It was 10:45 in the morning on a lovely, sunny day in picturesque Venice. We had a reservation at a restaurant near the Campo San Barnaba at noon, so we still had more than an hour to spend on the streets of the Serenissima. The Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari – simply called the ‘Frari’ by the locals – was in the vicinity, so we decided to pay this huge Gothic church a visit. The biggest question for us was whether the Frari could hold our attention until it was time for lunch. The simple answer is ‘yes’. The Frari church is a genuine repository of art, its cultural importance nowadays way outstripping its religious significance, although I assume this large Franciscan church in the sestiere of San Polo is still important from a religious point of view as well.
History of the church
In 1209, Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216) gave his oral approval to the community of the fratres minores, the Friars Minor. The Order of the Franciscans was born. Not long after the death of its founder Franciscus of Assisi in 1226, members of the Order started to arrive in Venice. In the 1230s, the Doge Jacopo Tiepolo (1229-1249) granted them a ruined Benedictine abbey in a marshy part of the city. This was hardly the most ideal place to start in Venice, but mendicant orders like the Franciscans tended to thrive in such circumstances. The first church on this spot was consecrated in 1280. It was a much smaller church than the current building and its orientation was different as well, the apse facing the northeast. Soon the church proved inadequate to accommodate the hordes of Venetians from the poorer classes who flooded the Frari to attend the masses. By the time of the death of the Doge Francesco Dandolo (1329-1339), who is buried in the chapterhouse of the Frari (see below), the decision had already been taken to demolish the old church and build a new and larger version facing the other way.
Construction of the new church started around 1340 and proceeded slowly over the next one hundred years. The new Frari has an apse facing the southwest and this part of the church was constructed first, while the old church was left standing and was still being used for religious services. The old Frari was finally demolished shortly after 1415 to start construction of the north-eastern part of the new church. The Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari that we see today was completed in 1442 and consecrated exactly fifty years later, on 27 May 1492. It is part of a larger complex including a monastery with two cloisters (not open to visitors).
The Frari has an elegant square campanile which was built between 1361 and 1396. The campanile stands some 70 metres tall and is the second highest in Venice (San Marco’s bell-tower has a height of just under 99 metres; do not be fooled by travel guides that claim that the Frari’s campanile is 83 metres high; it is not).
The church has several side entrances, but only a single main entrance at the front. The portal surrounding this entrance is simple, but elegant. It is in the Gothic style, with the pointed arch so typical of Gothic architecture, and features statues of Christ, the Madonna and Child and Saint Franciscus. Most of the facade is in naked brick. Above the main entrance is a rose window and there are three smaller round windows (oculi) as well. It is not easy to properly admire or take a good picture of the exterior of the church. The Frari is huge and hemmed in between many smaller buildings to its left and right. The square in front of the church is just tiny and to see the entire facade, one may have to cross the canal to avoid straining one’s neck muscles.
The interior of the church can be quite overwhelming. This is huge building, intended to accommodate large masses. Rather oddly, there are no pews in the nave and aisles, so if mass is still celebrated here, I suppose the church authorities bring in dozens of folding-chairs. Alternatively, they would let the congregation stand, as would have been the case in the Middle Ages (I doubt the worshippers are allowed to use the fifteenth century choir benches; see below). Twelve bulky columns – their number corresponds with the twelve Apostles – separate the nave from the aisles. The church is conspicuous for its use of painted beams between the columns and arches, which are meant to provide the church with extra stability. The Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was, like many Franciscan churches, built in the shape of a Tau Cross. As a result, there is no regular sanctuary and the transept is located at the end of the nave, forming a T. Examples of Franciscan churches with a similar plan can be found in Florence and Siena.
The nave is separated from the choir by a large screen made in 1475, a year mentioned on the screen itself in Roman numerals (MCCCCLXXV). It is attributed to Pietro Lombardo (ca. 1435-1515) or his workshop. Choir screens were mostly removed from Roman Catholic churches after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), but here in the Frari, the screen was fortunately preserved (for another example in Venice, see the Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello). Behind the screen are 124 wooden choir benches, called ‘a rare survival in Venice’ by one of my sources. The benches were made in 1468 and are attributed to Marco Cozzi (ca. 1420-after 1485), a fairly obscure sculptor from Vicenza. Cozzi worked on the fine carving of the benches with his younger brother Francesco, who died before the project was completed.
The most important and best-known work of art to be found here is probably Titian’s painting of the Assumption of the Virgin above the high altar. The painting is very large, measuring 6,9 by 3,6 metres, certainly one of the largest altarpieces in Venice. Its size is easily explained by the immense size of the church itself: the Frari is well over a hundred metres deep, and members of the flock standing at the back needed to be able to see the figures in the painting as well (and through the gate of the choir screen to boot). Titian (ca. 1488-1576) worked on the painting from 1516 until 1518. A traditionalist, the painter executed the work on wooden panels rather than on canvas. We see the Virgin Mary being carried up to heaven on a cloud supported by cherubs. Above her are God the Father and two angels, one of whom is carrying a crown for the Virgin. Below the cloud are the Apostles, clearly in awe of what is happening above them. The Assumption was removed from its original position in 1817 to be exhibited in the Accademia Gallery, but it returned to the Frari in 1919 and has been there ever since.
