In San Geminiano: “A Ruby among Many Pearls,” Kristin Love Huffman and Iara Dundas use a digital reconstruction to reconsider the sixteenth-century Venetian church of San Geminiano and its siting within Piazza San Marco. Demolished in 1807, the church was significant within its Venetian context, but its importance has largely been forgotten. Through their historical reconstruction, based on analyses of archival plans and elevations, illustrated representations, written descriptions and inscriptions, and theoretical treatises, Huffman and Dundas demonstrate the methodological processes of 3-D modeling and the interpretive value of the resulting models for the study of architectural and urban histories. In addition, their work on San Geminiano enables a reevaluation of this historically important yet now lost structure's architecture and its relationship to the space of Piazza San Marco—the political center, socioeconomic nexus, and ceremonial entry point of Venice.
This building [San Geminiano] is universally held to be, as it were, a ruby among many pearls.—Francesco Sansovino,Delle cose notabili che sono in Venetia1
Published in 1561, Francesco Sansovino's words about the Venetian church of San Geminiano vividly convey the beauty and splendor of that site—a medieval building renovated beginning in 1505 by Cristoforo da Legname and continued in 1557 by Francesco's father, Jacopo Sansovino.2 This essay uses a digital reconstruction based on historical plans, elevations, and exterior views to reconsider the form and significance of this parish church, which was demolished in 1807 during the Napoleonic regime (Figure 1).3 Located on the west end of Piazza San Marco, San Geminiano stood in dialogue with the church of San Marco and other important architectural monuments there (Figure 2). San Geminiano effectively unified the square, and Jacopo Sansovino's completion of it—namely, his work on its façade and dome—served as a visible marker of the building's historical significance.4 Our virtual reconstruction of the church demonstrates the value and potential of three-dimensional models for improving scholars' understanding of demolished spaces and their lost relationships to the urban fabric. Such a reconstruction enables us to reevaluate the building and its siting in the city's political, intellectual, and ceremonial center.5
Site and Meaning
San Geminiano held an important place in the history of Venice. It was regarded by sixteenth-century Venetians as one of the city's earliest churches, linked to the Byzantine Empire of the sixth century.6 San Geminiano and the church of San Teodoro (later replaced by San Marco when the city acquired the relics of Saint Mark during the ninth century) stood across from each other at Piazza San Marco's western and eastern ends, and both commemorated military victories.7 According to Francesco Sansovino, San Geminiano, like San Teodoro, was founded by the Byzantine general Narses, who, under Justinian's rule and with Venice's support, pushed back against the invading Goths in the sixth century.8 Whether based on historical fact or mythology, these stories of San Geminiano's pedigree and commemorative function were widely believed by sixteenth-century Venetians, and, as discussed below, the church's purported Byzantine significance informed its final stage of completion beginning in 1557.
Piazza San Marco announced Venice's identity as a wealthy and powerful state. The Ducal Palace was the political and judicial center of the Republic, while the church of San Marco—the doge's chapel and the state church—housed the precious relics of its patron saint. While these principal buildings—the earliest ones constructed on the piazza—celebrated the Venetian Republic, other nearby structures reflected the erudite identity of its ruling classes, both patrician and cittadini (Venetian citizens who stood above the general populace). These buildings included the great clock tower attributed to Mauro Codussi (1496–1500); the Marciana Library, begun by Jacopo Sansovino in 1537; and the adjacent Loggetta of the Campanile, designed by Sansovino in 1538. The piazza embodied the wealth of the Venetian empire, not only through the richness of its architecture and embellishments but also through the presence of the city's Mint. The mercantile economy on which Venice depended was embraced by the Venetian state, as shops were incorporated into the design of sixteenth-century structures, including the Procuratie Vecchie, the Procuratie Nuove, and the Mint.9 The clock tower, in fact, forms a triumphal arch through which one moved into the Mercerie, the principal economic corridor linking the piazza to the Rialto Bridge. This is portrayed in Jacopo de' Barbari's View of Venice of 1500 (Figure 3).10
Jacopo Sansovino's contributions to the piazza's refinement in the mid-sixteenth century, spearheaded by Doge Andrea Gritti (r. 1523–38), were unprecedented. Not only did Sansovino design such important structures as the Library, the Mint, the Loggetta, and, in part, both the Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove, but he also reshaped the piazza to make it wider, resulting in greater dialogue between San Geminiano and the other architectural monuments there.11 Most crucial for the purposes of this essay was his completion of the church of San Geminiano.
