San Giorgio Maggiore, or his church of Il Redentore, you can move back from it and take in its proportions in a way that you cannot with those other churches, built as they are on the edge of the sea.  But even with this building, Palladio has been unlucky: the right-hand side is obscured by a block of flats built too near.

The interior is rather four-square, and done out in the same grey and white as Santa Maria della Salute.  It is light and airy, and according to Lorenzetti’s description, packed with works of minor artists.

From there, I pass along more backstreets, and then to Barbaria delle Tole, an interesting street which emerges alongside the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.  It is a busy and bustling thoroughfare, clearly one of the shopping centres for the district.  The sounds carry strangely; as I walk along I can hear a woman’s voice from one of the upper stories of a house beside the road.  She shouts and screams unremittingly.  No one else takes any notice.

Before reaching the end of this street, the path turns left down a small side alley, over a couple of small bridges, and then suddenly I find myself in the Calle Lunga, a narrow alley I walked down many times every day during my first visit to Venice.  As past maps on to present, my feet remember the paving stones.  True to its name, the alley is long, and at the end it opens out into the attractive Campo Santa Maria Formosa - the Square of Shapely Mary.

The name of the church derives from the legend of the visions of the seventh century San Magno, Bishop of Oderzo, to whom the Madonna appeared in the form of a shapely matron.  According to the tradition relayed by Lorenzetti, Santa Maria Formosa was one of eight churches built by the saint.  Whatever its origins, we know that it was rebuilt at the end of the fifteenth century to a design of one Mauro Coducci, a prolific architect who was responsible for many of Venice’s famous landmarks, including one side of the Piazza San Marco.  Aptly enough, then, Santa Maria Formosa was designed partly in imitation of the central part of San Marco.

The connection goes deeper, as if the architect had been haunted by the image of San Marco and its campanile in the great piazza.  Viewed from the north end of the Campo Sta. Maria Formosa, the church and its campanile bear a striking resemblance to San Marco seen from the west end of its piazza.  It is more a similarity of spirit than details; the styles are quite different.  Santa Maria Formosa is transitional between late Renaissance and early Baroque in its two main facades, facing west and north.  The latter is the more ornate.

It has an elaborate doorway - not used at present - with two columns supporting a broken circular pediment.  Above it, there is a lunette window, and above that, a further small pediment.  The broad roof passes via two volutes to four simple arches which flank the doorway, each of which is separated by ionic pilasters.  There are three portrait busts of the Cappello family, one above the doorway, and two either side above the nearest arches, and five statues along the top of the pediment.  The high dome has been rebuilt several times, once after an earthquake in 1688 and again after an incendiary device damaged the church and its contents in 1916.

The campanile is more boisterously Baroque, and was built in 1611.  The belfry and pinnacle are wildly ornate, and over the entrance there is a grotesque mask which moved Ruskin to write in his ‘Stones of Venice’ one of his eloquent splutterings which seem so disproportionate to their occasion. Indeed, he characterises Santa Maria Formosa as one of the first examples of what he calls ‘grotesque renaissance’, given over to the glory of Man not God, and cites San Moisè and Santa Maria Zobenigo as other offenders.

It all seems a bit much for this quiet little church.  Though as Lorenzetti and Ruskin note, Santa Maria Formosa was once an important place of pilgrimage for no less a person than the Doge himself.  On the occasion of his annual visit to commemorate the rescue of Venetian brides from the hands of Slav pirates by the local makers of marriage chests, the Doge would receive a straw hat.  This ceremony took place for centuries - possibly seven of them if the legends are true - until the fall of the Republic itself in 1797.  As a sad reminder of this lost continuity, the last hat ever given is kept in the Correr Museum.

I enter the church, and am greeted by what looks like a typically unpretentious seventeenth or eighteenth century interior, and moreover a living parish church.  With his customary meticulousness, Lorenzetti details each work of art to be found there, including the altarpiece of Santa Barbara which won Palma il Vecchio great renown in his day. Appropriately enough for this church, the female saint is what Lorenzetti calls “a splendid type of buxom female beauty”.

Every time that Lorenzetti launches into one of his extraordinarily detailed descriptions of a church’s interior, its architects, sculptors and artists, I am amazed at the effort expended, the doggedness with which he seeks out every work, consults every authority on its attribution, its quality.  I feel embarrassed that I cannot do justice to this dedication, this diligence, even on a site which is of such great personal significance to me.  I can only wander around, looking at as much as I can, flicking through his book, then stumble out into the cold open air again, saturated with facts and images, my head buzzing.

Outside, Lorenzetti is still eagerly dragging me forward, imparting information.  He tells me about the beautiful private houses in Campo Santa Maria Formosa: the Palazzo Malipiero-Trevisi, Palazzo Vitturi, Palazzo Doria, Palazzo Priuli.  Lorenzetti could doubtless tell me even more: the names suggest rich and complex histories; constraints of space alone preclude it.

Some other things he does not tell me.  He omits any mention of the palazzo wall opposite the church, beloved of the Venetian children who pound a plastic football against it again and again, causing arrhythmic, hollow thuds to echo around the square.  He says nothing of the well-head in the middle of the campo; he never mentions my favourite café on the corner of the Calle Lunga, with its dog-eared copy of the pink Il Gazzettino dello Sport on the counter and screwed-up paper napkins on the floor like gross confetti; nor refers to the pizzeria where, as an early customer in a hurry, I ate my last meal before leaving Venice for the first time, and which has since turned into a popular restaurant called ‘Il burchiello’.  He even remains silent about what lies at the end of the Calle Lunga.  But I expect too much: such a book would be a personal Lorenzetti; the one he left us is universal.

So, almost reluctant to leave this magic square, I follow in the footsteps of the master once more.  He is taking me round the back of the campo, over a bridge from which I can see the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, reminding me how near I am to that landmark.  He leads me down a calle and over a bridge or two, to the Ponte delle Bande, so-called as one of the first bridges to have parapets, and then to the Calle della Guerra, leading to the Campo della Guerra via the Ponte della Guerra - clearly a place of strife, this - where one of those daft Venetian street battles took place between rival factions in the city.  The losers of these melees on bridges still without parapets ended up in the canal, often as not with broken heads and bones to boot.

And all this a stone’s throw - and a few probably were thrown in these little wars - from the august and dignified San Marco.  Once more my guide has brought me safely home to the haven of the Piazza.  And yet however glad I am to have accomplished my itinerary, to have reached my goal, I am still a little sad to part from Lorenzetti, to have left behind all the hidden corners of the city.  Leaving them and striding across the open space in front of San Marco is a little like leaving the claustrophobic world of Venice for the ordinary world outside.  We will always hanker for those special, secret places - like the tiny backstreets way out east, like the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, like Venice itself.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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