by Roderick Conway Morris

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Patriarch's Palace, Venice
Patriarch's Palace off Piazza San Marco, Venice

Venice's Palace of the Patriarch opens its doors to the public

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 30 October 2005


At the end of a small piazza to the north of St. Mark's Basilica is a monochrome white neoclassical building. Beside the marble-and-mosaic, pinnacled splendor of the church, most visitors probably do not give it a second glance. This is the palace of the Cardinal Patriarch of Venice.

The patriarchate goes back to the time when Venice was more closely linked to Byzantium than to Rome; and although two incumbents since the Second World War have been elected pope - the reformist John XXIII and John Paul I, whose papacy lasted only 33 days - Venetians still prefer the Byzantine to the Roman title.

The palace next door to St. Mark's looks like an afterthought - and it was. Until the end of the Venetian Republic in 1797, St. Mark's was officially the private chapel of the city-state's figurehead, the doge.

Venice's cathedral church, St. Peter's, and a comparatively modest patriarchal residence, were built on an island at the far end of the city - a deliberate policy to keep Rome's influence at arm's length.

When in 1807 St. Mark's formally became the cathedral church, the patriarch needed a closer residence. The present palace was completed in 1850, and over the following years a considerable number of artworks were brought there, many that had still been looking for a home after churches and convents were closed during the Napoleonic period.

The palace has never been open to visitors on a regular basis. But a recently started two-year restoration program of the building has led to more than 40 pieces from the collection, dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries, being temporarily rehoused in the former monastery of St. Apollonia, now the Diocesan Museum, and displayed to the public for the first time.

Across a canal to the rear of the palace, St. Apollonia is also endowed with a charming medieval cloister.

The exhibition will continue until July 30 of next year, after which there are plans to make it possible to visit the palace and see the works in situ. Since even most Venetians have never seen the interior of the palace, the present show is a welcome chance to see the works that have adorned its walls, largely unseen for so many decades.

By the time the palace was completed, many of the best masterpieces from churches and suppressed monasteries had already been transferred to Venice's Accademia Gallery. Thus, after the convent of St. Catherine was closed in 1807, the state museum obtained from its church 'The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine,' one of Veronese's universally acknowledged masterpieces.

The patriarch, however, obtained custody of a cycle of six oils illustrating the life and martyrdom of the saint by Tintoretto and his studio, which originally adorned the church's presbytery.

Tintoretto's sense of drama and gesture are there, but the quality of the execution is uneven. Still, the image of an angel dive-bombing the scene of the half-naked saint's torture upon the wheel - hubs, spokes, flanges, deadly steel blades and snapped chains flying in a maelstrom of splintering wood and glinting metal, momentarily lit by a blinding flash of yellow light - is one of the most explosive and startling in Renaissance art.

Other 16th-century works include a series of oil sketches of prophets that usefully highlight one of the anomalies of Catholicism in Venice, where churches are dedicated to Old Testament prophets like St. Jeremiah, or St. Job - depicted here - in the Greek Orthodox tradition.

Some of the best works to be shown are normally located in the patriarch's private chapel within the palace. Outstanding among these is a fine Giambattista Tiepolo 'Nativity,' which is scheduled to join the exhibition on Nov. 23.

Also from the chapel is a striking 'Deposition of Christ' by Gregorio Lazzarini. Lazzarini, who was born in 1655 and died in 1730, was one of the most successful painters of his day, but although his pictures still hang in churches all over the city, his name is no longer well-known.

Lazzarini lived in the parish of the old cathedral, St. Peter in Castello, as did the Tiepolo family, and he was Giambattista Tiepolo's first teacher. But the talent of the pupil eclipsed the name of his master.

One of Lazzarini's grandest canvases was 'The Charity of St. Lorenzo Giustiniani,' commissioned for St. Peter's in Castello to commemorate Giustiniani, the first Patriarch of Venice, appointed with the approval of Pope Nicholas V in 1441.

Famed for his holiness, zeal and self-abnegation, Giustiniani continued to wear rough monk's robes even when he was elevated to high office.

Before he died in 1455, he asked to be buried in a simple grave in his former island monastery's cemetery. It was not to be.

Government by pageant, designed to project a glittering image of the city's wealth and power at home and abroad, was already the order of the day. The doge and counselors condemned him to a magnificent funeral and glorious entombment in St. Peter's in Castello.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024