While no archival documents link the earliest phase of the church's sixteenth-century restoration to a specific architect, modern architectural historians have concurred with Francesco Sansovino's attribution of it to the architect-sculptor Cristoforo da Legname.12 A commencement date of 1505 is based on two inscriptions at the base of columns in the building's chancel, recorded by Emmanuele Cicogna.13 Together these indicate that under Doge Leonardo Loredano (r. 1501–21), the priest Matteo Eletti initiated the building's architectural restoration that year. Eletti's effort to restore the church was thwarted by the drain on Venice's finances during the Wars of the League of Cambrai (particularly during the years 1508–10). The church was still usable for masses, however, as recorded by apostolic visits, and it was not until later that another cast of characters spurred the restoration project to completion.14
In 1552, the polymath Tommaso Rangone attempted to commission Jacopo Sansovino to build a new façade, one that would include a portrait of Rangone. As architectural historian Deborah Howard has suggested, the Venetian Senate may have voted down Rangone's request on the grounds that Piazza San Marco should not glorify any one individual.15 Rangone was not a Venetian or a patrician, let alone a state official. Discussion of his status emerged in the official deliberations regarding his second-choice location for the siting of a portrait bust, the church of San Giuliano.16 Yet despite the shift to a new location, Rangone remained linked to San Geminiano: his portrait was placed above the portal to the sacristy inside the church, according to designs by sculptor Alessandro Vittoria.17
As art and architectural historians such as Thomas Martin and Manuela Morresi have indicated, Rangone's interest intersected with that of another individual active in the church's completion: the priest Benedetto Manzini.18 In 1552, Manzini commissioned tombs near the altars of the Madonna and the Sacrament. By 1557, under his direction and persuasion, the procurators and the Senate decided to finance the church's completion and selected Jacopo Sansovino as their architect.19 That Sansovino was chosen is not surprising, given his role as proto (chief architect) to the procurators and his previous interventions at Piazza San Marco. In 1557, the Senate promised 400 ducats to support the project, and the three procuracies contributed an additional 1,600.20 The same two branches of government provided another 1,000 ducats the following year.21
Jacopo Sansovino seized the opportunity to make a strong connection between San Geminiano and the church of San Marco. The architect sought to design a façade that would fit harmoniously with the architecture of the adjacent Procuratie and create a distinctive visual impression.22 In addition, the sixteenth-century selection of the five-domed Greek cross (or quincunx) plan, with its central dome and four supporting domes, is notable because it aligns with the neo-Byzantine trend initiated by Mauro Codussi in Venice during the later fifteenth century, a trend still evident in extant Venetian churches such as San Giovanni Crisostomo, which was rebuilt beginning in 1497 (Figure 4).23 This compositional format created visual unity between the interior of San Marco and that of San Geminiano. Furthermore, San Geminiano's built form was a visible reminder of the church's presumptive (if mythical) origins alongside the ancient church of San Teodoro—that is, its founding under the Byzantine emperor Justinian.24 Without a virtual reconstruction, however, it is difficult to understand fully the complex relationship between San Marco and the lost church of San Geminiano.
Demolition and Resurrection
Digital methods have enabled scholars to engage the field of architectural history in new and exciting ways. The process of “rebuilding” a lost space or structure allows us to generate new interpretations and to probe uncertainties. It also offers us the opportunity to visualize proposed variations and possible solutions in ways that might initiate new scholarly conversations. Our digital model of San Geminiano's architecture provides such an opportunity. Further, as much as the model itself, the process of modeling the church and its setting has opened new considerations about this important monument's place within the urban space of Piazza San Marco and its relationship to the church of San Marco (Figure 5).
Venice has undergone dramatic physical changes over the centuries, most notably with Napoleon's entry in 1797, and Piazza San Marco is no exception to this fact. San Geminiano, used as a military barrack under Napoleon, was demolished in 1807 to make way for the Napoleonic wing of the Procuratie, which extended from the Old Procurators building on the north side of the piazza to the New Procurators building on the south.25 Despite the church's demolition, many existing sources allow us to reconstruct the building as an independent structure and to examine its situation within the context of Piazza San Marco.
Of primary importance for our digital model were several architectural plans, sections, and façade elevations made by architects working in Venice primarily in the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries. Eighteenth-century paintings and prints were also useful, enabling us to negotiate the differences and contradictions found within the visual evidence. We have studied these materials closely and critically to determine the likeliest appearance of San Geminiano's exterior and interior, in particular its dome.26 To strengthen our reconstruction, we considered the evidence gathered from these sources in relation to both text-based historical descriptions of the church and archival documents related to Jacopo Sansovino's building contract.
Unsurprisingly, the most compelling visual materials date to the years prior to the church's demolition. In the Bibliothèque Nationale de France we found a plan and sections drawn by architect Robert de Cotte during his visit to Venice in 1689 (Figure 6). To our knowledge, these images, which proved essential to our reconstruction of Sansovino's dome, have not been well studied. Additional drawings by the architect (and founding member of the Accademia di Venezia) Antonio Visentini exist in the Admiranda urbis Venetae at the British Museum; these include a plan, a façade elevation, and elevations and footprints of two of the church's five altars (Figure 7). With the exception of the altar drawings, these are among the most frequently published images of San Geminiano. We also used prints of Piazza San Marco made by Visentini and Luca Carlevarijs, and paintings by Canaletto, his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, and Francesco Guardi.27 We privileged certain paintings, such as the one by Bellotto, over the more dramatic views by Canaletto and Carlevarijs because the works by Bellotto and others disclose the church's roofline, which was of key importance to our reconstruction (Figure 8).
