Palladio's churches

San Giorgio Maggiore

San Giorgio Maggiore

Architect: Andrea Palladio (c.1565). Artist: Cyril Arthur Farey (1920)
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings Collection

In 1565 Palladio began work on the church and monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, his most prestigious ecclesiastical project.

The site could not be bettered: opposite the Doge’s Palace, on St Mark’s Basin, the crossroads of Mediterranean trade. Here, Palladio had to create a suitable setting for ritual worship and monastic contemplation.

The church’s façade grabs attention: two temple fronts of crisp, white Istrian marble interlock, busy with statues. This solved the problem faced by Renaissance architects designing churches. Classical temples were simple one-room, rectangular structures. Christian churches were more complex, comprised of many parts, including a high nave and lower aisles. By using two temple pediments, one large, the other small, and broken, each supported by appropriately-sized columns, Palladio knitted these parts together.

This is monumental architecture: Palladio has learned from his experience designing palace façades. Together with the solid campanile and bulging dome, the whole creates the well known profile of the church, a study in contrasting volumes.

Inside, the sculptural richness continues, athough the mood changes. There is a wonderful sense of harmony, due largely to the domination of the architectural elements: nothing interrupts the steady march of the hefty columns around the interior, with their deeply carved capitals and highly modelled entablature. Whites and greys dominate; light and shadow, not colour, matter here. Some say that the overall effect is calm and restrained; others chilling.

This was an ambitious project. Building work was slow, continuing long after Palladio’s death, the façade only completed in 1610. The composition remains iconic, known from the many paintings exploring the balance of its geometry and the light reflected in its forms.