Rounded the corner and rising up before me is this outlandish looking cake decoration sitting in a very small square. The church, Chiesa di Santa Maria del Giglio AKA Santa Maria Zobenigo, is a very wealthy family’s legacy to their very special DNA. The whole facade looks like an eighties hair band’s fantasy album cover. This church, a totally out of control Baroque reboot of a crap Medieval chiesa, was designed by Giuseppe Sardi right at the very height of that hot and heavy era! I stood open mouthed and unbelieving for quite a bit of time before I even had the courage to have a look inside. I mean what could lie in wait – Ziggy Stardust’s Universal Unconsciousness Throne Room? Another amazing thing about the church is that even with all of this profusion of decoration the facade has no Christian iconography, none. That’s a bit ballsy in my book. I guess this “church” is to the 17th Century like a “luxury super yacht” is to our 21st Century – conspicuous consumption by the one percent.
Inside the church is an entirely different experience – it is a tall box, restrained and elegant, with windows at the top that let in a great deal of light. In fact the natural light inside is surprising – it’s the first church I’ve been in where everything is visible without having to find a light box. There’s an intimacy to the ground space as well. This is not a huge building, it’s compact, and so your vision is always moving upward to the light. There’s an easy and unexpected intimacy in the space. It feels like a place where you’ll have a casual conversation with a good friend rather than a sermon from on high. There are a number of well done, not too exciting paintings by the Tintorettos, father and son, a few good examples by second stringers, but the real star is a Peter Paul Rubens painting of the virgin and child, and it’s a good one. (Photos do not do the painting justice.) I don’t know the story of how this painting got here, but it probably was commissioned or gifted during his travels through Italy in the early 1600s. He spent a bit of time in Venice getting the color, composition and form unique to this place. And speaking of – just like Tintoretto, Rubens was a master at finding the best of things in other artists’ work and then folding those influences into his own strong sensibility. Even with all the influences – Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, etc., Rubens manages to create something unique, his own style of painting.
In Dorsoduro there’s the wonderful Salute, another amazing Baroque cake decoration. It’s an extremely interesting building, filled with great painting by Titian and one of the best geometric tile floors I’ve ever seen. This beautiful floor is right below the cupola which has windows all around letting the light pour into the space. The floor changes as the light crosses over it throughout the day. If you spend a bit of time you can see different parts of the patterns light up making the optics come alive in ways that you wouldn’t expect. Its beauty is not just in the complicated geometry or the 3D effects, but also in the richness of its materials – the surfaces of the tiles, the colors of the stones, the craftsmanship in the layout. It all combines to create a thick visual experience, a tactile experience, and for me, these are some of the qualities that make the best kinds of Abstraction.