Venice and the Frari Church
This Franciscan church displays priceless art in situ — in the setting for which it was designed. We marvel at Donatello’s wood carving of St. John the Baptist, Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Saints, and Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin.
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But I particularly enjoy seeing art in the setting for which it was designed — that’s in situ — like at the Chiesa dei Frari. The “Church of the Friars” was built by the Franciscan order and the art that decorates it feels warmed by the spirit of St. Francis.
The Franciscans, inspired by St. Francis, were non-materialists — part of a reform movement that spread across Europe in the early 1200s. They were all about poverty, simplicity, and obedience — with an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus.
The long, lofty nave, flooded with light, was ideal for large gatherings to hear sermons. Originally simple and spacious, over time, it was embellished with chapels, added by wealthy groups or families who hired leading artists to leave their mark.
In Donatello’s wood carving of St. John the Baptist, the prophet of the desert — dressed in animal skins and almost anorexic from his diet of bugs ’n’ honey — announces the coming of the Messiah. Donatello was a Florentine working here in Venice at the dawn of the Renaissance.
Adjacent, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Saints was painted by the father of the Venetian Renaissance in a softer, more Venetian style. Renaissance humanism demanded Madonnas and saints that were accessible and human. Here, Bellini places them in a physical setting so beautiful it creates its own mood of serene holiness.
Over the high altar, glowing red and gold like a stained-glass window, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin Mary sets the tone of exuberant beauty found in this church. Titian’s complex composition draws you upward — from man on earth, to triumphant Mary, and on up as she rises to join God in heaven.
While the Frari has great art in situ — for me, the entire city is art in situ. And perhaps the best way to appreciate that is gliding through its picturesque canals on a gondola. Venice’s sleek and graceful gondolas are a symbol of the city. From the start, boats were the way to get around among the island communities of the lagoon. To navigate over shifting sand bars, the boats were flat-bottomed, and the captains stood up to see. Today’s boats still come with gondoliers standing up and no rudder or keel. They’re built with a slight curve, so that a single oar on the side propels them in a straight line.
The art of the gondola survives in the quiet back canals. In this shop the workmen — who needed to be good with wood — were traditionally from Italy’s mountains. That’s why they maintain a refreshing alpine-feel in this delightful little corner of Venice.
Nearby, in an artisan’s workshop, visitors are welcome to observe as he provides for the city’s 400 gondoliers. Working with traditional tools, graceful oars are carefully planed to be true and properly balanced. And each walnut fórcula — the stylized oarlock — is like a sculpture: hand crafted, one of a kind, and honoring the city’s heritage.
A gondola ride is a traditional must for romantics. Gondolas are moored everywhere. Wait till early evening, when the crowds are gone, and the light is right. Find a gondolier whose personality you enjoy, settle on a price, and hop in.
On a gondola, you glide through your own private Venice — far from the hubbub of modern tourism. Lonely bridges, canals without sidewalks, and reflections of once-upon-a-time grandeur.
This is just one more way to yield to the enchanting wonders of this “most serene” city. I’m Rick Steves, surrendering to the timeless charms of Venice. Life is good. Be thankful…and keep on travelin’. Ciao!