I love this church. I should probably confess that I loved Elvis’ Graceland too. It’s not an off-the-wall comparison, believe it or not. Both places are completely unique and kinda crazy because of their over-the-top decor.
J.G. Links (Venice for Pleasure) noted that, “Nineteenth-century guidebook writers found the Gesuiti inexpressibly vulgar but taste changes and we may well find its interior witty and entertaining…” I don’t think it’s an either/or, really. Graceland is pretty vulgar but that’s what makes it entertaining!
But I don’t think the Gesuiti is vulgar at all. Despite all the excess, it works. After you recover from the sheer volume of decoration and look at the church as a whole, you might see a beautiful and harmonious space. Or you might think it’s the tackiest church you’ve ever seen. Either way, it’s a fun church to visit. Elvis would have loved it too.
Over the centuries, the Venetian Republic had a number of skirmishes with the Vatican and was excommunicated several times. During one of these conflicts in the early 1600’s, the Jesuit order sided with Rome and was banished from Venice. Galileo was in Venice at the time and wrote in his journal about seeing the Jesuits loaded onto boats and evicted. When they were readmitted fifty years later, they took possession of Santa Maria Assunta, a 12th century church and convent that had belonged to the Crociferi order, and proceeded to expand and rebuild it, hiring Domenico Rossi as architect. By 1729, the church we see today was complete. I can only imagine that the Jesuits were happy to be back in Venice and wanted to make a big splash, and they succeeded completely.
The church and its art
The white stone façade is not as overloaded as other baroque facades like San Moise and Santa Maria del Giglio. There are sculptures of the Apostles, and the Virgin Mary is making her ascension on the roof, surrounded by a bunch of nice wind-blown angels. Nothing about this façade prepares you for what you see when you go inside.
At first glance, it looks like the walls and columns of the interior are draped with miles of white and green brocade fabric. But it’s really marble, inlaid in patterns to look like fabric, compete with carved tassels, flounces, and fringe. The pulpit on the left wall is particularly ornate, with a swoop of marble pulled to the side and “tied” to look like a curtain. The ceiling is covered with pastel-colored frescoes surrounded with white swirly stucco that looks like cake frosting. And gold. There’s lots of gold stucco, all over the interior. Everywhere you look, there is ornamentation – reliefs, sculpture, and decoration of all sorts.
The high altar is very flamboyant and dramatic. There’s a sculptural scene with a huge stone globe (Planet Earth) with God the Father and Christ sitting on it. Around this is a tabernacle with corkscrew-carved columns made of green marble inlaid with lapis lazuli.
Hanging over the altar is a cupola-type thing and when you look up, you see some kind of abstract futuristic-looking burst of gold beams. It’s quite a sight. The photos below give you some idea and there's another photo here.
The church has some nice paintings including a Tintoretto “Assumption of the Virgin,” and one genuine masterpiece – Titian’s “Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” which the Jesuits inherited from the previous church on this site. This was one of the first successful night scenes ever painted – St. Lawrence (San Lorenzo) was burned on a grill, and the light in the painting comes from the coals underneath him, the torches held by his persecutors, and in the night sky, a burst of divine light that only the saint can see.
It’s a beautiful painting but rather sad and sobering with this gorgeous, half-naked saint being roasted alive, but perhaps this particular church needs a dose of sadness to balance out the rococo sugar-shock you get from the décor.
Oratory: Across the campo from the church is the Oratorio dei Crociferi, a chapel that was part of the original religious complex on this site, which included Santa Maria Assunta, a convent, and a hospice. The oratory dates back to the 12th century and includes a cycle of paintings by Palma il Giovane, who is probably the most well-represented artist in the churches of Venice besides Tintoretto.
To visit this church
The Gesuiti is open to visitors from 10-12 and 4-6 Monday- Friday.
It’s located very close to the Fondamente Nuove vaporetto stop in northern Cannaregio, so a good time to visit is on a day when you are taking a trip to the lagoon islands (Murano, Burano, and/or Torcello). It’s easy to stop by the Gesuiti either before or after a trip to the islands.
The Oratorio is open on Friday mornings and Saturday afternoons from April through October, and in the winter by appointment only.