The view of the San Giorgio Maggiore island is one that every visitor of Venice recognizes, and it is probably amongst the most photographed sites in the city. The island is however much more than a nice image. It is a perfect, quiet area to enjoy the beauty of Venice and to immerse yourself in history.
The origins of San Giorgio Maggiore date back to 790, when a first church was built on what was then called the island of the cypresses. In 982, Doge Tribuno Memmo gave the island to the Benedictine monk Giovanni Morosini to found a monastery. Unfortunately, an earthquake destroyed all the buildings on the island in 1223 and everything had to be rebuilt. The island stayed in the hands of the Benedictines until the early 19th century when Napoleon claimed it as a military area. He built a warehouse for the artillery and a dock with two small towers, which can be seen from the Riva degli Schiavoni. When Count Vittorio Cini bought the island in 1951, the monastery was destroyed after almost 150 years of military occupation. In honour of his son Giorgio, he wanted to restore it to its original beauty, to create an international cultural centre and to re-integrate the San Giorgio Maggiore island into the life of Venice. Even today, the Fondazione Giorgio Cini continues his legacy and new projects are continuously added. The latest example is the opening of the music theatre at the end of April, with a view on the lagoon.
So, why should you make the effort to jump on the vaporetto to cross the lagoon?
Admire the view of Venice from the campanile
If you want a beautiful view of the whole of Venice, the lagoon and the islands, I suggest you take the elevator to the top of the bell tower (approx. 60 meter) of the San Giorgio Maggiore church. This allows you to see the San Marco basilica and the Palazzo Ducale, which is quite impossible from the campanile on the San Marco square. Besides the nicer view, the queues are also limited or non-existing. The bell tower was built in 1791, after the previous one collapsed in 1774.
If you like to admire Venice from the top, make sure to read this article ‘The 5 most stunning rooftop views over Venice’. This campanile is the number one in the list.
TIP: When you enter the church, check first if there is a line or not. If not, take the elevator, enjoy the view and visit the church afterwards. If there is a line for the elevator, then visit the church first. Chances are that the queue is gone by the time you finish looking around.
Feel blessed in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore
The white church of San Giorgio Maggiore is not the original church of the island, but actually the third one. The first one was built around 790 and was destroyed by the earthquake in 1223. The church was rebuilt on the back of the island, so it was not at the same position as the present church. The current landmark of Venice was designed by Andrea Palladio, who lived on the island for 20 years and started the construction in 1565. Some elements still had to be finished after his death in 1580, including the white marble façade which was finished in 1611.
TIP: The historical novel ‘The Venetian Bargain’ of Marina Fiorato is set in this time period. One of the main characters of the book is Palladio. Although the book focuses more on the Redentore church on Giudecca, it also refers to his design for the refectory of the monastery on the San Giorgio Maggiore island.
The interior of the church is very open and has works of Tintoretto: ‘Ultima Cena’ (The Last Supper) and ‘Raccolta della Manna’ (The Fall Of Manna). (More information on Tintoretto can be found in ‘Where to find the most stunning masterpieces of Tintoretto’.) The beautifully carved wooden sanctuary has been made by Albert van den Brulle from Antwerp (Belgium), together with Gasparo Gatti from Bergamo. It shows episodes from the life of Saint Benedictus. Recently, a modern piece of art was added to the church: the large iron blessing hand ‘Together’. It is formed of 8 alphabets and symbolizes mercy. It was part of the Art Biennale in 2015 and will remain in the church during 2016, the Jubilee of Mercy, declared by Pope Francesco.
Explore the beauty of the Fondazione Giorgio Cini
The former monastery now houses the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, one of the most prestigious international cultural institutions. The foundation has its own research programmes and institutes, dedicated to art history, the history of Venice, music (with a separate Antonio Vivaldi Institute), theatre and drama. Researchers reside in the Branca Center on the San Giorgio Maggiore island. International conferences, exhibitions and workshops – mainly related to these topics – are organized in the complex. Also G7 summits and Unesco conferences were hosted here.
All the buildings have been completely restored with a lot of attention for detail and the use of materials. The result is really extra-ordinary. You can visit the monumental complex with a guided tour and I can certainly recommend it.
TIP: Tours are organized every day, from 10 AM to 5 PM. The video-guided itineraries are available in Italian, English, French, Spanish and German. It even has a simple, intuitive interface for children. The tour lasts one hour. You can buy the ticket online or in the ticket office.
The visit shows you the 3 inner gardens: one with 4 cypresses, one designed by Palladio and one labyrinth that shows the Borges name. The latter was inspired by ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, one of the best-known stories of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who loved Venice. You also visit the refectory, designed by Palladio, where the monks used to eat and where now some of the more prestigious meetings are held. Against the wall is a huge reproduction of the painting ‘Le Nozze de Cana’ (The Wedding at Cana) from Paolo Veronese. The original was stolen by Napoleon when he occupied the island and can be seen at the Louvre in Paris.
Finally, you see the ancient Longhena library, with the original bookcases by Franz Pauc from 1671. This is a very impressive room and I immediately wanted to browse the old books. Afterwards, you visit the new library ‘Nuovo Manica Lunga’, which was finished in 2009 and is built according to the latest library technologies. The design is magnificent with natural light coming in from the ceiling. The former cells of the monks have been transformed in small meeting rooms. If you are studying art or literature, this really must feel like heaven. If you are interested in other historical libraries in Venice, I suggest you read my post ‘7 authentic libraries that will amaze you in Venice’.
Visit the glass museum Le Stanze del Vetro
When you walk along the small port, you reach the glass museum at the backside of the monastery. This used to be the former ‘convitto’ or boarding school. It is a rather small museum, but the access is free (it is sponsored by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini and Pentagram Stiftung) so there is no reason not to visit it. They regularly organize temporary exhibitions and there is a more or less long term installation ‘The Glass Tea House Mondrian’ from Hiroshi Sugimoto outside the building. At the time of writing this article, the exhibition was ‘The Glass of the Architects. Vienna. 1900-1937’. They regularly organize free guided tours in the weekend, but you can also ask for a private tour, in exchange for a donation for research activities organized by the Glass Study Centre of the Cini Foundation.
Overall, San Giorgio Maggiore is highly recommended on a trip to Venice. It’s only one stop from San Marco with vaporetto line 2 and it takes you less than half a day if you follow a tour and take your time to admire the view from the campanile. The best time to visit is during the weekend, as this allows you to include a visit to the Fondazione Giorgio Cini. But even during the week, the magnificent view from the campanile is already more than enough reason. Afterwards, you can return in the direction of San Marco or continue to Giudecca.
TIP: If you only intend to use the vaporetto to visit the island, ask for the ‘traghetto ordinario’ ticket. This reduced fare is only available for a few specific routes and the transfer from San Zaccaria (San Marco) to San Giorgio is one of those. This ticket costs only 5 euros (one way) instead of 7.5 euros for a standard one way vaporetto ticket.
The money and time spent by Vittorio Cini and subsequently his Fondazione to restore this island is really incredible and we should be grateful that people like him exist. If you want to know more on how the cultural heritage in Venice is financed, you can find more examples in my post ‘Discover how Venice finances its cultural heritage’.
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