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Andrea Riccio's Reliefs for the Altar of the True Cross in Santa Maria dei Servi, Venice: a political statement within the sacred walls.

The mendicant order of the Servites arrived in Venice in 1316 as a small group of friars from Florence, but they rapidly grew in number and importance thanks to the immediate and constant support of the Venetians (Cornaro, Ecclesiae venetae 7; Cornaro, Notizie storiche 291; Vicentini, Santa Maria de' Servi, 4, 10-11; Pavon/Cauzzi 52-3). In 1318 they began the construction of their mother church, an impressive Gothic building of eleven-hundred square meters that contained twenty-two altars embellished by major works of art (Fig. 1). Santa Maria dei Servi, dedicated on November 7, 1491, competed in splendor and importance with the mother church of the Franciscans, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (1492), and that of the Dominicans, Santi Giovanni e Paolo (1430) (Pavon/Cauzzi 52). Contemporary accounts document its magnificence. In the diary (1494) of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Milanese canon Pietro Casola described the church and its monastery as a most remarkable place, among the first he visited during his sojourn in Venice before embarking on his spiritual voyage (Newett 134-5). Marin Sanudo in his De origine, situ et magistratus urbis venetae (1493-1530), a celebration of Venice and its mirabilia (marvels), lists Santa Maria dei Servi among the "big and beautiful churches" and those that contain "things that are outstanding (49-51).



In 1806, during the Napoleonic occupation, the church and its monastery were almost completely demolished. All that was spared were two portals and a few wall sections, later integrated into a subsequent construction. The works of art were removed from the altars and either lost after dispersal or scattered among different churches and museums in the Veneto, Europe, and the United States (Vicentini, Santa Maria de' Servi 44-98; Vicentini, I Servi di Maria nei documenti; Zorzi vol. 2, 348-61; Pedrocco 104-25). The disappearance of Santa Maria dei Servi meant the progressive neglect of the Servite presence in Venice. Since Antonio Vicentini's effort, in the early twentieth century, to collect archival materials related to the church, little attention has been paid to the order. The role the friars played in the complex dynamics of Venetian politics before the arrival of Paolo Sarpi in the seventeenth century, and the patronage they attracted, require further investigation. A study of the surviving works of art and the message they conveyed can shed some light on the contribution the Servites made to the artistic and civic culture of Venice.


The present essay analyzes five reliefs from the Ca' d'Oro that were once mounted on the Altar of the True Cross in Santa Maria dei Servi. These bronzes by Andrea Riccio have been the subject of recent studies, the main focus of which has been to examine the reliefs from a stylistic point of view, to establish the dates of execution, to analyze the antiquarian manner adopted by Riccio, and to attempt a preliminary contextualization of the commission (Gasparotto 389-410; Allen 33-4, 152-7; Bacchi/Giacomelli 430-33). I intend to explore Riccio's work from both an iconographic and an iconological point of view and seek to describe with more precision the political context in which it was created. It is my contention that the Altar of the True Cross was commissioned around 1500, a crucial moment in the history of the Servite order in Venice and of the Serenissima Republic itself. I will argue that the prestigious patronage of the patrician Girolamo Donato shows that the friars were supported by the high ranks of Venetian society, that therefore the altar was used in the liturgy, and that its unusual iconography can be best understood as political propaganda.

The Context of the Commission and the Patron

The Altar of the True Cross was dismantled seventy years before the destruction of Santa Maria dei Servi, thus complicating any attempt to reconstruct its original appearance (Vicentini, Santa Maria de' Servi 82). (1) According to the literature, the altar was composed of five bronze reliefs: four narrative scenes in horizontal panels of identical dimensions (38 x 50 cm; Figs. 2-5) and a tabernacle-like relief in a vertical panel (88 x 44 cm; Fig. 6) (Gasparotto 410). Due to lack of documentation, it is uncertain how the reliefs were assembled, but, since they all relate to the theme of the True Cross, they make up a coherent iconographic program. The four narrative scenes, which recount important moments in the story of the holy wood, are traditionally known as The Dream and Baptism of Constantine, The Battle between Constantine and Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, The Invention of the True Cross, and The Miracle of the True Cross; the tabernacle is dedicated to the Exaltation of the Cross (Figs. 2-6). (2) The only information regarding the location of the altar is given in Flaminio Cornaro's Ecclesiae venetae, in which he states that the altar was placed between the central and right-hand openings of the triple-arched partition wall that separated the choir from the rest of the church. The space between the central and left-hand openings was filled approximately ten years later by the Altar of Saint Martin, also decorated by Riccio (Cornaro, Ecclesiae venetae 24). (3) This marble choir screen (tramezzo) functioned as a visual transition between the nave and the presbytery and would have been visible to the faithful standing in the middle of the church. The same was probably true for the altar reliefs, whose manufacture in bronze was considered a rarity in Venice at the end of the fifteenth century (Gasparotto 395-6).



