I’ve visited this church many times but until last November, every visit was more-or-less a blur because I visited the Scuola next door first and was in a complete Tintoretto overload haze. So last year, I went to the church first and it finally made an impression on me, a good one. There are some fine paintings in here, by Tintoretto and others, and it’s a nice space.
About the saint, San Rocco (or St. Roch) is another one of the plague saints. He was a French holy man who gained fame as a healer as the Black Death spread across Europe. He’s often pictured in the woods with an angel and his faithful dog companion, a nice image; he’s a lovable saint all around. He died in Montpellier in 1377, and his relics became revered by all those seeking protection and healing from the plague.
So in typical Venetian fashion, a couple of monks went to France in 1484 and stole San Rocco’s body and brought it back to Venice. Because of the possession of the relics of the saint, the confraternity that built the church and the Scuola became very wealthy as plague-fearing people made donations. And then they came into possession of another attraction, a painting with healing powers.
The painting is the Cristo Portacroce or Christ Carrying the Cross by Giorgione (maybe). As stories about its healing powers spread, visitors and donations increased, leading eventually to the decoration of the Scuola with 61 paintings by Tintoretto and its status of one of the six Scuola Grande in Venice.
Renaissance art critic Giorgio Vasari was very matter-of-fact about the miracle-working painting:
“Giorgione did a painting showing Christ carrying the cross for the church of San Rocco, and which now, because of great devotion that is paid to it, works miracles, as anyone can see for himself. “
This painting is now in the Scuola, not the church, and is usually attributed to Titian (though the Scuola’s website says it’s by Giorgione). A grateful recipient of a miracle had a votive copy of the painting carved in marble; this relief can be seen in the church next to the high altar.
Many of the paintings by Tintoretto in this church are scenes from the life of San Rocco, though there are a few other subjects too including this nice Annunciation below. The church also has a couple of paintings by Sebastiano Ricci and one by Pordenone.
The church of San Rocco was built in 1489-1508 by Bartolomeo Bon, who also built part of the Scuola. The church was rebuilt in the 18th century, but the apse and side portal with its rose window remain from the Renaissance church (see below). The façade was added a few decades after the reconstruction; it’s missing in Canaletto’s “Doge Visiting the Church and Scuola di San Rocco,” painted in 1735. San Rocco was given credit for ending the 1576 plague and made a co-patron saint of the Republic, From that point on, the Doge and his entourage made annual processions to the church on August 16, the saint’s day which also became a public holiday in Venice. See the Canaletto here.
There’s a mystery connected to the little campanile behind the church. It might have originally belonged to my favorite demolished church, San Nicoletto della Lattuga (more about this cool little place coming soon).
The Scuola di San Rocco has a nice website with virtual tours and such.
This church has very generous visiting hours and admission is free.
A passage from E.V. Lucas' "A Wanderer in Venice" published in 1914 (the miracle-working painting was still in the church at that time, evidently). I loved reading his wish for a rich American to come clean the paintings in Venice's churches!
"The church of S. Rocco is opposite, and one must enter it for Tintoretto's scenes in the life of the saint, and for a possible Giorgione over the altar to the right of the choir in a beautiful old frame. The subject is Christ carrying the cross, with a few urging Him on. The theory that Giorgione painted this picture is gaining ground, and we know that only about a century after Giorgione's death Van Dyck, when sketching in Venice, made some notes of the work under the impression that it was the divine Castel Francan's.
The light is poor and the picture is in a bad state, but one is conscious of being in the presence of a work of very delicate beauty and a profound soft richness. The picture, Vasari says, once worked miracles, and years ago it brought in votive money, great sums. One grateful admirer has set up a version of it in marble, on the left wall of the choir.
Standing before this Giorgione, as before the Tintorettos here and over the way, one again wishes, as so often in Venice, that some American millionaire, in love with this lovely city and in doubt as to how to apply his superfluity of cash, would offer to clean the pictures in the churches. What glorious hues would then come to light!"
This is the miracle-working painting by Giorgione (or Titiano)~