St. George’s Anglican Church: sobriety and discreetness
St. George’s Anglican Church in Venice is a monument the average visitor hardly notices. When you pass by —and you do, as the Peggy Guggenheim museum is only two minutes away— all conspires to its discreet character. A main façade missing, no dome, the entrance placed on the side corner and its white plastered surface cannot compete with the sudden opening of a view on the Grand Canal right behind. Not to mention that you hardly find it open.
Its understated elegance is neither helped by the missing, when not even imprecise, information you find in the main guidebooks. Three lines in the most celebrated guide book written by Giulio Lorenzetti, even less words in the one published by the otherwise authoritative Touring Club Italiano. Both guidebooks, by the way, mention the church was founded in 1926. Which is not true as the church was dedicated in 1892 and consecrated in 1906.
Let’s look at the apparently subdued exterior, first, which is richer than you may think.
St. George’s exterior and a forgotten tragedy
Some curious eyes may linger on the noteworthy bronze doors. The church entrance porch was designed by Luigi Marangoni in 1920 and is part of the official memorial to all the British soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in Italy in WWI.
In particular, it also stands there to remember a widely forgotten sacrifice of thousands of these soldiers who helped the Italian Army against the Austro-Hungarians. More than 2,500 graves of British soldiers lie in the Veneto region and the names of ten cemeteries are inscribed in the side bronze panels. This military campaign took place two weeks before the end of WWI and proved to be essential for the Italian victory. After the terrible defeat in Caporetto in 1917, Venice itself was evacuated and 25,000 soldiers only supervised the city, so high was the risk. It is shameful to admit the death of these British soldiers was soon forgotten.
Cannons turned into church’s doors
It was indeed enlightening to contact Mr Peter Lauritzen who was People’s Warden, Lay Reader and Secretary-Treasurer for over thirty years at St. George’s and did extensive research on St. George’s.
The doors themselves used to be British cannons that were re-cast at the Arsenale as the inscription below explains. Mr Lauritzen highlighted in a pamphlet printed in 2007 that the Arsenale foundries were re-opened for the occasion. He also noted that the doors’ design, including the writing’s fonts and the lions’ heads, were inspired by a famous ivory Consular Diptych of the Emperor Justinian now preserved in Milan, in the Castello Sforzesco.
Above the door, a bas-relief by Napoleone Martinuzzi, at that time director of the Murano Glass museum, shows St. George killing the dragon, dating back to 1926 and together with St. Michael alluding to the British military order of valour, the Order of St Michael and St George.
More testimonials are kept inside the church, such as the Sanctuary Lamp from San Donà di Piave’s parish church and the Liber Honoris with the names of the British soldiers that lost their lives for Italy — and Venice.
St. George’s Anglican Church’s interior
The interior of St. George’s with its frieze, according to Lauritzen’s, evokes Sansovino’s Renaissance Marciana national library in St. Mark’s square and beautifully merges English and Italian classical style. Its designer was Henry Woods in 1897 known for his paintings portraying ordinary Venetians during their everyday life. Lauritzen adds he always thought the altar frame with its reredos was also Woods’, but recent research seems to support the thesis that it is an antique art work coming from a secularised, supposedly Catholic church. Even the painting, a replica of an ancient Renaissance work, was adapted to the new use.
A warehouse for Murano glassware turned into a church
But the work to be done was far beyond the refurbishing of the interior. As a matter of fact, St. George’s was the glassware warehouse of the Venezia-Murano Mosaic and Glass Company, hosted in Palazzo Barbarigo, one of the most eye-catching buildings along the Grand Canal for its mosaics-covered façade.
Sir Henry Layard, the owner of the company decided to build the deposit where the palazzo’s garden had originally been. When the company was liquidated in 1889, Sir Layard donated the building so it could become the church it is today, for “the English Church in Venice for the sole use of the English and American Episcopalians and visitors therein”.
If the Chaplaincy had been established at the time of King James I with Sir Henry Wotton already in 1605, it was not earlier than 1906 that the English speaking community in Venice could enjoy of a church where to pray. And it is here, together with the names of the English soldiers, that more noteworthy names of the ones that loved Venice are mentioned. A sort of ideal pantheon.
Joseph Smith’s tombstone
The first one is for sure the name of Joseph Smith, the famous banker, merchant and art collector, then British consul in Venice between 1744 and 1759. It was he who started promoting Canaletto by holding twelve of his views of the Grand Canal in Venice in his house in Campo Santi Apostoli and finally bought them for Buckingham Palace. You can see his tombstone hanging on the wall.
The heraldic windows and the inscriptions on the walls
Designed by Althea Wiel, English-style stained glass windows mention Henry Wotton, John Ruskin, Robert Browning, Sir Henry Layard and his wife Enid, Horatio Brown up to Sir Henry Ashley Clarke. One of the windows mentions William Edward Collins, the Bishop of Gibraltar consecrating the church. It is under this diocese that this church is believed to lie, even if it’s not clear yet. A lot will depend on the Italian Government, should it officially legalise the relation between Italy and the Anglican Church, as Rev’d Canon Malcolm Bradshaw, the Anglican Chaplain of St. George’s today, pointed out when we met.
I loved reading the inscriptions on the walls, too. As the one mentioning Frederic Eden and his wife Caroline. I recently had the unexpected opportunity to visit what had been their legendary garden on the Giudecca island. Now a large, wild park, how can one forget how the Edens transformed a potential dump into an extraordinary garden for intellectual and artistic conversation accompanied by a perfectly served cup of tea?
The Venice Music Project at St. George’s
Even if the ceiling and the doors have been taken care of, the church needs our attention. Movements on the floor, the rising humidity in the walls, the terrazzo floors and its cracks. The church needs some more “contemporary freshness”, as Canon Bradshaw says.
The Venice Music Project in the last few years has beautifully attempted to raise consideration for this wonderful building by turning it into the place where we can listen to high quality music of a special kind. Discovering and then transcribing forgotten 17th and 18th century Baroque musical scores from historical archives, this group of musicians allows the audience to listen to innovative repertoire and indirectly to contribute to the restoration of this venue. An important part of Venice Music Project’s mission is to raise funds for the restoration of St. George’s church, to which a substantial amount has already been donated. Not just for the Anglophiles, of course, but for everyone loving Venice and its multi religious history.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Mr Peter Lauritzen for his patience and kindness in sharing some of his extensive knowledge about the history of St. George’s with me. My sincere thanks to Canon Malcolm Bradshaw for the time he dedicated me for the interview, too.