I am a specialist in photography, but a recent trip to Venice, Italy, took me back to my art historical roots. In fact, my interest in the field started in high school when one of my teachers introduced me to the early Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli. While in Venice, I visited the Biennale, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and the Gallerie dell’Accademia—all wonderful—but it was a chance encounter with the Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari that reminded me why I chose a career in the art world at such a young age.
Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin (1516-1518), his first major public commission in Venice, draws your eye to the high altar with its vivid colors and gesticulating figures; up close this movement is countered by Mary’s calm and reverent expression as she gazes at the figure of God above her. Also impressive, if somewhat disturbing, is the Tomb of Doge Giovanni Pesaro (1669), a classic example of Venetian Baroque art. Animated bronze skeletons by the Italian sculptor Bernardo Falcone and hulking representations of Moor slaves carved in black and white marble by the German artist Melchior Barthel menace each other and the viewer.
My favorite piece, however, was the sacristy’s reliquary altar from 1711. Francesco Penso (called “Cabianca”) carved exquisite bas-reliefs of the Crucifixion, Deposition of Christ, and the Pietà in white Carrara marble. In addition to the reliefs, the richly veined red marble altar houses ornate and glowing vessels with the relics of spiritual and religious figures, including a crystal vase said to contain a small quantity of balm and blood, which, according to tradition, Mary Magdalene took from the body of Christ.
While I have spent the last 20 years focusing on photographs, experiencing beautiful spiritual objects in the impressive and inspiring setting of Venice’s Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari brought me back to my first love: Venetian painting and sculpture.