We spent one day in Venice on our way to Croatia and it was certainly not enough. We decided that Venice was best explored once we had gotten over our jet lag so from Dubrovnik we flew to Venice and packed in as much sightseeing and eating as we could in four days.
The evening of our return to Venice we ate at Antiche Carampane. The meal was worth getting lost and turning down a few wrong streets and alleys. I ran through what we ate in my previous post here. In the morning we walked to the neighborhood of San Polo to see the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and I Frari. One of the many amazing things about Venice is how you can walk down the street and all of a sudden among regular looking buildings are these monuments of architectural history. The building facade and architecture of the Scuola are ignored because of the Tintoretto masterpieces inside but take a step back and marvel at the 16th century windows, doors, garlands, capitals and figures leaning out from niches. They give you a slight hint of the wonder of what’s inside, but I’m not sure anything can prepare you.
Before we plunge in let’s discuss what a scuola is. According to the website for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco:
“The institutions known as “Scuole” had already emerged in Venice by medieval times. They were lay brotherhoods, under the protection of a Patron Saint, made up of middle-class citizens and in particular immigrants, craftsmen and merchants, that pledged to follow the Mariegola. Patricians only affiliated with the most important Scuole for reasons of prestige or to ensure for themselves the spiritual advantages that membership could procure. Citizens of lower social status or who were involved in less respectable work were not accepted, as was also the case for women, if they were not family members of a confratello.”
Mindful of foreign workers in Venice, scuole dedicated to Croatians, Albanians and citizens of other Italian cities emerged to provide financial and spiritual assistance. The most important scuole were religious performing charitable work and assisting members in times of sickness or death. If a scuola was wealthy enough they could construct their own building otherwise they met in a church or a rented location. Besides donations, government and church funding, scuole relied on the cult of saints to bring in revenue. Some of the relics were real and some were stolen but this was nothing new. Another way to venerate the scuola’s saint was to illustrate their life story, which fueled many artists’ careers.
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was established in 1478. In 1315, at the age of 20, San Rocco (St. Roch) began wandering southern France and northern Italy aiding plague victims. Somehow he survived despite being exposed to it and continued his efforts until his death 12 years later. His body made its way to Venice and he became the patron saint of plague-prevention.
Tintoretto took no chances in winning the commission of paintings that decorate the interior of the Scuola. Rather than submitting sketches like his rival Veronese for the planned paintings he painted a ceiling panel (tondo) dedicated to San Rocco and gifted it to the Scuola. Who could say no to a gift like that? I wish I could have taken pictures but they are forbidden. Fortunately there’s a gallery on the Scuola website and you don’t have to crane your neck backwards or use a mirror to view it. My favorite paintings was “The Crucifixion.” It’s in a room off the main upper hall. When I turned the corner I couldn’t believe my eyes. The 1565 painting measures approximately 17 x 40 feet! and is packed with so much dynamic activity. I don’t know if there’s a reproduction that will ever do it justice, but here’s a shot:
In addition to the paintings the other decorative elements of the Scuola, like the inlaid marble and stone patterns on the floor and the carved wood sculpture and figures of the wood panelling, are spectacular. After the visual overload it was time for lunch. We wandered back to Dorsoduro and found Do Farai. The highlight was the crudo of branzino prepared tableside (pictures below). The other exciting part of the restaurant was its sponsorship of winning participants of the Regata Storica. They had photos and pennants of the winning Rosso (red) teams on the walls and plenty of stories to share. Not bad for a day in Venice.