A Pilgrimage to San Giorgio
THE UNPAINTED CEILING
Across the Canal
A quick vaporetto ride from San Marco lies the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It is a world unto itself. The Giudecca, which separates central Venice from the outer island, is an impenetrable distance for the daily tourist. While hoards of people descend on the city every day, the islands beyond San Marco remain out of reach for the hurried tourist. In turn, they are a delightful retreat for the quieter traveler in search of the “real Venice.”
The Silence of a City
Venice is the largest, quietest city in the world. With the absence of cars, motorcycles, and buses, even the hum of its boats are swallowed up by the canal. The water that weaves its way through the city is a force that insures Venice’s sanctity, but will also swallow its buildings if changes are not made in the coming years. This paradox makes its outer islands even more unique. The city rewards any effort to leave the well worn steps of San Marco and visit the mysterious islands viewed at sunset by everyone dining al fresco.
The most famous northern Italian architect, Andrea Palladio, never fit into the Venetian mold. His austere Neo-Classical temples and villas never found a foothold in the Venetian Empire. He only succeeded in building two structures on the outer islands of Venice.
Today Venice’s mixture of Gothic lines and Orientalist details seems out of place in Italy. But when looked at through the lens of history, Venice was never really an Italian city. Its towers look east. It was the capital of a vast maritime empire that stretched to modern day Turkey. The Venetians never looked to Rome, paid no attention to Naples, and managed for a time to exist as an insular military and trade power separate from the reaches of the Medici in Florence.
Put into an American vernacular, Venice was like Alaska, disconnected from the land mass it ruled. It was far to the west, almost outside of its own bounds. So as the empire fell apart and relinquished control over the Mediterranean, the only space it retained was a small collection of islands that are neither European or Asian, but somewhere in between.
The unusual preferences for an aesthetic found nowhere else in Italy makes the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore that much more unique. Defined by its white facade and stark interior, it calls out to diners every night as the sun sets across its white pilasters.
Breathe the stone
There is not a photograph in the world that can replace the sensation of stepping inside of a building. From the queen’s chamber in the Great Pyramids to the entry of the Pantheon, every piece of epic architecture has a menu of flavors that cannot be digitized. During this afternoon on San Giorgio, the sun blasted away at the facade. The entry to the church is marked by the momentary blindness as the dark wood paneling absorbs the last traces of sunlight.
Inside the wood and stone stand silently as the footsteps of a scampering child ping down the nave. Palladio’s church is an outlier. It is not clad in gold and frescos like the Basilica at San Marco. The stone is bare, with only small decorations added in the floor design. The walls and ceilings feel like they were destined for greater roles, but the funding dried up. It is a precursor to the trends of Modernism that would take another 400 years to develop.
All of these barren elements remove distractions for the real hero of the church…the Light. The fading sun moves with staggering speed across the monochromatic walls. It wraps and caresses the stone like the fleeting fingers of a teasing lover. Left in its wake are the faint traces of Palladio’s architectural vocabulary cloaked in the empty darkness of the evening light.
An afternoon at San Giorgio is a hidden treasure in plain sight. For the photographer with patience and an eye for history, they will smile on the inside as they explore this architectural splendor. Outside of its thick walls, the rest of the city will be showering in their hotels or drinking a spritz at the bar. But do not worry, the Venetian night will wait for you as the light fades to dark.
The day will close with the sound of the bells in the tower above. It marks the end of another successful day of exploration and tomorrow you comb through your treasures on the computer. But for now, lets get a drink.
Tips for photographers
- Visit the church in the late afternoon. Vaporettos leave regularly from the Zattere stop.
- Take as little equipment as possible.
- Sit in the church before the light gets really good. It will give you a sense of what you want to shoot before the light is perfect.
- Bring a small bottle of wine. After the church closes, people gather out front for an informal drink. The Venetians are trying to pass a law banning wheeled luggage, but they have no problem with public drinking. A rare moment of legal clarity that other cities would be smart to adopt.