Monday, September 28, 2009

Proust was wrong

Proust was wrong, or at least as I recall it. There is a quote in my memory where Proust says that Santa Maria della Salute is a perfect example of a mediocre building made great by its location.

There is, of course, no escaping the location.

The church stands on over a million and a quarter trees pounded into the mud between the Grand Canal and the Zattere to support its mountain of stone. It faces the Grand Canal where it widens into St. Mark's Basin. Salute is triangulated by San Marco and San Giorgio, and on the Festa della Salute a temporary pontoon bridge is built across the Grand Canal to reach Salute from the San Marco side. During the Republic the Doge led a procession from the Basilica of San Marco to Salute, across the bridge, in perpetuity, in gratitude for the Virgin sparing the city from the terrible plague of 1630.

The architect was a relatively unknown 26-year-old, Baldessare Longhena. The design is actually one of the great examples of human ingenuity and problem-solving, but you have to understand the problem to appreciate the achievement. Proust was certainly aware of the problem, but his dismissal is that of the esthete, void of the customary rigor and precision of his analyses. It reeks of an ill-considered first impression. Perhaps he didn't spend enough time with it.

To grasp its true genius, you have to walk around the exterior slowly and observe it from its successive angles, preferably at night when it is well-lit but the city is quiet and there are few distractions. The inside must be seen at several different times during the day for reasons that will be made clear.

Since the fall of Rome, architecture has labored in its shadow. The Renaissance revived the rules and proportions, the structure and decorative motifs of an idealised Rome extrapolated from its ruins. Palladio's Churches of San Giorgio Maggiore and Redentore, behind it, are the last word in Renaissance Roman.

But the Church had a problem with this idealization of Roman architecture. In its early centuries it inhabited ancient temples, and then it built its own upon, and often incorporating, their ruins. Eventually the forms themselves, the monospaces and circular temples, were abhorred by the Church as too pagan. The nave-and-aisle basilica ruled; it was too humble to have been used in the great Roman temples. What was not incorporated into the Christian iconography and style was suppressed.

Up until Longhena's design for Salute, circular basilicas were forbidden. The echoes of the Pantheon in Rome were too loud and too clear, and although the Pantheon had been converted into a Catholic Church, the Vatican frowned on any use of the circular form in highly visible or important locations.

Even the Benedictines across St. Mark's Basin, when confronted with the task of completing San Giorgio Maggiore after Palladio's death, chickened out. Palladio's design featured a perfect Roman facade complete with a porch thrust forward. Once Palladio died, before the church was completed, they revisited the design and pushed the porch in, making the facade another variation of the superimposed pediments Palladio had used for Redentore.

Longhena's idea is brilliant. The church is not round, it is not a Pantheon per se. It is an octagon. The octagonal base supports a round dome and inside the space is round. He created a round basilica within an octagonal frame. And he got away with it. That was not only due to the cleverness of his design, but in some measure to a loosening of the stylistic reins during the general restyling of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation.

In a brilliantly Venetian masterstroke, the dome sits on a glass drum. The light floods Salute through these high, tall, clear glass windows from different directions at different times of day. It should be seen at as many different times of day as possible. The interior can be uncannily luminous. As always in Venice it is about the light.

As you enter and walk around, you are definitely in a different realm, no longer Roman, no longer Renaissance; it is pure imaginative fantasy. It is Baroque. The circular floor beneath the dome is a geometric Persian carpet of inlaid polychrome marble. The altar chapel, on the far side of the soaring circles created by the dome, is a smaller variation on the same theme, windows supporting the ceiling and the smaller dome above the altar. It is complex, spacious, luminous. Light rules.

The stonework and stucco are white and grey, a harmonious monotone that highlights the paintings and creates, with the surrounding sculptures on pillars, walls, and ceilings, its own textures of light and shadow.

In its echoing center, all we see of the Grand Canal is a distant glitter of the sun upon the water through the open portals. It is not about the setting. It is about the sensuous curves and the stately geometry of the interior.

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