Venice – The Academy – Hall Of The Holy Cross

The Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista at Venice, (a local religious guild, a little behind the Frari,) possessed as its chief treasure a fragment of the True Cross. This most precious object was carried in procession through the streets on certain festa days, and became the centre of an important cult in early Renaissance Venice. About 1490, the Fraternity commissioned Gentile Bellini and his pupils to execute for their Hall a series of pictures on canvas, to be hung on the walls like tapestry. They were to represent the miracles wrought by this sacred relic, as well as certain other episodes in its local history. The conditions under which the pictures were painted thus explain many peculiarities in their mode of treatment ; they were meant to be seen, as they now are, round the walls of a room by them-selves, and were intended rather as decorative backgrounds than as pictures in the ordinary sense. Formerly, the various members of the series were distributed through this Gallery in different rooms, surrounded by other works with figures of larger size, which made them look a trifle grotesque and finnicking. Their wise reunion in this octagon, built specially to accommodate them, with excellent taste, enables the spectator to judge their original effect much more truly.

Carefully distinguish Gentile Bellini, the painter of historical scenes, from his brother Giovanni, the devotional painter of saints and Madonnas, whose work we have before examined. Gentile loved such small figures on rather crowded canvases. He struck the keynote of the Hall ; his pupils followed him. All these pictures should be carefully studied, because, apart from their intrinsic value as works of art, and as specimens of the best Venetian technique before the age of Titian, they preserve for us so many features of old Venice which have now disappeared, and also give us such charming glimpses of the domestic and public life of the 15th century. In particular, one of them is our best authority for the appearance of St. Mark’s before its mosaics were altered. They are thus more than pictures ; they are historical documents.]

Begin near the far end of the room.

561. Lazzaro Sebastian (or Bastiani.) Filippo Mazeri (or Massari), a crusader returning from the Holy Land, in 1370, offers to the Scuola di San Giovanni a relic of the True Cross, which he has brought home to Venice with him. The scene represents the façade and open door of the old church of San Giovanni. The cross is presented on the altar. Bastiani conceives and represents it all in the costume and spirit of 1495 or thereabouts. To the L., the Fraternity. Foreground at either end, portraits of members.

562. Giovanni Mansueti. Miraculous healing of a blind girl. The daughter of Niccolo Benvenudo da San Polo had no pupils to her eyes. She was cured by the touch of a blessed candle which had burned near the Relic. The scene takes place in the hall of an old Venetian palace : one wall removed, after the old fashion, as in a theatre. Note the magnificent ceiling, and the Renaissance architecture. Also, staircase, canal, and gondola.

563. Gentile Bellini ; spoiled by restoration. Cure of Pietro di Ludovico from a fever. He was a member of the Fraternity, and was healed, like the last, by the touch of a candle which had been in contact with the Relic. The scene is the chapel of the Fraternity. Pietro kneels at the altar. In the foreground are brethren in black and scarlet. Note the splendid architecture and pavement.

564. Mansueti. A miracle of the Relic. One of the Brothers, who disbelieved in such miracles during his life, lies dead in the church of San Lio (to the R.) The Relic (R. foreground) is being carried in procession to his funeral, in 1474. At the old wooden Ponte di San Lio, it miraculously refuses to move further, and no force can compel it. Animated picture of Venice at its period. Mansueti himself stands near the bridge on the left, holding a paper which bears in Latin his name, and a profession of faith in the truth of the miracle. Note the short gondolas : also, the architecture of the background, with spectators looking out of windows.

565. Benedetto Diana ; entirely spoiled by bad restoration. Another miracle. A child which has fallen from a staircase is healed by the Relic.

566. Carpaccio. Cure of a Demoniac. The time is dawn ; the houses above are in Iight, the water below still dark. The scene is on the Grand Canal, near the old wooden Ponte di Rialto. (Note its character.) Above, on the left, the Patriarch of Grado appears on the balcony of his Palace, and holds out the Relic, which cures the possessed (in brown.) Around gather various ecclesiastics to aid in the ceremony, with golden candlesticks. The gondolas below have gaily-painted canopies, and the gondoliers are in bright costumes ; the sumptuary law compelling them to be uniformly black was not yet passed. No steel prows. A vivid picture of old Venice.

567. Gentile Bellini. Procession of the True Cross in the Piazza. While the Relic was being carried in state by the Fraternity on their festa, (St. John the Evangelist’s day,) Jacopo de Salis, a merchant of Brescia, heard that his son had fallen and hurt his head. He prayed fervently to the Relic, and his son was cured. Admirable view of the Piazza in 1496. As yet, (L.) no clock tower. Examine closely the old mosaics on the façade of St. Mark’s, now in many cases replaced by modern monstrosities. Their subjects are as at present, but note how much better these earlier and simpler works harmonise with the Byzantine character of the architecture. Study them closely : observe the Pharos as symbolising Alexandria. Houses then ad-joined the Campanile. Also, observe the gilt gateway at the corner by the Doge’s Palace. Great movement in the procession, carrying the gilt reliquary. The brothers wear their white surplices. Study this picture long and carefully. It is our best evidence for the state of St. Mark’s and the Piazza at the end of the 15th century. Item, it is a glorious piece of colour.

568. Gentile Bellini. A procession to the church of San Lorenzo on that saint’s festa. In crossing a bridge, the reliquary fell into the canal. Several persons tried to rescue it ; but only Andrea Vendramin, Grand Guardian of the Brotherhood, (afterwards Doge,) could see it by a miracle. All round, Bellini has painted the chief personages of his time, kneeling symbolically, as spectators and approvers-of the miracle. In the right foreground are the donors of the picture, in the black or scarlet uniform of the Brotherhood. To the left, a crowd of Venetian ladies, headed by Catherine Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus, crowned, in dark green. A fine picture.

[Study all these works with care, and, after seeing them, stroll round one afternoon to the Scuola itself, in order better to realize their meaning. By gondola, the Scuola is reached from the end of the canal which leads to the Frari ; by land, you walk to it best via the Rialto, Sant' Aponal, San Polo, and the Rio Terra S. Stin. The building is not in itself very interesting, but it has a nice bit of 14th century work, and a little piece of Lombardi portico ; and it helps you to restore the mental picture.

In the apse beyond this room (apse of the old church of the Carità) are three pictures, also of the school of Gentile Bellini. Two of them come from the Scuola di San Marco, a beautiful building near San Giovanni e Paolo, now the Civil Hospital. These two are,

569. Mansueti. St. Mark healing Anianus, who, being a cobbler, had hurt himself with an awl. St. Mark having come to Venice from Alexandria, Venetian painters generally conceive him as surrounded by orientals in turbans.

571. Mansueti. St. Mark preaching at Alexandria. Observe elsewhere other pictures from this Scuola, which we shall visit later.

The third, 570, by Gentile Bellini, (temporarily removed to the Hall of the Holy Cross,) comes from the Madonna dell' Orto. It represents San Lorenzo Giustiniani, first Patriarch of Venice, 1451 (Till that date, Venice was subject to the Patriarch of Grado, but had her own suffragan Bishop at San Pietro di Castello : [see later.] The Patriarchate of Grado and Bishopric of Venice were then merged in the Patriarchate of Venice.) The saint is in profile, giving the benediction. On either side, a canon ; behind, two angels, holding his crosier and mitre.

Now, return through the first hall you visited, (Room I.,) and enter the apartment at the far end of it ROOM II.