Whenever anyone asks me about “must see” places in my favorite city, I always mention this little church, one of a handful of places that I never skip when I’m there. It’s truly one of the magical spots of Venice, with a cycle of paintings that remains amazing no matter how many times I see it.
Jan Morris writes in The World of Venice:
“Nothing anywhere is more piquantly charming than the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, which Carpaccio decorated long ago, with a small series of masterpieces. It is no bigger than your garage, and its four walls positively smile with the genius of this delightful painter, the only Venetian artist with a sense of humor.”
Most guidebooks identify this place as a scuola, which it is, but it’s also a church. For a while, I thought it was a former church but the last time I was there, the nice fellow selling tickets told me that it’s still a consecrated church that celebrates Mass a few times a year.
The scuola/church was founded in 1461 by Dalmatian merchants and sailors living in Venice, men from the east coast of the Adriatic in what is now Croatia. The confraternity commissioned Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio to decorate their building with the narrative painting cycle that’s still there today. Carpaccio painted these works in 1502-9, right before the Venetian Renaissance, and for centuries, art critics more or less ignored him, labeling his work as naïve or primitive magical realism of little worth in comparison with Titian and Veronese. Most art historians credit good old John Ruskin for reminding the world about Carpaccio’s genius in the 19th century.
The Roman bell tower on the side of the building with a row of pigeons in front of it~
This painting below, by American artist Joseph Lindon Smith, shows the lower hall of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni with what looks like two characters from the paintings themselves admiring the Carpaccio cycle.
I’d seen these paintings in books before ever seeing them in person, and there’s just no way to reproduce the warm glow of the colors and all the charming little details. The ten paintings in the cycle show episodes from the lives of the Dalmatian patron saints: San Giorgio, San Tryphone, and San Jerome. There are also a couple of scenes from the life of Christ, and a damaged but lovely Virgin and Child on the high altar that might have been painted by my favorite little-known Venetian artist, Vincenzo Catena, or by Carpaccio’s son, Benedetto, or perhaps by Vittore Carpaccio himself.
Every time I visit, I see something wonderful and new in these paintings. Plus, it’s a perfect art experience because unlike a museum, there are just enough paintings to take in at one time. There’s more art in the meeting hall upstairs that all pales in comparison to the Carpaccios downstairs, but it’s a cool room, and I do like the painted relief of St. George and the Dragon over the altar.
Sister Wendy Beckett calls Carpaccio “one of the great storytellers of art” and walking around this sanctuary does feel like being inside a magical storybook. I love the contrast between the first two St. George paintings – the dragon is so fierce and scary in the first and then completely deflated in the second as the saint walks him into town on a leash.
As you walk around, you also see a basilisk, a gentle lion (with terrified monks running away from him, a funny sight!), pigeons and peacocks, and then the most adorable little dog in art looking with love and longing at St. Augustine who is sitting at his desk having a vision of St. Jerome. Is there any doubt that Carpaccio was an animal lover?
Lorenzetti on Carpaccio:
“One thing is certain and that is that his spirit was gifted with so exquisite a sensitivity and so sharp a feeling for all that was Venetian that more than any of his contemporaries, he felt and knew how to record on the canvas the very soul, environment, light and colour of his own divine city.”
The mysterious Madonna and Child that's on the high altar~
Reliefs above the entrance. Above is the Virgin Enthroned with John the Baptist and St. Catherine. Below is San Giorgio and the dragon.
Tuesday to Saturday 9:15am-1pm, 2:45pm-6pm
Holidays open from 9:15am to 1pm
Closed on Monday mornings and Sunday afternoons.
Admission: 4 Euro