The choice of bronze for the altar in Santa Maria dei Servi has been related to the structure's function as a shrine intended to protect and commemorate the relic of the True Cross that Girolamo Donato had given to the Servite church (Allen 154). Donato, a Venetian humanist, diplomat, and member of a prestigious patrician family, received a piece of the titulus, or plaque, of the True Cross from Pope Innocent VIII while he was an orator in Rome from May 1491 to May 1492 (Rigo 741-53). The Spanish Cardinal Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, during the course of restoring the tribune's arch in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome, had found the plaque on Christ's cross declaring him to be "King of the Jews," which, according to legend, had been hidden there by Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine (Ortolani, 5, 22-3). (4) The cardinal consigned the relic to the Pope, who donated it to Donato probably as a token of appreciation for his diplomatic and oratorical skills. Once he returned to Venice, Donato commissioned a cross of Asian jasper in which to preserve the relic, which he donated to the Servites of Santa Maria dei Servi, later entrusting Riccio with the job of decorating the altar dedicated to the True Cross (Gasparotto 392).


The gift of such a precious relic to the Servites says a great deal about the relationship between Donato and the Servite order. Girolamo was not the first in his family to bring home a prestigious sign of recognition from a pope. In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV knighted Girolamo's father, Antonio, a magistrate, intellectual, and ambassador to Rome, and gave him a rose of solid gold (Ortolani 17-19; Mansi 70). Antonio Donato presented the rose to the doge, Andrea Vendramin, but had an image of it inserted into his family's coats of arms (Cicogna, vol. 1, 42-3). Girolamo, in contrast, bestowed his precious papal gift on Santa Maria dei Servi, a gesture that reflects the longstanding ties between his family and this church, within whose walls most of his relatives had been buried (Cornaro, Notizie storiche 292; Cicogna 56-7, 78-62). (5) Girolamo was connected not only to Santa Maria dei Servi, but also to the order as whole; when he died, in Rome on October 20, 1511, he was buried at his request in the Servite Roman church of San Marcello al Corso (Cicogna 89-91; Gigli 26-7).

Santa Maria dei Servi was consecrated a year after Girolamo received the relic from Innocent VII. Though Girolamo was not present at the consecration ceremony, he was listed as one of the two procurators of the church in the inscription commemorating the event that was etched on the architrave of the building's main portal (Pavon/Cauzzi 52). (6) The Servite friars must have interpreted Donato's precious gift as an auspicious sign, and Donato was surely aware that his gesture would further solidify the position of the Servite order in Venice. Not only did the donation come through the hands of a prominent patrician, but it also took place during an expensive remodeling of the church. Nothing could have been more helpful in gaining support for the construction project than the acquisition of a valuable relic. Relics attracted patronage, were at the center of pilgrims' circuits, and brought countless benefits in the form of donations, privileges, and indulgences. A precious relic bestowed power, prestige, regular income, and an aura of sanctity on the church that housed it (Cornaro, Notizie storiche 293).

Location and Function of the Altar of the True Cross

As previously noted, Santa Maria dei Servi was a large structure, measuring twenty by seventy-five meters (Pavon/Cauzzi 54). (7) Its floor plan of one long nave ending in three semicircular apses, common among churches built by mendicant orders, was the layout favored by the Servites in the Veneto (Urbani, "Storia e architettura" 111). The building took one hundred and sixty-one years to complete, in part because it went through a radical alteration toward the end of the fifteenth century, when the elevation of the apsidal chapels was modified by the insertion of a dome on top of the cappella maggiore, a feature that was untypical of thirteenth-century Servite churches (Urbani, "Storia e architettura" 36). (8) We know that the indulgence granted by Pope Sixtus IV to Santa Maria dei Servi on October 3, 1474, was renewed soon after in 1481, indicating that the cappelle maggiori were not yet completed (Urbani, "Santa Maria dei Servi" 110). On April 5, 1492, Pope Innocent VIII conferred new indulgences for ongoing construction, evidence that the church had still not been finished at the time of its consecration (Urbani, "Storia e architettura" 23-4). It was Gasparino Borro, a renowned friar of Santa Maria dei Servi and a close friend of Donato, who successfully brought the plea for these indulgences before Pope Innocent (Vicentini, I Semi di Maria 92-3).


Donato was the main supporter of the Altar of the True Cross, which was built during this hectic phase of construction, shortly after the choir screen was erected ca. 1498 (Vicentini, I Semi di Maria, 129). Recent scholarship suggests that the reliefs were commissioned from Riccio around 1500 and that they were completed before he left Venice permanently, in 1509 (Allen 152). Consistent with all conventual churches, the choir in Santa Maria dei Servi occupied part of the nave, and its length changed over time because of modifications in the apsidal area (Urbani, "Storia e architettura" 26, 113). The first choir was a long structure stretched between the door of the Lucchesi Chapel and the Porta del Pellegrino on the south wall (Fig. 7, H-H). The second choir, to which the marble screen belonged, was reduced to half its size and moved closer to the cappella maggiore (Fig. 7, I-I, altar No. 22). This choir remained in use until 1562, when it was replaced by a third choir pensile above the church's main entrance. The wooden section of the second choir was destroyed at that time, but the elegant marble screen remained in place until 1731. There is reason to believe that the high altar was located near the marble screen during the time the second choir was still in use, between 1490s and 1550s, and possibly until the complete destruction of the partition wall in the eighteenth century. Cicogna, in fact, states that "the partition wall was torn down in 1731 for the sake of the sacred celebrations, when the high altar ... was moved further up toward the cappella maggiore where Salviati's [Giuseppe Porta Salviati] altarpiece was hung" (Cicogna vol. 5, 599). (9) It is certain that the main chapel was not completed until 1555, around the time Giuseppe Porta was commissioned to paint his altarpiece, the Assumption (Vicentini, Santa Maria de'Servi 49; McTavish 295-6). Due to the incomplete condition of the presbytery, which was the most obvious location for the high altar, the friars needed another space where mass could be performed. The most suitable alternative was the area in proximity to the choir screen which, being conveniently located at the center of the sacred space, was visible to the people sitting in the nave (Vicentini, I Semi di Maria 37, 43-4). (10)