There is a second important work by Titian in the Frari, his Pesaro altarpiece, also known as the Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro. It has unfortunately been in restauration since 2013 and has been replaced by a photographic reproduction ever since. When we visited the church in July 2017, the original had still not been reinstated. The painting was commissioned from Titian by Jacopo Pesaro, the bishop of Paphos on Cyprus. He had played a role in the Venetian victory over an Ottoman-Turkish fleet at Lefkada (then called Santa Maura) in 1502. The battle was part of the Ottoman-Venetian War of 1499-1503 and it resulted in one of the preciously few Venetian victories during the conflict. In fact, the minor Venetian success at Santa Maura did nothing to change the fact that the war was a disaster for the Republic, which lost its important twin trading colonies of Modone and Corone on the Peloponnese.
Jacopo Pesaro had already commissioned Titian once to paint a canvas showing himself being presented to Saint Peter by Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). This work was presumably intended for the Pesaro family’s residence in Venice. In 1518, the family acquired a chapel in the Frari in the left aisle – actually little more than a niche – and Titian was hired once again to provide it with an altarpiece. The Pesaro altarpiece, painted between 1519 and 1526, shows Pesaro kneeling before a set of steps, upon which Saint Peter is seated (one of his keys is actually on the steps). The Madonna and Child are seated even higher. On the right are Saint Franciscus and Saint Antonius of Padua (also a Franciscan) and five more kneeling members of the extended Pesaro family. Little Leonardo Pesaro is looking at us. On the left are Turkish prisoners – note the turban – guarded by a Venetian officer with a banner. The banner has Pope Alexander VI’s coat-of-arms on it.
And there is much more to see in the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, this treasure trove of fifteenth and sixteenth century art. In the chapel directly to the right of the apse, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, we find a wonderful wooden statue of this saint by the Florentine artist Donatello (1386-1466). The statue, 141 centimetres in height, is usually dated to 1438. However, an alternative theory asserts that it is somewhat younger, as the statue’s style bears close resemblance to the artist’s later statue of the Penitent Magdalene, sculpted in the 1450s and now in the Duomo Museum in Florence. The chapel is also known as the Cappella dei Fiorentini, as it was used by members of the Florentine community. This explains the presence of a Donatello statue in Venice.
The Milanese had their own chapel in the Frari as well. The third chapel to the left of the apse is the Cappella dei Milanesi. Its main attraction is the altarpiece, started by Alvise Vivarini (died between 1503 and 1505) and completed after his death by Marco Basaiti (1470-1530). The painting is dominated by Saint Ambrosius, patron saint of Milan. Alvise’s uncle Bartolomeo Vivarini (died before 1500) provided works of art for the Frari as well. These can be found in the third and last chapel to the right of the apse – the Cappella Bernardo – and in the large chapel dedicated to San Marco on the far left side of the church.
Do not forget to take a look in the sacristy, where one can find Giovanni Bellini’s Frari triptych. Bellini (ca. 1430-1516) completed this work in 1488. In the centre of the triptych, we see a Madonna and Child on a throne and two angels. The left panel shows Saint Nicholas and Saint Peter, while on the right panel Bellini painted Saint Mark and Saint Benedictus.
One can reach the chapterhouse through the sacristy. Here the visitor can get a glimpse of the Cloister of the Holy Trinity (Chiostro della Trinità), which is regretfully not open to the public. Its present design is – somewhat tentatively it seems – attributed to Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), the great architect from Vicenza. There can, however, be no doubt that the project was only realised nine years after Palladio’s death, in 1589. The second cloister, the Chiostro di Sant’Antonio, is to the north-west of the first one and cannot even be admired from outside. It is attributed, again tentatively, to Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570).
Tombs of Doges
Four Venetian Doges were buried in the Frari church. The oldest tomb is in the chapterhouse. It was made for Francesco Dandolo (1329-1339). He had specifically requested to be buried in the Frari, a request that was not unproblematic as it had just been decided to pull down the church and rebuilt it from scratch. Since the Doge had left much of his fortune to the Franciscans, the problem had to be solved. The solution turned out to be quite simple: the tomb was placed in the chapterhouse. It is important for many reasons, if only because it features a panel depicting the Doge himself, ‘probably the oldest ducal portrait in Venice to be drawn from the life’.
On the left, the kneeling Doge Francesco is presented to the Madonna and Child by Saint Franciscus, his namesake. On the right, the Dogaressa Elisabetta Contarini is introduced by her namesake, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), an early Franciscan tertiary who was known for her charity. The panel painting is attributed to Paolo Veneziano (ca. 1300-1365). Below the painting is the actual sarcophagus, decorated with a relief showing the Dormitio Virginis, the Sleep (i.e. Death) of the Virgin. The Virgin is lying on a couch surrounded by the twelve Apostles and two angels. Behind the couch is Jesus Christ, with the young Virgin in his arms (see here and here for similar examples of this iconography).
