Most people who arrive in Venice and make the time to get beyond Piazza San Marco also know to visit the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the magnificent basilica in San Polo filled with works of some of the city’s most famous masters. The soaring altarpiece of Titian’s Assumption is certainly one of them; there’s even a non-Venetian John the Baptist by Donatello. The scholarly to the mildly curious will appreciate many of the fine opere found within the Frari‘s 13th century walls.
I hadn’t paid a personal visit in ages, but had the chance just the other evening when I attended a meeting of a 40xVenezia committee that organizes cultural excursions. Prior to the meeting, we were escorted on a partial but sumptuous tour of the basilica. Fra Nicola was gracious and informative, recounting how the Frari came to be, pointing out various works and the story behind them, even occasionally calling on one of the official guides that happened to be part of the group for a date or name that escaped him.
But once again, it was the Bellini in the Sacristy that got me. Again. Every time. I have been repeatedly over the years, and on each visit I never expect to be so…taken. And I always am. (That makes it a bit like the city itself, then.)
As Fra Nicola explained that evening, the Sacristy was originally the Pesaro family chapel. When these, the Frari’s most generous benefactors were in search of an artist to create a work for family member’s tomb and Titian wasn’t available, they had to “settle” for an aging master, Giovanni Bellini.
The result is a masterful, luminous, three-paneled Virgin and Child that takes my breath away each time I see it.
This painting’s presence is certainly no secret, but with the size of the basilica and the schedule some travelers attempt, it’s easy to abandon the Sacristy and thus the painting for the next “must see” on their list. Instead, if you can manage it, do spend a little time with Bellini’s Virgin. Even if you don’t find it as rewarding as I do, you won’t regret it. (If you do enjoy it, you may also want to visit a similar work of his in the church of San Zaccaria, and even the Bellini “family portrait” in the Querini Stampalia…).
(To get the most of it and the rest of the Frari story, look into taking a private guide along with you, or find a small group tour – see Friends and Favorites in the sidebar for some recommendations. And don’t forget: The Frari is part of the Chorus, a wide variety of superbly maintained museum churches sprinkled throughout the city. €8 gets you a pass and a map to all of them, and is available at any of them).
One last note: these are photos taken with with permission but unfortunately only with cell phone, so obviously their quality is, um, marginal. However, please remember never to use a flash when taking any photo, and also to make sure that whereever you are, that photos are allowed. The longevity of the artwork thanks you!