Neither the high altar's position in the middle of the church near the choir, nor the liturgical use of choir screens were unusual before the dictates of the Council of Trent considerably altered how mass was performed. Choir screens were not an aesthetic and liturgical barrier between laity and clergymen; they were permeable sites of transition and passage. To have lay people walking though the screens to participate in services within the choir was hardly a rarity, and by the end of the fifteenth century it had became a widespread practice (lung 627-8). Structures of this kind were a common liturgical furnishing in Venice both in conventual and parish churches, though few examples survived the remodeling of church interiors after Trent (Modesti 38-65). One of the most complete surviving structures is the choir screen at the Frari built in 1475 (Cornaro, Ecclesiae venetae, 24; Cicogna vol. 5, 599). (11) The Frari tramezzo gives an idea of the original appearance of the Servite one, while the visual documentation of another choir screen, now destroyed, in the church of Sant' Antonio di Castello sheds light on the liturgical use of such partition walls (Fig. 8). The Vision of Prior Francesco Ottobon (1512-13) by Vittore Carpaccio shows the interior of the church of Sant Antonio di Castello during the second decade of the sixteenth century (Fig. 9) (Humfrey, Carpaccio, 126). The painting not only documents that the faithful walked through choir screens, but it also shows that masses were performed in their vicinity. Services were not restricted to the high altar; other altars abutting screens were used for public masses and for privately endowed services, financed by lay patrons and confraternities (Jung 627-8). (12)

It is easy to picture the practices illustrated in Carpaccio's painting taking place in Santa Maria dei Servi around the Altar of the True Cross and its precious relic. Many observances in the Servite church surely benefited from the visual support of Riccio's illustrations of the story of the True Cross. Some of these feasts were celebrated by the confraternity of the Lucchesi, whose oratory was conveniently close to Riccio's altar (Fig. 7, V). The shell of the chapel, founded in 1376, still stands, although the decorations have been almost completely lost (Urbani, "Storia e architettura, 19-22). The chapel was dedicated to the crucified Christ and known as the Volto Santo, the name of the most precious relic preserved in Lucca, in the Cathedral of Saint Martin (Vicentini, I Servi di Maria, 10). The Volto Santo was a miracle-working wooden crucifix, believed to have been crafted by Nicodemus, a disciple of Christ (Mansi 222-5).

The image of the Holy Cross evidently was profoundly meaningful to the Lucchesi, who presided over a number of celebrations in its name. The Servite friars performed a mass dedicated to the Holy Cross in the Lucchesi chapel every Friday and on the last Sunday of each month. At least two of the feasts commemorated in Riccio's reliefs were associated with the confraternity: the Invention of the True Cross (the Lucchesi's major feast), held on May 3rd, and the Exaltation of the Cross held on September 14. The Lucchesi were also involved in one of the most important events in the Catholic liturgical calendar, the Corpus Domini, to which Riccio alludes in his illustrations of Deposition and Lamentation, which appear in the bottom register of the tabernacle relief (Di Domenico/Dal Pino, vol. 2, 32; Vicentini, Santa Maria de' Servi, 9; Vicentini, I Servi di Maria, 10). It is likely that these festivities were not confined to the Lucchesi chapel but entailed processions that traveled though the oratory and the adjacent choir, probably stopping by to worship at the altar (Vicentini, Santa Maria de' Servi 9). The pilgrim Pietro Casola, who participated in the Corpus Domini procession in the piazza San Marco, which was one of the most spectacular events organized by the Serenissima, also visited the Servite church that same day, and was impressed enough to write that "the natives of Lucca have their chapel at the side, and they make a great festival on the day of the corpus domini" (Newett 135). (13)


Another celebration of Santa Maria dei Servi that may have attracted the attention of Venetian citizens and foreign visitors was the feast of the church's patron saint, Santa Annunziata, which was at the same time the dedication of the Servite mother church in Florence (Pavon/Cauzzi 52). According to Sansovino these anniversaries were celebrated with great solemnity in Venice. Churches were crowded and filled with music, their columns and pilasters lavishly decorated with rich fabrics, and the altars were brightly illuminated and laden with silver (Renier 267). The anniversary of the Servite church was made even more special by the fact that the feast of the Annunciation, one of the main religious events of the Venetian calendar, coincided with the traditional date of March 25, the day that marked the foundation of Venice and the Crucifixion of Christ (Sanudo, De origine 13). On this yearly occasion, the doge attended a special mass in the basilica of San Marco, while the members of the Scuola Grande di San Marco visited Santa Maria dei Servi (Renier 134; Vicentini, Santa Maria de' Servi 20).

