The island of Murano has been famous for its glassmaking industry for over 700 years. In 1291, the government of Venice ordered all glassmakers in the city to move their foundries to Murano. The official reason was that this move was necessary to protect the city against fires (making glass requires tremendous heat), but the real reason seems to have been the wish to concentrate the glassmakers in one, somewhat isolated location, where the secret of Venetian glassmaking could be protected and preserved. Here on Murano, the glassmakers were zealously guarded by the Venetian secret police. Dozens of glass foundries are still active on the island, mostly for tourists, and although the skills of the glassmakers cannot be questioned, much of their production today is sadly pure kitsch.
This post is not about Murano glass, but about a church that is located near a fairly spectacular work of glass art, the Cometa di Vetro. This “Glass Comet” can be found at the northern end of the Fondamenta Manin. Directly opposite, on the other side of the canal, we find the sixteenth century church of San Pietro Martire.
A first church and a Dominican monastery were constructed on this site from the second half of the fourteenth century onwards. The church was consecrated in 1417 and dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Unfortunately, this church became the victim of a fire in 1474 and was completely destroyed. One may be tempted to think that the fire was caused by one of the glass foundries, especially now that the quay to the east of the church is called the Fondamenta dei Vetrai – the quay of the glassmakers. Tempting as this explanation may sound, there is not a single source that mentions it, and since churches burn down for all sorts of reasons, it may just as well have been a candle or a careless Dominican monk.
In any case, the church was quickly rebuilt and enlarged. The current campanile was erected between 1498 and 1502 and the new church opened its doors in 1511. Honouring the Dominican roots of the complex, the church was now dedicated to Saint Peter Martyr, the Dominican preacher and inquisitor who was killed by a heretic in 1252. His canonisation the next year was one of the fastest in the history of the Roman Catholic church. Saint Peter’s tomb – a magnificent monument by the Pisan artist Giovanni di Balduccio – can be found in the church of Sant’Eustorgio in Milan. The saint is often depicted with a meat cleaver or some other cutting device entrenched in his skull, a reference to his murder, which was apparently quite bloody.
But back to Murano. The church of San Pietro Martire was in operation for about 300 years. Then, in 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte abolished the Republic of Venice. In 1806, the San Pietro Martire was closed and stripped of most of its artworks, which were moved to the Accademia in Dorsoduro. The church was reopened as a parish church in 1813 and rededicated to Saints Peter – the Apostle, not the Martyr – and Paul. In 1840 it got back its former name, San Pietro Martire. The church was embellished with works of art taken from other suppressed churches and monasteries on Murano and other islands in the lagoon. Therefore, the interior decoration of the church can hardly be considered original. This is especially the case with regard to one of the most famous paintings, the so-called Pala Barbarigo.
Interior of the church
Agostino Barbarigo was Doge of Venice from 1486 until his death in 1501. The last years of his reign were troubled, as Venice lost many of her possessions in Greece to the Turks. The Pala Barbarigo is a large painting by Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1427-1516), executed in 1488, which features the Doge kneeling before the Virgin and Child. The Doge is flanked by Saint Mark, who introduces him to the Virgin. Also in the scene are two angels playing musical instruments and Saint Augustinus of Hippo, the Doge’s namesake. The painting was originally made for the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), but moved to Murano upon Barbarigo’s death. As had been stipulated in the deceased’s will, it ended up on the high altar of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where two of the Doge’s daughters served as nuns. The painting was moved to the San Pietro Martire in 1815 and can be considered one of the highlights in the church.
There used to be another work by Bellini (or his studio) in the San Pietro Martire. One of my travel guides still claims that the painting of the Virgin in Glory with Saints can be found in the church. Apparently these guides are never updated, because the painting – a late work, perhaps executed shortly before the artist’s death – was removed for restoration in the 1990s. Italian Wikipedia claims it is in the Accademia nowadays, but the author of the omniscient Churches of Venice website found it in the Venice Diocesan Museum. When I visited the San Pietro Martire in July 2017, I could not find the painting in the church. It definitely looks like it will not be returning to Murano soon.
Fortunately, the church has a few other works of art that our worth our attention. The large painting of the Baptism of Christ in the right aisle is usually attributed to Tintoretto (1518-1594). Elsewhere in the church, we find paintings by Tintoretto’s son Domenico (1560-1635) and by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588). The large paintings on the walls of the Cappella Maggiore, directly behind the altar, are works by Bartolomeo Letterini (1669-1748). They represent the Wedding at Cana and the Multiplication of bread and fish. Unfortunately, it can be quite dark inside the church, especially on a rainy day. This can make it hard to admire the true beauty of the works of art.