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Monday, July 1, 2013

A Tale of Two Churches

San Marco Cathedral, Venice
Whoever said "getting there is half the fun" has never flown transatlantic in economy class. I'd rather take a leisurely week or two cruising over in a nice, civilized, luxury liner for roughly the same price as we did last year. I don't fly well. My arms get tired (you know...from lugging LUGgage). Moreover, my wife and I are both too old to travel light. During the past two weeks in visiting Venice, Italy, many details stand out--churches, canals, bridges, piazzas, overpriced sidewalk cafes, bell towers, gondolas, and...did I mention churches? Venice is literally speckled with them, conservatively counting, about 150, ranging from discretely modest to world-class architectural achievements. The largest is the Basilica of San Marco (04-21-13) and the smallest involves in a 52-way tie for that distinction. Two, however, stand forth in my memory as being special. First of all, I'm talking, of course of the ancient San Marco Cathedral. However, sitting just across the channel from the cathedral and Saint Mark's Square is San Giorgio Maggiore.
Photo by Jim Lane
San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice
The contrasts between the two historic religious edifices couldn't be greater. About all they share in common is their watery venue. San Giorgio is practically new, by Venetian standards, a Benedictine neighborhood church dating from the 16th century. Virtually all churches in Venice were built as neighborhood churches, one per island, at a time when bridges were far from common. San Marco also began as a neighborhood church, the private chapel of the city's civic ruler, known as the doge. Its history is roughly a thousand years older than that of the lovely white church on the tiny island of Maggiore in Venice's famous lagoon. If size means anything, San Marco is somewhat larger too. And, being older, its history is much more impressive, not to mention convoluted, reflecting quite accurately the history of Venice itself. And, like the history of Venice, it's not pretty. In fact, I'd go so far as to say, inside and out, it's probably the least attractive church in all Christendom. (It was hard not to reference the word "ugly" in writing that line).
San Giorgio Maggiore (interior),
1560-1611, Andrea Palladio
It takes no restraint in saying that San Giorgio is beautiful, even elegant, especially on the outside, thanks to its illustrious architect, Andrea Palladio (05-20-13), Vincenzo Scamozzi, and Simone Sorella (the latter two supervised the completion of Palladio's exquisitely beautiful classical fa├žade some years after his death). Inside, where San Marco is dull, dark, and eclectic (to put it mildly), the interior of Palladio's San Giorgio is light, airy, richly ornamented, and classical, yet never fussy or ancient looking. In visiting San Marco, one has the feeling the cathedral may have had a degree of mosaic, Byzantine beauty at some point in its long, turbulent history. Sadly, about the only remaining element of that beauty would be the generous offering of gold leaf gleaming from its lofty, five-domed heights. Where San Marco is pretentious, San Giorgio is restrained. San Marco squats like an aging dowager presiding over its massive, bustling, touristy square. San Giorgio quietly surveys its own modest, waterfront piazza like a lovely lady-in-waiting. Anyone going to the trouble to travel to the island of Maggiore, goes there to enjoy great architecture. Those visiting San Marco (myself included) simply want to claim, "been there, done that."


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