Plan and Planning for S. Maria Della Salute, Venice

Article excerpt

Three of the most important churches of the Italian Baroque were all designed in the 1630s. They are S. Maria della Salute (Figs. 1, 2), Venice (1631), by Baldassare Longhena (15981682); SS. Martina and Luca, Rome (1634), by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669); and S. Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome (1637), by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). This article focuses on the earliest and least studied of these churches, and its aims are twofold. The first is to analyze the original documents and new drawings, in order to correct the accumulation of myth and legend surrounding the church's commission and construction, particularly the measurements of the building. Between the initial vow and the beginning of construction eight possible sites were examined and the present one decided on. A competition for the design was held and eleven projects submitted, although only two were ever seriously considered. After Longhena's design was accepted there were proposals to change the site, but they came to nothing. Longhena's design, however, was altered to fit the site and to suit the requirements of the patrons, as is shown in two recently discovered autograph plans of the Salute. The second aim is to place the Salute in its historical context as a church commissioned specifically to accommodate an annual ducal procession. Although the ceremonies that took place before, during, and after the design was accepted determined its form, they have hitherto not been considered. Rudolf Wittkower dismissed Longhena's statement of the importance of the ambulatory for processional purposes in favor of considering it a device included to determine the beholder's field of vision. This approach overlooks the impact of ceremony on architectural design. In contrast, this article utilizes the ceremonial books of the Venetian Republic, which were essentially manuals for the use of the relevant Venetian churches, and highlights their scope for architectural history.

In the case of he Salute they provide the clue to understanding the Senate's demand for changes to the original design for reasons of ceremonial function.

The Commission

In 1629 the plague, which had been spreading throughout northern Italy, reached Venice.l It lasted through the summer and showed no immediate signs of waning. The patriarch, Giovanni Tiepolo, ordered the display of the sacrament from September 23 to 29 in the cathedral of Venice, S. Pietro di Castello.2 On April 26, 1630, the patriarch again ordered the display of the sacrament, for a further twelve days beginning on April 28, to be held successively in six Venetian churches dedicated to the Virgin: S. Maria Maggiore, S. Maria del Giglio, S. Maria Formosa, S. Maria dei Miracoli, S. Maria Annunziata (S. Lucia), and S. Maria della Celestia.3 In June 1630 the Venetian Senate followed the patriarch's example and ordered the exposition of the sacrament in S. Marco for three days continuously, together with processions in the piazza. This was followed by further processions for three days to S. Rocco, and another three days to S. Pietro di Castello, where supplication was made to the blessed Lorenzo Giustinian (1381-1456), the first patriarch of Venice.4

Following the patriarch's recourse to Mary, on October 22, 1630, the Senate decided to commission a new church, to be called S. Maria della Salute.5 It was dedicated to the Virgin with the hope that she would intercede and save Venice from the plague, just as Christ had been invoked at the church of the Redentore, which was commissioned during the 1575-76 pestilence. The Senate also pledged to visit the new church annually, and on October 26,1630, in order to affirm the vow, the doge and Signoria attended a mass in S. Marco, which was followed by a solemn religious procession.6 This was to be the first of fifteen weekly processions held every Saturday, when the Madonna Nikopeia, the most venerated icon of S. Marco and the republic's most precious image of the Madonna, would be carried around Piazza S. …