San Giorgio Maggiore



By Jacqueline Canales

Considered one of the great Renaissance architects, Andrea Palladio is celebrated as one of the most influential and imitated architects from this period. Palladio who was originally named Andrea di Pietro della Gondola was born in Padua, Italy in 1508 and later moved to Vicenza, Italy where many of his other major works such as ‘Villa Rotonda’ are located.1 He was known for his knowledge of proportionality and the relationship of parts among themselves to the whole and his use of symmetrical fronts.2 During his career, he designed multiple palaces and villas but only three churches, one of which was San Giorgio Maggiore (Fig 1).3 

Figure 1:  Artsy. Abbazia Di San Giorgio Maggiore. Image. Accessed 3 November 2020.
Figure 2: WikiCommons. Basilica Di San Giorgio Maggiore (Venice). Image, 2006.

San Giorgio was the first church that Palladio was able to design the facade and interior for. The church located in Venice, Italy stands on a small island opposite of the Venetian lagoon from San Marco’s Basilica and its piazza (Fig 2).4 The island had been home to a community of Benedictine monks since 982 but in 1223 an earthquake destroyed their monastery and other buildings.5 Although the original Benedictine church and monastery were rebuilt after the earthquake, none of the buildings survived. Palladio was asked to design a wooden model for a new church in 1565 following his contributions to the monastery’s refectory in 1562.6 While most of the construction of San Giorgio had been completed before Palladio’s death in 1580, the facade and choir had been left unfinished. 

Work on the facade was at a standstill following his death, though having an unfinished facade was not uncommon in 16th century Italy and ecclesiastical architecture.7 Work on the facade finally resumed in 1597 and finished in 1610, over 40 years after the plan had been drawn up in 1565.8 Overall though the church continues to stand as one of Palladio’s most monumental architectural works and major sights of Venice. This historical survey will delve further into Palladio’s other two church designs, San Francesco della Vigna and II Redentore, in comparison to San Giorgio Maggiore. In addition to a formal analysis of the facade and interior, the essay will analyze the church in conjunction with its Venetian context. 

As mentioned above, it was not uncommon for Italian churches to have unfinished or modern fronts. Part of this problem was that facades appeared to serve a public function separate from its inside. Because of their large presence, they seemed to belong more to the street or square than to the church itself. Another problem Renaissance architects encountered was the ongoing question of centralized vs longitudinal planning and what type of facade should be placed to represent the spaces found in a typical church which had a tall central nave and lower side aisles.9 Palladio was given the opportunity to devise his own solution to these problems when he received the commission to design the facade for the Venetian Church of San Francesco della Vigna (Fig 3).10

Figure 3: WikiCommons. Facade Of San Francesco Della Vigna (Venice). Image, 2014.
Figure 4: PicturesFromItaly. Chiesa Del Redentore. Image, 2019.
Figure 5:  Khan Academy. The Pantheon, Rome, C. 125. Image. Accessed 3 November 2020.

The church had originally been constructed in the Gothic style in the mid-thirteenth century and was redesigned by Jacopo Sansovino from 1534-1554. But, the facade remained unfinished as Sansovino’s version was deemed too old-fashioned and was instead given to Palladio. The unresolved facade presented the same problems that Palladio would then again encounter in his later designs of San Giorgio Maggiore, and II Redentore (Fig 4).11 The main issues were the integration of the church’s high nave and low side aisles, and the challenge of the appearance of depth within the confines of a relatively flat facade.12 Palladio found a solution to this by overlaying two pediments of different scales which he emulated in his subsequent ecclesiastical church designs. He drew inspiration from the columnar temple porticos from antiquity and used a central crowning pediment and a lesser scale one in two halves on either side for the facade to resemble a temple front (Fig 5).13 14 Unlike the traditional temples, Palladio used small and giant architectural orders which helped integrate the centre and sides of the facade. In San Francesco della Vigna he placed all the columns on a common base that continued the entire width of the facade and raised the orders above eye level.15 While he replicated the overlaid pediments in San Giorgio Maggiore, he experimented with the column bases and started the orders at different heights. The small pilasters on the side aisles are based on the ground and the giant orders are positioned on top of pedestals.16 He continued experimenting with this in II Redentore and found that the stairs allowed the orders to start at the same height without using a common base.

Furthermore, a discrepancy between San Giorgio and the other two churches is that the wider pediment appears to continue across the three central bays and acts as a cornice-like element.17 Many academics have postulated that this was done on accident after Palladio’s death since doing so would have misrepresented the interior of the church. San Francesco and II Redentore do not continue the pediment, they maintain it has two “half pediments.” While the three ecclesiastical church facades designed by Palladio have their differences, altogether they can be seen as a series of explorations for the ideal Renaissance church facade. 

Palladio was known for this use of proportion and symmetry in his designs, which he demonstrated his mastery of in San Giorgio Maggiore. The church was built on a longitudinal plan with the rectangular plan intersected by the transept which forms the shape of a cross.18 The plan follows a “aaaBaC” rhythm on an orthogonal grid on which most elements such as the columns and walls are placed.19 Additionally, the crossing is a perfect square centered between the entrance and altar which is consistent with the longitudinal plans of traditional churches.20 The width of the crossing is reflected in the transept as well.


Figure 6: Plan analysis Of San Giorgio Maggiore. Image, n.d. Accessed December 18, 2020.