Beside festivities established in the liturgical calendar, circumstantial events often encouraged participation in church services. Sanudo reports that on March 24, 1499, Palm Sunday, Girolamo Donato obtained absolution from Pope Alexander VI for those who visited the church of Santa Maria dei Servi on Holy Saturday, another example of the patrician's unwavering support of the Servite order (Sanudo, I diarii vol. 2, 547). (14) It is fitting that the pope's concession was granted for the mass of Holy Saturday, which held a special place in the order's history. In 1448, through the intercession of Pope Nicholas V, the Servite friars were allowed to celebrate Holy Saturday for the first time in Siena. In 1491, this privilege was extended to Venice and other centers (Di Domenico and Del Pino 123, 320).

The Iconography of the Reliefs

The way in which Riccio recounted the legend of the True Cross was unprecedented in Venetian art. Although the Serenissima boasted a number of relics that were said to have come from the holy wood and were listed in Sanudo's De origine, none of them received such an elaborate treatment as the one in Santa Maria dei Servi (Sanudo, De origine 48-9, 160-62). (15) Roughly around the same time that the Servite altar was erected, two other commissions were underway: Cima da Conegliano's altarpiece for the Altar of the True Cross in San Giovanni in Bragora and the cycle for the Scuola Grande, or confraternity, of San Giovanni Evangelista. Cima's work, which has the icon-like structure commonly seen on reliquaries, centers on the symbol of the Cross flanked by full-length portrayals of Constantine and his mother, Helena, who are the protagonists of the legend. Three episodes of the story are confined to the altarpiece's predella (Humfrey, "Cima da Conegliano" 362). The cycle for the sala grande dell'albergo of the Confraternity of San Giovanni Evangelista consisted of nine canvases executed by six different artists, illustrating, in the style of contemporary chronicles, the miracles performed by a relic that had been preserved in the Scuola for over a century (Fortini Brown 136-64).

Although Donato probably knew both these works, it seems likely that he had a different and non-Venetian decorative program in mind for his Altar of the True Cross. The legend of the True Cross was far more popular outside the Serenissima, particularly in Tuscany as demonstrated y the cycles of Agnolo Gaddi in Santa Croce in Florence (ca. 1385) and Piero della Francesca in San Francesco in Arezzo (1459-66). When Donato returned to Rome as an orator to Pope Alexander VIII between 1497 and 1499, he would have had the opportunity to see the most recent treatment of the legend on the apse of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Sanudo, I diarii vol. 1, 642). Those frescoes were commissioned by Pedro Gonzalez Mendoza, the same cardinal who discovered the cross's plaque in the church, part of which was entrusted to Donato. Mendoza's commission was intended to commemorate the restoration of Santa Maria in Gerusalemme, which he had promoted, while also celebrating the victory over the Moors in Granada, an event that occurred on the same day that the cardinal found the relic (Cappelletti 119-26). The decoration is organized into two main sections: on the left side, the Invention of the Cross by Helena and, on the right side, the Exaltation of the Cross by Heraclius. These two sets of episodes are separated at the center by the cross flanked on its right by Helena and on its left by the patron, Mendoza. Although based on a slightly different selection of episodes, Riccio's altar probably not only had a similar structure to the Santa Croce frescoes, with its episodes arranged on either side of a central cross, but, as we shall see, it also shared an analogous political content. (16)

The episodes cast by Riccio illustrate the story of the Invention of the True Cross as told in the Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, who devoted an entire chapter to the subject. Riccio's cycle starts with Constantine's vision, which led him to victory over Maxentius and prompted his conversion to Christianity. It continues with the discovery of the Holy Cross by the emperor's mother, Helena, who identified the true wood through a boy's miraculous resurrection (De Voragine 80-82). Donato and Riccio followed Voragine's account closely, but they emphasized the salvific power of the Holy Cross by creating parallel narratives of Constantine and Helena's deeds, which were directed by divine intervention. Constantine's Dream and Baptism and Helena's Invention of the True Cross each depict moment of revelation: Constantine's led to his spiritual conversion and Helena's led to the conversion of Judas (Figs. 3-5). The Battle of Constantine and Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge finds its parallel in The Miracle of the True Cross: both are episodes of triumph in the name of Christ, one being a victory against the unfaithful and the other a victory over death, brought about by resurrection (Figs. 4-6).

Riccio's interpretation of the Dream and Baptism of Constantine differs so significantly from the description found in the Legenda aurea that the title traditionally given to the panel seems almost inaccurate (Fig. 4) (Bacchi and Giacomelli 431; Gasparotto 398). The scene at the center is not certainly a baptism. The holy water is missing and the person presumably baptizing Constantine cannot be identified as a bishop or a pope, as the text of the legend indicates he should be. The Dream of Constantine, which appears on the right, differs from canonic depictions, which have the emperor asleep in his tent. In the panel, Constantine rests on his throne, surrounded by his soldiers and by three childlike figures, two of them touching the regal seat.

