During our visit to the splendid church of Santa Maria in Organo in the summer of 2021 we met an exceptionally kind and erudite guide who gave us a tour of the building for free. The man only spoke Italian, but when that became too technical for us, he could make use of his smartphone and Google Translate. The guide took us to the truly magnificent sacristy of the church, to the choir and even to the crypt. The Santa Maria in Organo can boast of nice paintings and frescoes, but the absolute highlight in the church is the inlaid woodwork (intarsia) present here. This was made by Fra Giovanni da Verona (ca. 1457-1525), a noted polymath who was a sculptor, woodcarver, miniaturist and architect at the same time. His work made a lasting impression on the painter, architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574).
According to tradition, the history of the church and the adjacent convent goes back to the Early Middle Ages. The complex was said to have been built by a Longobard named Lupus, who was duke of the Friuli in the 660s. The monks that settled in the convent were Benedictines who were under the authority of the patriarch of Aquileia. The complex was heavily damaged during the notorious earthquake that struck Verona in 1117 and it was rebuilt in 1131. More than 300 years later, in 1444, church and convent passed to monks belonging to the Order of Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto. They too followed the rule of Saint Benedictus. The Olivetans thoroughly renovated the medieval complex and Fra Giovanni played a prominent role as architect of the project.
The present church dates from the end of the fifteenth century, while in 1547 and attempt was made to provide the building with a new façade. The architect of the façade was Michele Sanmicheli (1484-1559). It is crystal clear that this part of the church was never completed. The contrast between the lower part that is made of marble and the old brick façade that extends above it is rather odd, but not necessarily ugly. Unlike the façade, the bell-tower designed by Fra Giovanni was completed, albeit in 1533, so after the architect had already died. The tower is a bit of an oddity as well, as it is somewhat at an angle to the church. The same goes for the sacristy, which means the complex is still symmetrical. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, in the Napoleonic era, the Olivetans were expelled from their convent. The Santa Maria in Organo later became parochial.
Originally the church was situated close to a minor branch of the river Adige called the Canale dell’Acqua Morta (“channel of the dead water”). The name had little to do with death and destruction, and everything with the fact that the current was very slow here. In 1882 the Adige overflooded its banks and it was decided to drain this branch. The name of the street where we find the church reminds us of this intervention: the Interrato dell’Acqua Morta. Unfortunately the crypt of the church was often flooded. As a consequence, all we find below are a few traces of frescoes, but the rest has been lost. The name of the church is, by the way, also related to water. An organum was a kind of Roman water mill. Presumably there was such a mill on the spot where we now find the bell-tower.
In the sixteenth century, many famous painters became involved in the decoration of the interior of the church. They included Niccolò Giolfino (1476-1555), Domenico Morone (ca. 1442-1518), his son Francesco (1471-1529), Paolo Farinati (1524-1606), Domenico Brusasorzi (1516-1567), his son Felice (1539-1605) and finally Giovan Francesco Caroto (ca. 1480-1555). Caroto is also buried in the church. Perhaps the most famous artist active in this church was Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). In 1497 Mantegna painted his Pala Trivulzio for the high altar of the Santa Maria in Organo. Regretfully the panel is no longer in the church. Art enthusiasts can nowadays find it in the Pinacoteca of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. Verona’s Castelvecchio also has a couple of works that come from this church. The current altarpiece is an Assumption by Giacinto Brandi (1621-1691).
But the greatest artist of the Santa Maria in Organo is undeniably Fra Giovanni. In his biography of Raphael, Vasari first discusses Raphael’s work in the Stanza della Segnatura in Rome and then tells us:
“The Pope was very well satisfied with this work; and in order to make the panelling worthy of the paintings, he sent to Monte Oliveto di Chiusuri, a place in the territory of Siena, for Fra Giovanni da Verona, a great master at that time of perspective-views in inlaid woodwork, who made there not only the panelling right round, but also very beautiful doors and seats, wrought with perspective-views, which brought him great favour, rewards, and honour from the Pope. And it is certain that in that craft there was never any man more able than Giovanni, either in design or in workmanship: of which we still have proof in the Sacristy, wrought most beautifully with perspective-views in woodwork, of S. Maria in Organo in his native city of Verona.”
The guide first took us to the sacristy, which was built in 1504 under the direction of Fra Giovanni. Between 1519 and 1523 he also made the inlaid woodwork for the wardrobes in the sacristy. The woodwork has images that are very impressive, and the perspective that Fra Giovanni used is equally impressive. The frescoes in the room are also very good (see the image above). These are the work of the aforementioned Domenico and Francesco Morone. The men and women dressed in white are famous Benedictines. In the lunettes we furthermore see various popes. Some of them were Benedictines as well, such as Leo IV (847-855) and Paschalis II (1099-1118). The altarpiece in the sacristy was painted by Alessandro Turchi, nicknamed l’Orbetto (1578-1649).
The choir benches in the church were also made by Fra Giovanni. He crafted them in the 1490s. There are a total of 41 benches and the inlaid woodwork is just as beautiful as in the sacristy. The armrests of the benches are decorated with fantasy figures with human heads. These are purportedly the heads of the monks who lived in the convent at the end of the fifteenth century. One of them is therefore Fra Giovanni himself. He was also responsible for the lectern in the choir. On the lectern is an open book with music notation and a religious song on the pages. The base of the lectern has an image of a hare. According to our guide this is a copy of the famous Young Hare by Albrecht Dürer from 1502. The similarities are indeed quite striking, and it is certainly not impossible that Fra Giovanni knew Dürer’s work and tried to imitate it here.
Sources: Capitool travel guide to Venice & Veneto (2012), Italian Wikipedia, Churches of Venice, a brochure of the Santa Maria in Organo and the unforgettable stories of the guide in the church.