The elevation also reflects an ordering grid which is created by the spacing of the columns and horizontal axes. Similar to the plan, elements from the facade follow the order of the grid.21 For example, the aedicules and other ornamentation are placed within the grid lines and the sculptures at the top of the pediments follow the vertical axes. Following the same principles that he used in San Francesco della Vigna to solve the issue of the church’s high nave and low side aisles, Palladio used two architectural orders of different scales on the facade of San Giorgio Maggiore as well. The columns on the tall and narrow facade are the colossal (giant) and composite order while the columns or pilasters on the short and wide facade are the secondary corinthian order.22 Palladio continued his use of the two architectural orders on the interior of the church which represent the high and low spaces.23 The colossal order creates a tall nave while the secondary order lines the lower aisles. The giant orders are also composite corresponding to the ones on the facade. The same is true for the secondary corinthian ones. The longitudinal section further accentuates the taller nave and shorter aisles.24

Figure 7: Elevation analysis Of San Giorgio Maggiore. Image, 2013. Accessed December 18, 2020.
Figure 9: Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore showing the architectural orders. Image, n.d. Accessed December 18, 2020.
Figure 8: Elevation Of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, B.1566. Image, n.d. Accessed December 18, 2020.
Figure 10: Section showing the taller nave and short asiles. Image, n.d. Accessed December 18, 2020.

The main geometry found throughout the two facades is the same which acts as a unifying element between them. The pediments both have the same pitch and they create a triangle shape while the base creates a rectangle shape. The stacked triangle and rectangle geometry is repeated at a smaller scale with the aedicules.25 Palladio placed sculptures at the edge of each of the two pediments as markers indicating their terminations. He also placed one at the center axis of the pediments which created a secondary “A B B A” rhythm on the facade from the primary “a A B C B A a” one produced by the grid. 

Figure 11: Church Of San Giorgio Maggiore. Image, 2013. Accessed December 18, 2020.

During the Renaissance, Venice was unlike other Italian city-states because of its unique topography, and cultural traditions. Venice is a cluster of islands with connecting bridges and canals, and at the time it could only be reached by boat.26 Its connection between Europe and the Byzantine Empire influenced local Venetian culture and architecture. Through the middle ages and early Renaissance, Venice’s main architectural styles were the Byzantine and the Gothic. The city developed traditional styles and characteristics such as the use of colorful building materials and asymmetrical designs.27 But as the Renaissance gained popularity, many of the traditional architectural styles were abandoned for more classical ones. When Palladio arrived in Venice he too strayed from tradition and borrowed from antiquity instead. However, his designs were still influenced to some extent by their Venetian context, as seen with his design for San Giorgio Maggiore. For example, like many other Ventian buildings San Giorgio has a brick body masked by white Istranian stone on the facade.28 This is consistent with Venetian tradition since the city was built on marshy land, its buildings were mainly constructed of brick but faced with stone to give off a more expensive and luxurious appearance. Not only is the color white featured heavily on the exterior of the church, it is also used on the white stucco found throughout the interior. Palladio believed that white was the most appropriate color for a church because it was the purest.29 A mat white or cream stucco was a venetian invention which was effective in reflecting light.30 In contrast, other city-states in Italy often used frescos on their vaults and domes which were to the detriment and distraction of the actual architecture. Since the white interior was so effective in reflecting light, it gave a transcendent effect that light was penetrating every corner of the church.31 This was also a result of the large number and size of windows facing the sun and because of the dominance of the church over the adjacent buildings. San Giorgio Maggiore acted as an artificial theatre for the play of natural light that was reminiscent of the same light effects captured in contemporary Venetian paintings.32 

Another feature that relates San Giorgio to its Venetian context is its location across the lagoon from San Marco’s basilica. San Giorgio Maggiore is more often seen from the direction of San Marcos than from nearby. The church’s stone facade is then reflected across the water, adding to its magnificence. The facade was meant to stand alone and hide the rest of its brick body. Furthermore, the giant order, deep relief, and instranian stone which were also used on San Francesco della Vigna did not have the same effect as in San Maggiore because there was only a small campo before it in contrast to the lagoon. 

Overall Palladio was able to create a quintessentially Renaissance facade for a church whose magnificence is amplified because of its Venetian context. The issue of the high nave and shorter side aisles led Palladio to devise a unique facade that featured two overlaid pediments with different architectural scales in order to represent the spaces inside. His first version of the design as seen on the facade of San Francesco della Vigna was successful but it still prompted some unexplored issues such as the starting height of the orders. He later continued the series of exploration in II Redentore. San Giorgio Maggiore though, represented the first church that Palladio was able to design the facade and interior for. As a result he was able to use the overlaid pediments to represent the interior short and tall spaces while also maintaining a traditional longitudinal plan. Additionally this allowed him to create unity between the exterior and interior by repeating the scale of the architectural orders to further represent the space. Palladio’s design of the church also signifies the acceptance from traditional Ventian styles which were heavily influenced by the Byzantine and Gothic towards the classical. Although the style differed from traditional ones, Palladio still used San Giorgio’s context to an extent. This is seen in the white Istranian stone facade which masks the church’s brick body, a technique that is common in other Venetian buildings. Additionally, the white color used throughout the facade and interior are consistent with Ventetian tradition in the way they reflect natural light. Finally, San Giorgio’s location creates the ideal stage to present the facade. The reflection of the church on the water acts as an extension of San Marco’s piazza from which San Giorgio is most often viewed from. 


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23. (Figure 9) Interior of San Giorgio Maggiore. Image, n.d. Accessed December 18, 2020.
24. (Figure 10) Section showing the taller nave and short asiles. Image, n.d. Accessed December 18, 2020.
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