Venice: Sant’Alvise


The church of Sant’Alvise can be found in the north of the Cannaregio quarter, which is a fairly quiet part of Venice. “Alvise” is the Venetian version of “Luigi” or “Ludovico”, and in this case Sant’Alvise is the Franciscan saint Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297). He was said to have appeared in a dream to Antonia Venier, daughter of the Doge Antonio Venier (1382-1400). In this dream he supposedly commanded her to found a church and convent, dedicated to himself. In 1388 Antonia did what had been asked of her and had the Sant’Alvise built. Next to it arose an Augustinian nunnery, which Antonia ultimately joined herself. Nowadays there are still nuns living in the convent, although these women now belong to the Figlie della carità or Canossians. In 1430 the Sant’Alvise was rebuilt with financial support from Pope Martinus V (1417-1431). Then in the seventeenth century a large renovation took place which provided the church with its present interior.


In terms of style the Sant’Alvise cannot be called very elegant. The church is a bulky brick block box with a façade that is almost square. The façade has a single oculus with an edge made of stone from Istria, and above it we see an older oculus that has been bricked up. Around the front entrance a Gothic portal has been placed, made of the same Istrian stone. In the lunette we see a statue of Saint Louis of Toulouse from ca. 1442 which is usually attributed to Agostino di Duccio (ca. 1418-1481). The name of Bartolomeo Bon (died after 1464) is also sometimes dropped, but in the information sheet about the church, provided by Chorus Venezia, only Agostino is mentioned as the maker.

Ceiling by Pietro Antonio Torri and Pietro Ricchi.


Interior of the church.

This is a dark church, unfortunately. Most of the light inside enters the church through the windows on the left, and it is not much. Visitors enter the church through a side entrance and almost instantly find themselves face-to-face with the big altar of Saint Louis of Toulouse, made in the sixteenth century by an unknown artist. At the front the church has a conspicuous nun’s choir (barco) from the fifteenth century. A good picture of it can be found here. At the front we also find eight panels from the fifteenth century featuring stories from the Old Testament. They used to be attributed to Vittore Carpaccio, but nowadays Lazzaro Bastiani (1429-1512) from Padova is thought to be the maker. The panels are actually a bit out of place here; they come from the church of Santa Maria delle Vergini, which was demolished in 1844.

Sant’Alvise furthermore has striking ceiling frescoes painted by Pietro Antonio Torri (years of birth and death unknown) from Bologna and Pietro Ricchi (1606-1675) from Lucca. See the image above. These frescoes were added during the renovation of the seventeenth century. They represent Heavenly Jerusalem and feature the texts VIGILATE ET ORATE (“be watchful and pray”) and DOMVS MEA DOMVS ORATIONI[S] EST (“my house is a house of prayer”). Both texts come from or are based on the Gospel according to Matthew (Matthew 26:41 and 21:13).

The best-known works of art in the church are three panels by the great Venetian painter Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). They are all related to the Passion of Christ and once combined to form a triptych (which was disassembled for reasons I was unable to trace). We find the Ascent to Calvary on the right wall of the choir, while the side panels with the Coronation with the Crown of Thorns and the Flagellation hang on the right wall of the nave. In 1735 the nuns of Sant’Alvise commissioned Tiepolo to paint the triptych, which he did between 1737 and 1740. Since 1456 the church had been in possession of three relics of the Passion of Christ, and these drew many pilgrims. Tiepolo was asked to have the triptych match thematically with the relics. The artist did the job well. Especially the large panel with the Ascent is most impressive, with a Christ who has collapsed under the weight of the cross. It is truly a pity that there is so little light in the church.

Further reading: The Churches of Venice: Cannaregio and Chiesa di Sant’Alvise – Wikipedia

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