A more fitting title for this relief might be The Vision of Constantine and the Emperor Making the Sign of the Cross on a Soldier's Forehead, two subsequent moments in the text. Voragine gives two versions of Constantine's story. In one, Constantine, keeping vigil the night before a battle against the barbarians, falls into a restless sleep from which

he was awakened by the angel who told him to look up at the sky. Doing so he saw in the air the holy sign of the Cross made of brightest light with the plaque inscribed in golden letters: "In this sign you shall conquer." Comforted by the divine vision he constructed a cross-shaped sign and commanded that it be carried in front of his army. Marching against the enemies he forced them to flee, killing a great number of them. (De Voragine 81 recto) (17)

In the second version, which Voragine cites as the most authentic, Constantine had the vision while with his companions, during the middle of the day and before his battle against Maxentius. He prayed to receive a sign and discerned in the east the Cross radiating fire and surrounded by angels who said to him: 'Constantine in this sign you will win' (De Voragine 81 recto and verso). (18) That night he received a second vision, this time from Christ himself, who revealed the imminent victory under the sign of the Cross. On the following morning, Constantine, happy and assured about the victory, made the sign of the Cross that he had seen in the sky on his forehead. Then he changed the military standards into Crosses and held the golden Cross upright in his hand (De Voragine 81 verso). (19)

Riccio designed an unprecedented and concise illustration of the second version of the story. The vision Constantine had during the day, surrounded by his companions, is combined in the relief with the dream he had alone at night. Riccio achieved this synthesis by depicting the emperor on his throne in a semiconscious state between sleep and wakefulness. His pose is a clear figural translation of quies, which, unlike sleep, is a state of rest in which one remains mentally and morally vigilant (Gentili 101-02; Meiss 348-82). In this condition, Constantine is ready to receive the divine message. He is contrasted with the figure of the foolish youth, a common symbol for ignorance, who sits at the foot of his throne. The tableau at the center is Riccio's original interpretation of what happened on the morning of the battle. Instead of showing Constantine making the sign of the Cross on his own forehead, as the text goes, Riccio gives us the emperor tracing the holy sign on a soldier's forehead, a conceptually strong way to convey the emperor's acceptance of the divine message, signified by the Cross in the sky. That both the figure on the throne and the one standing right in the middle of the composition, just below the Cross, are Constantine is made clear by comparison: both men are bigger in scale than anyone else in the panel, and their physiognomies are striking similar, as are their hair styles. Both wear the laurel crown of a Roman emperor, barely discernible among the curls.

A conversion not yet sealed by the rite of baptism is the main theme of The Invention of the True Cross, Riccio's parallel to the Dream and Baptism (Fig. 4). Here again, a kneeling figure is at the center of the composition. This is Judas, who revealed to Helena where the cross of Christ was hidden. According to Voragine, once Judas arrived at the place where the crucifix was kept, he "detected a fragrant aroma, and, astonished, he joined his hands, saying, 'in truth Christ you are the savior of the world'" (De Voragine 82 recto). (20) Helena, who stands behind Judas and next to the bishop, is directly under the sign of the Cross, just as Constantine is in the previous panel. The parallel between me two episodes is strengthened by their similar composition. Both are set in a rocky landscape with two promontories framing an open space at the center, filled in the Dream and Baptism panel by mountains and in the Invention panel by a depiction of the holy city of Jerusalem. The classicized ruin on the far right is likely a reference to the temple of Venus built by the Emperor Hadrian for the purpose of concealing the Cross's burial place. The three children climbing the ruin stand for the foolishness of those who cannot understand the miracle happening right before their eyes.

The Miracle of the True Cross (Fig. 5) was conceived as a pendant to the Battle at the Milvian Bridge (Fig. 3). Just as the miraculous power of the cross was proven to Constantine through the victory he gained against his enemy, it was shown to his mother through the resurrection of the youth, who, once touched by the holy wood, was brought back to life. These two panels are not compositionally similar, but the triumphal arch in the background of The Miracle serves to connect them, recalling as it does the arch that Constantine erected in Rome to celebrate his victory against Maxentius in 315 (Gasparotto 399). In the Legenda aurea no arch is mentioned, but Riccio included it as a symbol of the continuity of Constantine's legacy as well as of the victory of Christianity over paganism and Judaism. It also serves to recreate a recognizable historical Roman setting in the city of Jerusalem, which attests to the authenticity of the story. The same can be said for the classical architecture in the distant horizon of The Battle, a detail that must have pleased the antiquarian interests of the altar's patron, Donato.

