Take a moment to admire the grotesque gargoyle head mounted on the arch at the base of the belltower – it’s designed to ward of evil spirits, and has repelled several of the previous resident clergymen as well!
The large, open Campo Santa Maria Formosa impresses immediately with the age and architectural style of the buildings at its fringes, but it is most renowned for the beautiful old church in its south-west corner. Its 40m white belltower and traditional Renaissance form evoke a dignity that is slightly at odds with the church’s unusual and, by Christian standards, positively raunchy name.
“Formosa” is a word used to describe a woman, and literally means “shapely” or even “voluptuous”. Supposedly, the Virgin Mary appeared to the Bishop of Oderzo, St. Magnus, in the form of a buxom lady, and told him to build a church under a white cloud. This left some room for interpretation, but St. Magnus was undeterred, and built the Santa Maria Formosa on the Rialto in 842. Constructed of wood and thatched straw, this early church burned to the ground in 1106, and was not rebuilt until the late 15th century by Mauro Codussi.
Entering the church today, you can see a rare surviving work of the Venetian artist Catena, The Circumcision of Christ, behind the chorus desk. Beyond this is a bright triptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini the Madonna della Misericordia, which has sadly lost its original gilded frame, replaced later by one made of marble. Another feature of particular note is the large, free-standing altar, which consists of a high arch mounted on four dark columns. It is made all the more impressive by its setting in front of Giovanni Segala’s altarpiece, The Presentation to the Doge of the Brides Kidnapped by Narentine Pirates.
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