San Giorgio Maggiore

Venice, begun 1566

Architect:  Palladio





San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, which was designed by Andrea Palladio, stands on the Island of St. George.  It can be viewed from the jetty in front of the Doge's Palace and the Library of San Marco, which are across the lagoon.  The scenic quality of this view was recorded by the many later painters of vedute (scenic views) like Francesco Guardi (1712-93).


The Doge's Palace and the Library of San Marco, in turn, can be seen from the piazza in front of the church.


Reconstruction of the Monastery

The church of San Giorgio Maggiore was part of a Benedictine monastery whose various parts were added or rebuilt during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


Unfortunately, the reconstruction process led to the removal of a library that Michelozzo designed in 1433 for Cosimo de' Medici, who lived in Venice during the two years he spent in exile from Florence.


In the early 1560s, Palladio was involved with building the monastery's refectory (dining room) and making repairs to the existing church.  The refectory was decorated with Veronese's painting of the Wedding at Cana, which was taken to France by Napoleon, who removed a number of treasures from Venice.


Decision to Replace the Church

Partly in response to the recent recommendations concerning church design from the Council of Trent, it was decided to replace the church with a new one.  The new church needed to accommodate the annual procession of the Doge and the choir of St. Mark's on St. Stephen's Day, as well as the crowds that came to hear the Mass.





Use of Two Temple Fronts

Palladio's solution to the problem of applying Classical forms and principles to the façade of a basilica to accommodate the differing heights of the nave and the side aisles was to combine two temple fronts of different scales.  A tall narrow one corresponds to the higher nave portion, and a lower, wider one corresponds to the side aisles.


The two systems differ from each other in several ways that put great emphasis on the central temple front.  Most noticeable is the level of outward projection of its features, which is greater in the center where engaged columns carry deep entablatures than on the outer parts where pilasters carry shallower members.  Palladio used the Composite order, which he considered to be the most decorative of the orders, for the central system and the Corinthian order for the pilasters at the sides.


Dual Scale of the Orders

In using a dual-scale for the orders, Palladio followed Alberti's Sant' Andrea, where columns of the colossal order were first used.


Earlier Uses of Upper-Story Temple Fronts

Palladio's use of a temple front that corresponds to the nave was preceded by a long series of churches having temple fronts on their upper stories.  Well known in Florence is the eleventh-century church of San Miniato al Monte, whose classicism is compromised by the patterning of its surfaces.


In the fifteenth century, upper-story temple fronts were utilized by Alberti's Santa Maria Novella and by the Roman churches of Santa Maria del Popolo, Sant' Agostino, and San Pietro in Montorio.


See more about Axial-Church Façades.


Integration of Side-Aisle Roofs into Design

The differing heights of the nave and side aisles of churches caused architects throughout the Renaissance to struggle to design a façade that would accommodate these differing heights, both structurally and aesthetically.  Palladio's solution problem integrates design and structure by incorporating the actual pitch of the roof rather than merely concealing it behind scrolls like those of Santa Maria Novella or squared screens like the façade proposed for San Lorenzo in Florence by Michelangelo.


Variations on Palladio's solution are evident in the fifteenth century.  The medal illustrating Alberti's design for the unfinished Malatesta Temple suggests pediment ends at the sides, but the curved contours give them the character of decorative screens.  The constructed portion of the Malatesta suggests that Alberti may have modified the side roofs to be more pediment-like. Codussi's variation, San Zaccaria in Venice, has even less resemblance to a pediment.


Unity through Repetition

The two different temple-front systems of San Giorgio Maggiore are unified by the repetition of similar features.





Similar Church Façades by Palladio

In using multiple temple fronts, the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore is similar to those of Palladio's other two churches in Venice, the earlier-designed San Francesco alla Vigna and the later-designed Il Redentore.


Churches Following this Façade Solution

A façade configuration using two temple-fronts could readily be adapted to other basilicas, as illustrated by the façade of the Cathedral at Urbino, which was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1789 destroyed the fifteenth-century cathedral.  The façade differs from Palladio's models in using high-relief Composite order pilasters for both temple fronts, which creates a harsher appearance.


Lack of Influence on Baroque Church Façades

Despite its brilliance, Palladio's façade solution had little influence on the design of subsequent basilican façades.  Like Bramante's reductive classicism, Palladio's solution was a final solution that left little room for development along the same lines.  At the end of the century, the controlling principles of clarity and simplicity were being replaced by crescendo-building complication. Baroque church façades tended to follow the avenue begun by Giacomo della Porta's façade of Il Gesù and Carlo Maderno's Santa Susanna.  Both façades screen the side-aisle roofs with scrolls in the tradition of Alberti's Santa Maria Novella.





Coordination with the Façade

As they are on the façade, the orders on the interior of San Giorgio Maggiore are used in two sizes and types:  the large ones are of the Composite order, and the small ones are of the Corinthian.

The façade and the interior also correspond in not using ornamentation aside from that detailing the orders.


Combining Engaged Columns and Pilasters

Although the same two column forms, engaged columns and pilasters, are used both inside and out, they are not used in the same way.


On the façade, the colossal members are all engaged columns, but on the interior, the colossal members are both engaged columns and pilasters.


Freestanding Columns

Freestanding columns are used inside the Church for a screen in front of the monks' choir.





Unusual Shape of Plan

In contrast to most cruciform churches, the crossing is closer to the entrance than to the apse at the far end.


Special Needs of the Patron

The apse end was unusually long because it contained areas that served both the monastery and the Venetian state.


Large choir. An unusually large choir was needed because on St. Stephen's Day, a choir from St. Mark's would come here and be combined with the Benedictine choir.


Monastery-related features. The use of a monks' choir, a deep transept, and side aisles instead of chapels on each side reflected the needs of the Benedictine monastery to which it is attached.


Distinguished-visitor area. Another bay like those of the nave was placed between the crossing and the presbytery (area containing high altar) for the use of distinguished visitors like the doge or other important state officials.





Recommendations by Council of Trent

In accordance with the recommendations by the Council of Trent in 1563, San Giorgio Maggiore included several features that enhanced the worshippers' ability to see and hear the services from the nave.


Placement of Monks' Choir behind Altar

To assure the laity an unobstructed view of the high altar, the monks' choir was placed behind it.


Screen Separating Monks' Choir

A screen of columns and arches formed a background to the altar and partially blocked the monks' choir from view.


Elevation of Altar

Elevation of the altar increased its visibility from a distance.  Steps around the altar elevated it above the chancel floor, and steps at the end of the distinguished-visitors area elevated the chancel.


Barrel Vault over Nave

Because of its acoustical superiority, a barrel vault was used over the nave to make the services more audible to the laity within.


Thermal Windows in the Clerestory

To provide optimum lighting for viewing processions and rites, clerestory windows were placed in the bases of the barrel vaults over the nave, east end, and transept arms.  Windows having three parts and a semicircular shape are called thermal windows because they resemble the windows of ancient Roman baths, known as thermae.


See more about the design of Palladio's axial churches.   See more about Axial-Plan Churches.


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Palladio 6 of 7