Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Beautiful Building

The Redentore, Venice, designed by Andrea Palladio.

Exterior facing the Giudecca Canal.


Dome and vaults of the interior

The Redentore was Palladio's last and greatest church, built on the Giudecca, far from the city center, but visible from San Marco. Like so many splendid Venetian things, it has it origins in the plague. A visitation of the plague in 1576 killed approximately 46,000 to 50,000 people, almost a third of the city's population. Among the more famous victims was the great painter Titian. The Venetian Senate publicly prayed to Christ the Redeemer to deliver the city. The plague soon lifted, and the Senate resolved to build a church in gratitude, and to build it quickly. Construction began in 1577, but was not finished until 1592. The church was to be under the care of the Capuchin friars. About 20 monks still live in the monastery attached to the church. The Senate also resolved to make a solemn procession through the city to the church every year, a tradition that continues to this day, every 3rd Sunday in July (today the Festa del Redentore is part solemn religious observance and part huge party on the water concluding with a spectacular fireworks display). It was decided to locate the church across the wide Giudecca canal, which meant that the concluding length of the annual procession takes place across a temporary pontoon bridge built for the occasion. The church was to be the destination of a long pilgrimage procession through the city.

Palladio beautifully finesses some difficult problems with this building. Palladio, the arch-classicist whose building designs and surveys of ancient Roman buildings would have a huge influence on English and American architecture (especially on Jefferson), was required by Counter-Reformation church regulations to incorporate a very large nave into a classical design. The Capuchin friars, who were given charge of the church, wanted it to be built primarily out of brick with a minimal amount of marble used on on the facade. The dome of the church, like the domes of all great Venetian churches, was required to harmonize with the 5 domes of the great 11th century Byzantine Church of San Marco in the city center. The church would face north, its facade in perpetual shadow, and its apse facing the full force of the direct southern sunlight.

The Redentore, in my opinion, is the West's answer to the Taj Mahal. It is an incredibly beautiful building that remains neglected in the architecture survey textbooks and on tourist itineraries, mostly because of its distance from the city center. The facade is a brilliant variation on Alberti's original idea to incorporate the Roman triumphal arch and temple portico into a single structure. It describes the nave and side chapels behind it splendidly. Architecture, like music, is about the transitions, and the transitions from part to part in this building have a happy inevitability that by all logic shouldn't work. The building is a hybrid of disparite influences; Roman classical architecture (as interpreted by Alberti), a medieval nave floor plan, and Byzantine, and even Islamic, elements in the dome and bell towers. Palladio turns the awkward lighting of the site into an advantage in the splendid interior. The light of the church's interior brightens in stages as it moves south to the altar. It is an effect that is hard to photograph. We move from the diffuse light of the nave to the brighter light of the domed apse above the altar. In a brilliant stroke, Palladio puts the monks' choir behind the altar, and makes it the most brilliantly lit part of the church silhouetting the screen of tall Corinthian columns behind the altar. Palladio wanted the light to be the main drama in his church interiors, and discouraged extensive fresco painting and decoration. The austere Capuchins were happy to oblige.

What so strikes me about Palladio's best work is not so much the order and the harmony of his buildings, but that the effect in the end is so happy. The sensation of his architecture is like that of so much of Mozart's music, not so much grandeur and order, but happiness. The great German poet Goethe always insisted that classicism is about health. Palladio's architecture, like Mozart's music is about not just health, but happy resolutions. And in this case, it is the happy transcendent resolution to a very dark chapter in Venice's history, the assurance that all those lost in the disaster of 1576 rest with the saints in light.


motheramelia said...

I saw it from a distance, but had no idea of its importance or beauty. Oh well, I hope there will be a next time in Venice.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Beutifully said!

Leonard said...

the great 11th century Byzantine Church of San Marco in the city center...Counterlight

The most beautiful, and oppulent, Church I´ve ever been inside...my idea of lush to the max.

Thanks for the Venice visit.

June Butler said...

I remember seeing the church from across the canal, but like Amelia, I knew nothing about it and never saw the interior. How I regret that after seeing these pictures. It is magnificent.

JCF said...

I think you meant to say it faces South (if its facade to the North is always in shadow, and its apse to the South is always in sun). Was that novel at the time? [Traditionally, I thought a church was supposed to face East: Christ coming w/ the rising sun on the Last Day]

Very interesting: I'd not heard of this church before.