The Political Context of Riccio's Reliefs

The message of salvation and triumph communicated by Riccio's reliefs must have been considered apt, and even encouraging, at the time when the altar was commissioned and executed. During the last decade of the fifteenth century and the first decade of the sixteenth, Venice endured one of the most perilous periods in its history. As Pietro Bembo recounts in his History of Venice, the government was taking measures "for a war that seemed to be the greatest and most fearful of all Venice had engaged in with the Turks (Bembo vol. 2, 5). The city that for centuries had been praised for its extraordinary stability and had appeared virtually immortal now feared the imminent destruction of its power and glory. The threat reached its height when the Turkish fleet captured Modone on the eastern Peloponnese in 1500, followed shortly by the loss of the nearby harbor at Corone. Sanudo wrote: "The entire city experiences more grief over this than it has ever had from its foundation until now" (Finlay 62). The loss of Modone was a major defeat for the Venetians. The city was a crucial port for trade in the Mediterranean and also the midway stopping point for pilgrimages to Jerusalem; for centuries Venice had been used by pilgrims of all ranks as the privileged port to the Holy Land (Newett 4-5). Up to this point, the Venetian policy toward Islam had been one of pragmatism and accommodation, but the Modone defeat prompted Venice to feel for the first time the urge to launch a crusade against the Turks (Finlay 62-3).

Everyone was aware that the situation was critical, Donato most of all. As Sanudo's Diarii makes clear, toward the end of his career, Donato dedicated most of his energies to the Venetian cause and saw clearly how isolated the city now was: the seeds for the collapse of the Serenissima were being sown both in the Mediterranean and in Italy, where forces opposing Venice were soon to join with the League of Cambrai in an attempt to destroy the city and take its territories. Donato probably shared his worries with the Servite friars, in primis with Girolamo de Franceschi, his friend and prior of the order at the time of Santa Maria dei Servi's consecration, who became bishop of Corone in 1497 (Vicentini, I Servi di Maria 61, 78-9; Cornaro, Notizie storiche 295-6). In 1501, Donato was asked by the Republic of Venice to pay a visit to Emperor Maximilian I for the purpose of convincing him to ally with Venice in the fight against the Turks. (21) Donato's oration, published by Bernardino di Vidali in June 1501, is of great importance in understanding the dynamics of Venetian politics. It also a good example of the subtle, metaphorical language used at the time and attests to his consummate oratorical skill.

To capture the attention of the audience, Donato initially adopts an adulatory and persuasive tone, then gradually becomes more peremptory, until, by end, he is almost apocalyptic. The final passage is extremely eloquent:

The most certain triumph is prepared for you. In the sign of the Cross you will win: the light of God's face is above you: in this sign Christ's enemies will be defeated and will fall.... You will also free the Christian generation from the most atrocious abuse and the most imminent danger. Now, most sublime Ceasar, unfold the wings of your victorious eagles in the name of Christ the redeemer. These open-winged eagles resemble nothing more than the Cross of Christ the redeemer. If you will undertake this deed along with the others, every Christian victory that we hope for is certainly going to happen and will be associated with you as the leader of the princes.... And you will truly triumph on earth and in heaven for having defeated Christ's enemies. (Donato 200 recto and verso) (22)

Donato's prophetic words echo the command Christ sent to Constantine on the eve of his battle against Maxentius, and might serve as a perfect caption for Riccio's reliefs, especially the tabernacle panel. The title that relief is usually given, Exaltation of the True Cross, would lead one to expect a representation of Heraclius's deeds (Fig. 6). Instead the panel reflects the triumphant imagery in the quotation from Donato: at top, are the triumphal arch and imperial eagles ,with spread wings; at center, the Cross held by angels, as in Constantine's vision; and at bottom, the dead Christ, an image that supports the redemptive and salvific message of the entire ensemble. Both Donato's oration and Riccio's altar are pleas for salvation: the Venetian Republic, represented by Donato, appeals to Emperor Maximilian I, and the altar, created by Riccio, is a request for help from a divine ruler, Jesus Christ. As catastrophe loomed over Venice, Donato and the Venetian government must have believed that the only way toward salvation was the union of the entire Christian world under the insignia of the Cross (Branca 119-20). Venice had the duty to hold that banner as the legitimate heir of Constantine, regarded as the first Christian emperor. Accordingly, the city would become the new Rome in terms both imperial and Catholic. In a moment when Christendom, in primis the pope, was making little effort to save Christianity from the enemies of the faith, the Venetians assumed this great responsibility. As Sanudo wrote, "They [the Venetians] have always fought for the faith in Christ against everyone, above all the Turks (Sanudo, De origine 34-5). (23)


Politically, ideologically, and visually, the theme of Riccio's altar is Venice assuming Rome's role. In addition, his reliefs are a remarkable example of the challenge taken on by Renaissance artists and patrons, particularly by Donato and the Servites in Venice, to meet and even surpass the skill and complexity of ancient art, great examples of which were being collected by major ecclesiastical figures in Rome. Riccio was one of the few artists in the Veneto who had the archaeological knowledge to carry out the commission in classical style. His panels for the Servite church were the Paduan sculptor's first major public commission, as Gasparotto has established through a stylistic analysis and as the present essay has demonstrated from an iconological perspective. Riccio's abilities made him the perfect choice to satisfy the aims of Donato's commission: to capture the attention of the faithful through a vivid anecdotal narrative, to stir the admiration of a more sophisticated audience with learned quotations from ancient art, and to deliver a clear political message to the Venetian public and the city's numerous visitors.

