Frari Church in Venice
VENICE – If you’re a frequent visitor to Venice but seem to be in a rut always heading to the Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square) to spend your afternoon with the pigeons and a Bellini, I recommend breaking the cycle. We who live in Vicenza are lucky to be a quick train ride away, and it’s easy for us to get to know the “City of Canals” on a deeper level than the average tourist.
Venice day-trippers who are art enthusiasts, or who want to learn more about art, should make their way to the Frari Church (officially Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Saint Mary of the Friars) during the next visit. If you’re ambitious, add the Scuola San Rocco and the San Rocco Church, which are practically next door; or the Correr Museum and Doge’s Palace (it’s a combined ticket). Either itinerary will make a very full day, but it’s well worth it to experience the works of such masters as Bellini, Titian and Canova.
There are more than 120 churches in Venice (the count varies, depending upon the book, blog or website), but what makes the Frari special is its art. Travel writer Rick Steves said it best in his guidebook: “This church offers the best art-appreciation experience in Venice, because so much of its great art is in situ – right where it was designed to be seen, rather than hanging in museums.”
The Franciscan order of friars was given land and permission to build the church in 1250, but it was not completed until 1338. Almost immediately thereafter, work started on its larger replacement, which is the church visitors see today on Campo dei Frari. The Gothic church was consecrated in 1492 and is grandiose but a bit plain on the outside, deliberately built with the Franciscan emphasis on poverty and austerity. The campanile alongside the church, built in 1396, is the second tallest in Venice, after the one of San Marco.
Although the church is plain on the outside, there is nothing homely about the interior and the priceless Renaissance art that awaits. Indeed, the brochure boasts, “The contemplation of so much beauty … accompanied by the silence of this holy place can fill one with a sense of peace and serenity.” And it lives up to its promise. Beautiful wooden crossbeams adorn the 110-yard-long church, and the wooden choir area (circa 1480) draws you to its center. However, don’t be drawn to that without stopping, or you will miss some vital pieces of art along the way. All of the art is worth perusing, but a few are definite must-sees.
The biggest, and possibly most famous, work is “The Assumption of the Virgin” by Titian. Also known in Italian as Tiziano Vecellio or Tiziano Vecelli, Titian was a leading artist of the Italian Renaissance and is considered to have been the greatest painter of 16th century Venice. The painting that catapulted him into that category was this one, created in 1518 specifically for the altar in the Frari Church where it hangs today. Don’t miss it: The rich, bright colors and twisting human forms changed typical, contemplative church art into something else entirely. In fact, history tells us this painting caused a bit of scandal because Mary was portrayed as more human than usual and less of the perfect icon sitting on a throne. The Franciscans are said to have suggested that this Mary aroused excitement and not spirituality, and they almost refused to pay for it. Another of Titian’s paintings in the church is “Madonna of the Pesaro Family,” but it has been out for restoration work and may not yet be back if you visit soon. Titian’s tomb is also inside the church and is a marble masterpiece that depicts some of his life’s work in the reliefs.
While Titian was a great painter, the Venetian Antonio Canova is considered to be Venice’s greatest sculptor and the greatest of all Neoclassical sculptors. Several Canova sculptures can be found in the Canova Room at the Correr Museum across the square from Saint Mark’s Cathedral, but his tomb is at the Frari. Although Canova is buried in southern Italy, this tomb-- which he created for Titian, by the way-- does hold his heart in an urn inside the tomb’s open door.
Donatello’s “Statue of the John the Baptist” (c. 1438) awaits guests in the center of the altarpiece in the south choir chapel. The realistic wooden sculpture is the first documented work by Donatello in Venice and the only known statue by him left in the city. Also noteworthy is “Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels” (c. 1488) by another Venetian, Giovanni Bellini. The Pesaro family commissioned this breathtaking work that was painted specifically for the chapel where it sits today.
These are just a few highlights of the many magnificent pieces of art inside the Frari. Discover your favorite on your next trip. The church isn’t too difficult to find; take the vaporetto to San Tomà, and from the dock, look for the Scuola San Rocco signs. Purchase vaporetto tickets in front of the Venezia Santa Lucia train station, just down the steps heading towards the Grand Canal. If you feel like wandering through the maze that is Venice, you can also walk to the church located at San Polo 3072, Campo dei Frari. Maps are available at many stands and in shops, or try plugging it into a map app on a Smart phone. However you plan to arrive, just get there. You won’t be sorry you did.
The church is open daily, but check their website for hours as they vary according to liturgical celebrations. Adults pay three euro at the door, or it’s €1,50 for students up to 29 years old, and free for children up to 11; audio guides are available in five languages and cost an extra 2 euro. Allow at least an hour to wander and soak in the masterpieces of eight centuries. Make sure to ask about photography— the brochure says it is prohibited, but when I asked, I was told I could take photos as long as I didn’t use a flash.
Anyone interested in adding museums onto their itinerary, or spending more time in Venice, should look into purchasing a Museum Pass for 10 civic museums and the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale); the pass is good for six months and costs €24,50. Learn more at www.vivaticket.it. The pass only includes two places mentioned in this article. There is also a Venice City Pass that offers discounts for entrance fees and vaporetto fares. Learn more about the pass at www.veneziaunica.it. Find Frari Church online at www.basilicadeifrari.it, or like the church on Facebook.