Two Doges were buried in the apse of the church. Francesco Foscari’s reign as Doge between 1423 and 1457 was the longest in Venetian history and it can only be described as turbulent. Many important historical events took place in these years, ranging from the Councils of Ferrara and Florence in 1438-1439 to the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. It was a time of war for Venice, as she mainly fought against her arch enemy, Duke Filippo Maria Visconti of Milan. The Serenissima’s armies were commanded by famous condottierri such as Carmagnola (executed for treason in 1432), Gattamelata and even Francesco Sforza, who in 1450 would become Duke of Milan himself. In these troublesome years full of uncertainties Francesco Foscari captained the ship of state competently.
However, there were serious problems with his son, Jacopo. Jacopo was first condemned for bribery and exiled to Modone, but later allowed to return. He was then accused of murder, condemned and exiled again, to Crete this time. On Crete, Jacopo was charged with having engaged in secret correspondence with the Turkish sultan, for which he was brought back to Venice to stand trial a third time. The Doge’s son escaped the death penalty, but was sent back to Crete where he died just six months later. The death of his son hit old Francesco Foscari very hard. The Doge now basically ceased to function and on 22 October 1457, he was forced to abdicate by the Council of Ten, one of the Republic most important (and notorious) governing bodies. Francesco Foscari died little more than a week later, aged 84.
The Republic seems to have felt genuinely guilty about his death and gave Foscari a state funeral. His tomb in the Frari has been described as “an example of the curious transitional stage between Gothic and Renaissance”. Art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) was less kind. He complained that “this monument is remarkable as showing the refuse of one style encumbering the embryo of another”. Ruskin did not like the reclining effigy of the Doge very much either, haranguing the sculptor for having carved “a huge, gross, bony clown’s face”. Ruskin’s eyesight must have been very good, as the tomb is high up on the wall, but then again, he was probably allowed to enter the sacred area behind the high altar, which is now roped off. Anyway, I believe Mr. Ruskin was being a bit unfair, but I do admit that I like the tomb on the opposite wall better. This is the tomb of Nicolò Tron, Doge between 1471-1473. Tron had a few minor successes against the Turks, but never managed to win a decisive victory. His elaborate tomb seems to be more in line with his considerable wealth than with his achievements.
Giovanni Pesaro’s tomb is the last of the four Ducal tombs in the church. It is also the most opulent of the four, but – in my honest opinion – certainly not the most attractive one. Pesaro was Doge of Venice for little more than a year between 1658 and 1659. His Baroque tomb was designed by Baldassare Longhena (1598-1682). It can only be described as extravagant, with sculptures of the deceased, two dragons and allegories of Intelligence, Nobility, Wealth, and Study, as well as matching pairs of statues representing Religion and Constancy and Truth and Justice. The Latin text between the dragons reads HIC REVIXIT ANNO MDCLXIX, indicating that the monument was completed in 1669. The upper part of the tomb rests on four columns in the shape of Moors. Note that the poor Moors’ difficult job has been made a little bit more comfortable by the provision of pillows for their necks and shoulders. Between the Moors are macabre skeletons holding up scrolls. The monument is definitely intriguing, but Baroque pomp is just not my style, I guess.
Tombs of artists
The Frari church is famous for two enormous tombs of artists, which can be found close to the entrance. In the left aisle, we find the peculiar tomb of Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Venice’s most famous Neo-classicist sculptor. The tomb has the shape of a pyramid and was actually in a way designed by the master himself. Canova made plans for a pyramidal tomb for Titian, to serve as a worthy monument for the great painter, who had been buried in the Frari church since 1576 without a proper tomb. However, a few years after the artist’s own death in 1822, his students copied the design, raised money all over Europe and erected a pyramidal tomb for their master himself.
The tomb only houses Canova’s heart, a tiny piece of his body in a huge monument. Apparently, the heart was not interred in the pyramid itself, but in the jar held by the cloaked and veiled figure near the entrance. This figure represents Sculpture. Painting and Architecture can be seen on the right, obviously in deep mourning. The rest of the sculptor’s remains were interred in Possagno, the small town in the Veneto where the artist was born.
So what about the tomb for Titian? This prolific painter died of the plague in 1576. All he got in return for his services as an artist was a simple floor tile marking his grave. In the nineteenth century, this was felt to be unacceptable by both the Venetian population and the Austrian authorities (since 1815, Venice had been part of the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia, which was itself part of the Austrian Empire). The Austrians commissioned the brothers Luigi and Pietro Zandomeneghi, pupils of Canova, to provide the great artist with a matching tomb. The brothers worked on the tomb between 1838 and 1852.
Whether you like the result is a matter of taste. I am not overtly fond of this Neo-classicist extravagance, but I do like the reliefs on the tomb, which depict some of Titian’s most important religious works: behind the sculpture of Titian himself, we can actually admire the sculpted version of the Assumption of the Virgin (see above)!
Sources for this post include three travel guides – Trotter, Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) – as well as the Churches of Venice website. Additional information came from John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’ and from the Web Gallery of Art.
 John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 209.
 All quotes are from John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 339-340.