After 1513, the Servites gave Riccio a second commission, to create the Altar of Saint Martin, to be located on the left side of the choir screen. The new altar was intended to complement and reinforce the content of the older one by supporting the salvific power of the Cross in a military context. According to legend, Martin was a Roman soldier of Christian faith, born during the reign of Constantine, and a defender of the new religion after the emperor's death. The story of Saint Martin and the beggar that Riccio depicted celebrates the saint's charity, but another episode of his life, narrated by Sulpitius, supports the saint's faith in the power of the Cross. About to engage in battle against the Alemanni, Martin pledged that he would fight armed only by the sign of the cross and, on the day of the battle, the enemies withdrew. There are clear parallels between this story and the scene depicted in The Battle of Constantine. In sum, Riccio's powerful bronzes are pleas to the miraculous power of the Cross to save Venice from destruction.

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(1.) The materials from the choir screen and from the Altar of the True Cross were reused in 1730 to build the altar of the sette B. B. Fondatori dell'Ordine de' Servi.

(2.) All these episodes are described in the thirteenth century Legenda aurea by Jacobus de Voragine. Commonly the episode of the Exaltation of the True Cross is related to the deeds of Heraclius, as in the Golden Legend. In Riccio's altar, instead, the tabernacle relief does not refer to Heraclius' story but represents a completely different theme, as we shall see later in this essay.

(3.) "Ab Ecclesia tamen fuit quodammodo separatum extructo pariete e graeco marmore incredibili elegantia et venustate. In eo tres januae apertae sunt. Earum major columnis ornata eta fronte se objiciens aditum in chorum exhibebat, reliquae duae laterales minores ad partes Ecclesiae vergebant. In exteriori hujus parietis inter utramque januam duo Altaria surgebant, alterum quidem D. Martino Episcopo dicatum, alterum veto Sanctae Cruci, cujus inventio figuris aeneis repraesentabatur."

(4.) The church of Santa Croce was founded, according to the tradition, either by Constantine, as a thankful gesture for the victory over Maxentius in the name of the cross, or by his mother Helena with the support of the imperial treasury. The tablet of the titulus was the length of a palm of a hand and had inscribed in red in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew the words "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews".

(5.) The Antonio Donato's rose is today preserved in the Treasury of San Marco. Santa Maria dei Servi was the church where the doge Andrea Vendramin decided to be buried.

(6.) "EXISTENTE PRIORE DICTE ECCLESIE DOMINO MAGISTRO HIERONYMO / DE FRANCISCIS SACRE THEOLOGIE PROFESSORE AC MAGNIFICIS DOMINIS HIERONYMO DONATO QUONDAM MAGNIFICI DOMINI / ANTONII EQUITIS ET DOCTORE ET NICOLAO MUDACIO QUONDAM MAGNIFICI DOMINI LUDOVICI PROCURATORIBUS." The important role of Girolamo Donato as a procurator could not be discussed in this article. For the subject, illuminating is the upcoming essay by Allison Sherman, "'Soli Deo honor et gloria'? Cittadino Lay Procurator Patronage and the Art of Identity Formation in Renaissance Venice," in Architecture, Art and Identity in Venice and its Territories, forthcoming 2013.

(7.) The church measured 60 x 217 Venetian feet (20.86 x 75.45 meters). The proportions were so considerable that the church was called basilica, a term frequently applied by Venetians to big churches.

(8.) The erection of the dome is not mentioned by ancient writers and it is inferred by the bird's eye view of Venice designed by Jacopo de' Barbari in 1500. The dome is also visible in the engravings by Luca Carlevarijs and Domenico Lovisa.

(9.) "Questo viene ad essere il quarto sito del coro nella nostra chiesa. Il primo era situato nel mezzo, comprendendo lo spazio che v'e' tra la porta della cappella del voho santo e l'altra di san Pellegrino, il quale duro' fino all anno 1498. Il secondo da questo tempo fino all'anno 1560 stava verso la cappella maggiore, ed era diviso dalla chiesa con un ben architettato parete di fini marmi con tre archi, o siano patenti porte, la mezzana della quali dava l'ingresso nel coro, della quale il limitare owero soglia, tuttavia si vede accanto alle sepolture nostre. Il terzo e' quello sopra la porta dell'anno 1560 fino al presente [parla delle sedie]. La demolizione del suddetto divisorio muro fatta l'anno 1731 per comodo delle sacre funzioni, col portarsi avanti l'altar maggiore, che prima era di marmo istriano, e coll'affiggere al muro la stupenda tavola del Salviati ha dato all'opera presente, benche' ristretta, bastevole comodo pero' per quei giorni, e stagioni che a' padre piu' piaceranno," Cicogna, Delle inscrizioni veneziane, vol. 5, 599.

(10.) This is proven by information reported by Vicentini, I Servi di Maria, vol. I, 43-4: on May 24, 1729, the friars finally decided to remove the partition wall on which the altar of the True Cross was located, since everyone was aware that it was an inconvenience for the celebration of the divine services, making it necessary to perform the services and expose the Holy Eucharist on fake altars in the middle of the church and above the graves against the ecclesiastical requirements."

