San Giorgio Maggiore: Palladio’s dream island church

They say that visitors come to Venice’s island of San Giorgio Maggiore for the views and stay there for Palladio. The island’s eponymous Palladian church is a landmark, an integral part of the Venetian vista, much like Longhena’s La Salute. One of the most photographed sights, usually from the Piazzetta – with gongolas bobbing on the waves of St Mark’s Basin, the church’s façade and the bell tower to the left of it have also been painted by Canaletto, Guardi, Turner or Monet. Why’s that?

The appeal of this grand monastic church isn’t just its location – and, yes, it’s a piece of prime real estate standing on its own island – it’s also how it fits there. Every building Palladio ever conceived was a gem, designed with perfect geometry. Each of his designs was an ideal to aspire to: not only handsomely crafted but also imaginatively sited and bringing the best of classical Roman architecture up to date, this church is architecturally imposing in equal part because of its natural setting.

To impose a classical Roman front on the traditional church structure, Palladio designed two interlocking façades, both of them harmoniously proportioned. It’s a genuinely innovative rearrangement of classical elements for the purpose. In the same spirit, Palladio also worked his ingenious design into the natural setting of a freestanding Venetian island: the water level provided a flat surface and the lack of surroundings buildings ensured that his church would only be framed by itself.

It’s often forgotten that the visual effect we see today took a century and a half to complete. Designed by Palladio in 1566, the façade was only begun in 1597 by Simone Sorella, 17 years after Palladio’s death. It was completed in 1610 by Vincenzo Scamozzi. The piazza in front of it only opened up a year earlier when the surroundings were demolished. De’ Barbari’s View of Venice, with a pre-Palladian church, shows the island to be more densely built up than it is now.

In designing the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Palladio proved that timeless architecture was possible. Informed by pure logic, his church was highly practical, rich in terms of its ideas but also lacking in any over-decoration. Equally important to the architect’s vision was its natural setting. The sea level gave his design a flat base from which to rise but it’s the freestanding island set against a sky uncluttered by surrounding architecture that made this church stand out as it does.