12 August, 2006

79. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Even though 'The Frari' is listed in every guide book as a 'must visit' place for tourists, compared to some of the other grand buildings in Venice the very large brick church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari feels cold and unwelcoming, and looks awkward and unfinished. At least it does to me.

The main door into the place is typical of what I think is wrong with this building, with its chunky and unevenly proportioned columns each side; the three not very interesting sculptures perched precariously way up above the entrance where no-one can see them properly, two on the columns and one with little visible means of support at the pinnacle of the door; and the excessive roped braiding round the doorway, like a fancily embroidered cuff on the sleeve of a tatty blouse.

My brother says the Frari is a much nicer place to be when the choir is singing and the incense is swinging, and perhaps he's right, but I find it hard to excuse the unsatisfying design and clumsy finish of this church, given the prodigious effort that went into building it.

St Francis died in 1226, and by 1230 members of his new order were in Venice, looking for somewhere to build a church and a monastery. The Doge of the day, Jacopo Tiepolo, gave them this site and over the next hundred years a large Franciscan church was built, completed in 1338. By then the Doge was Francesco Dandolo, who expressed a wish to be buried in the new church when he died, which he promptly did within the year.

Dandolo left the monastic order much of his considerable fortune, and almost immediately, the Franciscans decided to pull their brand new church down and build another one in its place, even larger and facing in a different direction – a decision which somewhat complicated the burial plans of their ducal benefactor. The resulting church took another hundred years to build and this is the one you can now see in the middle of San Polo sestiere.

The Frari's main claim to fame is its massive size, the ostentatious tombs of some of the more famous people buried inside the church, and the quality of some of its decorative works of art, including several fine Titians and Donatello's painted wooden sculpture of John the Baptist. However, there are other churches and scuoli and palazzi and museums in Venice with many more great Renaissance paintings than you will find in the Frari, if that is what you want to see.

Despite my negativity towards this surprisingly much-loved church there is still (again, in my opinion) one very good reason for taking the time to visit it. In a smallish side chapel to the right of the high alter there is a Giovanni Bellini Madonna triptych that is simply drop dead gorgeous. Don't miss it.

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