In 1470 or thereabouts, an image of a Madonna and child was enshrined in a niche overlooking the street. Gradually, a history of miracles grew up around it, and the Venetians so worshipped the Madonna that they decided to dedicate a chapel and subsequently a church to her. In 1480, Pietro Lombardo was chosen by competition for his harmonious design of a church set in the designated area, and for the great elegance of the whole architectural complex. In February 1481, Pope Sixtus IV inaugurated work on the church, which was dedicated to the Virgin. Work continued until 1489.
The decoration of the church is most striking.The exterior, skilfully divided up between sculptures and flat surfaces, is completely covered with pale-coloured marble encrusted with medallions and crosses of red and green porphyry. Blind arcades at the sides create an effect of perspective.
On the street side, the decorations are in marble, but for the canal side, the architect deliberately chose Istrian stone which is more water-resistant.
The interior has a single rectangular nave with a monument flight of steps leading to the chancel. The decoration is as richly worked as on the exterior of the church, in particular the barrel-vaulted ceiling embellished by polychrome marbles and encrusted with porphyry medallions set in sculpted gilt coffers representing the faces of prophets and patriarchs.
Description of deterioration
Restoration was carried out in 1970 by the Stiftverband für die deutsche Wissenschaft, but deterioration has taken place since then. The marbles were blackened and attacked by mineral salts, and rusting of the iron attaching the statues to the church threatened their stability.
This damage was due to the proximity of the canal running alongside, which is a source of the humidity and mineral salts detected in the fabric. This was compounded by air pollution from the surrounding environment. The restorations carried out in the nineteenth century accelerated decay, since the marble panels removed for cleaning were then fixed with cement. It would have been better to use bronze rods, as in the fifteenth century, for the cement subsequently crumbled to dust and the brickwork was directly exposed to the elements.
1. Preliminary studies
Fissures were located by means of harmonic hammers, and accumulated salts and mould by computer technology. A research programme was then funded on the conservation of the stone by the laboratory of the Venice superintendency of works of art, so as to identify the sources of damage and determine the best corrective measures.
2. The remedies applied
The external and internal surfaces were thoroughly desalinated, cleaned and consolidated.
The marble panels were taken down, cleaned several times with distilled water and then replaced; stucco work was cleaned, consolidated and given protective cover.
Iron supports were replaced by steel ones.
Collapsing or crumbling portions of the fabric were replaced by copies, using old techniques and identical materials, while less damaged parts were merely reinforced.
Cleaning of the ceiling, not included in the original restoration programme, proved necessary because of the great contrast with the newly cleaned walls.
The Getty Grant Program in 1993: $250,000.
Balls and luxury cruises organized by Save Venice.
The historic gala of the Regatta Week.
Total Project Cost: some $3 million
Lead Organization / Sector / Office: Save Venice Inc.
Associated Organization(s): Mario Piana, the architect in charge of restoration, appointed by the superintendency of buildings