(11.) It is interesting that both Comaro and Cicogna use the word parete, wall, to define the Servite choir screen, thus establishing a parallel with the wall-like appearance of the Frari's septum. It probably was not a coincidence that Salviati's Assumption for the high altar was intended to be viewed through the central opening of the choir, similar to Titian's masterpiece of the same subject for the Frari. The Servite friars wanted to emulate the interior of the Franciscan mother church and this could be one of the reasons why, even when the choir was moved, the choir screen was kept in place.

(12.) According to Jung 627-8, the vernacular designation of choir screens in France and Germany, jube and Lettner, respectively indicate that their primary purpose was to provide a stage from which the gospels and epistles would be read to the lay congregation in the nave; in Italy the term ponte, while not referring directly to ritual actions, allows us nonetheless to recognize the importance of the screen as a structure that spans a space and that may be crossed both literally (by walking across the bridge-like platform on top) and longitudinally (by walking through the doors underneath).

(13.) Although Casola's visit to the church was in 1494, before the choir screen and the altar by Riccio were built, his testimony is still interesting as a documentation of the customs in the Servite church. The fact that the confraternity of the Lucchesi was allowed to oversee such an important festivity as the Corpus Domini is a sign of the prestige they held in Santa Maria dei Servi (Urbani, "Storia e architettura delle chiese dei Servi," 20). During their sojourn in Venice before sailing off for the Holy Land, pilgrims were treated as distinguished guests, and they actively participated in the solemn procession (Mazzarotto Tamassia 164-5; Newett 152).

(14.) The information regarding this indulgence, emitted March 6, 1498, is reported by Vicentini, I Servi di Maria, 268 (ASV, busta, bolle pontificie). Indulgences were commonly granted for paying a visit to a relic, so we can assume that the relic given by Donato was displayed to the public even before Riccio's altar was finished.

(15.) The relics of the true cross appear under the list "Queste sono ahre degne reliquie in diverse chiesie." For a list of the churches with a relic of the cross and the works of art commemorating these precious relics, see Zorzi, vol. 2, 325 (church and monastery of Santa Croce), 499-503 (church and monastery of Sant' Elena), 537-8 (church and monastery of San Michele in Murano), 591 (Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carita).

(16.) Gasparotto, 396-8, suggested that the tabernacle relief functioned as a sort of divider panel between the part devoted to Constantine and the part devoted to Helena. Bacchi and Giacomelli 430 believe that the reliefs were at the base of the altar, while Benci and Stucky 61 suggests that they composed a sort of predella for the Lamentation of Giovanni Bellini in the same church. The present author is currently working on the elaboration of other possibilities, particularly the relationship between Riccio's altar and reliquaries.

(17.) "da langelo fu risvegliato e ditoli rignarda verso al cielo e gli cosi faceto vide nel aere el segno dela croce sancto di clafissimo lume havendo tal titulo scritto de lettere doro. Vincerai in questo segno. Onde confortato egli con la celeste visione fece la similitudine dela croce e comando che fusse portata dinanzi alo exercito suo 7 discorrendo contra li inimici li converti i fuga occidendo una maxima moltitudine."

(18.) "el segno della croce rutilare di resplendente fuocho e essere intorno a quello gli angeli e dirli. Sapi constantino che i questo tale segno vicierai."

(19.) "facto lieto e securo dela victoria feceli quel segno de croce che veduto havea in cielo sopra la fronte sua e transformo li militari stendardi ne segnali della croce portando ne la mane dricta la aurata croce. Dopo questo fece la oratione a Dio che egli non permeta essere maculata dal romano sangue la mano dextra sua laqual fortificato haveva con salutifero segno ma che li prestasse del tyranno la victoria senza spargimento de sangue."

(20.) "sentisse uno fumo de mirabili odori aromatici in tanto che stupecfacto Iudas se drizzasse con ambe due le mane dicendo inverita o christo tu sei el salvator del mondo."

(21.) The pamphlet of the league signed between Venice, the king of Hungary, and Pope Alexander VI and published in Venice on March 1501 also led with Donato's oration; see Prince d'Essling Les livres a figures venitiens, vol. 2, bk. 1,115).

(22.) "A te e apparechiato el certissimo triumpho. Vincerai nel signo di la croce: e signato sopra di te el lume del volto de dio: nel quale linimici di Christo sarano sconficti: e cascherano. Dometre che conseglierai ala tua gloria: libererai etiam la generation Christiana dala atrocissima iniuria e da iminentissimo piculo. Ormai sublimissimo Cesare spiega queste tue vincitrice Aquile per la fede di Xpo. Lequale aperte lale non altro figrurano chela croce de Xpo redenptore. Ogni Christiana victoria de laquale e certissimamente da sperare se a questa impresa ti vorai apparechiare con glialtri: se referira in te come nel capo de principi ... e non solamente in terra ma in cielo verissimamente triumpherai havendo supato linimici di Christo."

(23.) "Sempre hanno combattuto per la fede di Christo contra chi se vogli, massime Turchi."
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Author:Omiccioli, Eveline Baseggio
Publication:Explorations in Renaissance Culture
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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