In 1505, Cristoforo da Legname may have intended to use the quincunx plan when renovating San Geminiano, even though its dome was not completed until Sansovino's hire in 1557. We analyzed and compared the details in both de Cotte's and Visentini's plans in the genesis of our virtual reconstruction. These plans indicate the presence of a large central dome on pendentives, although Visentini neglected to detail the vaulting for the four peripheral bays. De Cotte's plan indicates that these were domed spaces, but it is less clear about the kind of domes surmounting them. To determine this, we turned to the section drawings by de Cotte, Vincenzo Coronelli, and Leopoldo Cicognara, Antonio Diedo, and Giovanni Selva (Figures 9 and 10).28 Analysis of these drawings led us to conclude that the four peripheral bays were indeed topped by Byzantine-type domes, and that the quincunx plan was used here.
A plan created by Giovanni Casoni adds to the de Cotte and Visentini drawings by showing the church's auxiliary spaces (Figure 11). These included the so-called Sansovino Chapel (or Chapel of the Crucifixion) on the north side and the ante-sacristy, sacristy, and priest's apartment on the south side; all of these interconnected rooms appeared enclosed within the adjacent Procuratie when viewed from the exterior.29 Along the north flank of the church were two shops, while at its rear, facing the pedestrian thoroughfare (still called the Frezzeria), were two storerooms. This demonstrates how inextricably the fabric of the church was interwoven with the mercantile activity surrounding it. The inclusion of shops and storerooms also connected San Geminiano to the urban zone extending from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto, which included the Mercerie, the thoroughfare connecting the two sites.
Casoni's plan also helps to explain the architectural features visible on the Procuratie to the immediate north and south of San Geminiano's façade. Our model reveals that the Sansovinian arch on the roofline of the Procuratie Vecchie demarcates the location below of the Chapel of the Crucifixion, echoing the arch on the ground-floor level, as seen in historical prints and paintings of Piazza San Marco.30
As noted, Jacopo Sansovino's contracted work at San Geminiano included the completion of the church's central dome and façade.31 It was clear to us that his dome was to have included a drum set on pendentives. However, during our modeling process, questions arose about how exactly this dome was built. The sections drawn by de Cotte, Coronelli, and Cicognara all propose different numbers of openings for the drum, a significant consideration for our reconstruction. De Cotte's section seems to suggest eight, whereas Coronelli's proposes two, and Cicognara's, four. Painted representations of San Geminiano that show part of the roof behind the façade do not indicate the presence of a dome visible from the exterior. If the dome had indeed fit within the roof, it would not have had any windows. We realized that the height required to indicate such openings would have resulted in an elongated distortion of the drum and dome, especially if we followed de Cotte's elevation in our 3-D digital model. Such height would have made the dome visible from most places within the piazza, which would, presumably, have been reflected in the many contemporary paintings and engravings of the church. In particular, Bellotto's painting, which portrays San Geminiano at an oblique angle, illustrates the roofline without a dome (see Figure 8). One explanation for this may be that, because their creators sought to emphasize the church's Byzantine origins, none of the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century sections indicate pierced openings; rather, they suggest niches. Scholars have until now assumed that Sansovino's dome included windows as requested in his contract, especially given that the neo-Byzantine trend had by the mid-sixteenth century been superseded by a preference for greater interior illumination.
Our next question then became how many niches there might have been. Sebastiano Serlio's fifth book, On Temples, published in 1547, just prior to Sansovino's completion of San Geminiano, may provide a clue.32 It includes an example of a centrally planned temple with a dome and drum on pendentives, indicating that the drum should have eight niches. This is what we see in de Cotte's drawing. Other elevations, such as the one proposed by Coronelli, include four niches—an appropriate number given the stipulation of four windows in Sansovino's contract. Our digital model enabled us to render both options and thus inform future discussions, questions, and analyses (Figure 12).
The church's only fenestration consisted of the two windows and oculus on the façade and, possibly, two windows in the apse, as proposed by Cicognara.33 The result would have been an interior space of minimal illumination, in keeping with Byzantine-style construction. This may explain why Coronelli's views of the interior appear so dark.34 Our presumption of minimal fenestration is corroborated by Paolo Veronese's painted organ shutters (ca. 1560), originally located on the south wall, which depict figures with strong shadows cast to the right; this suggests that the principal source of light was located at the front façade (Figure 13). San Geminiano's limited interior lighting would have provided yet another compelling connection to the Byzantine-inspired San Marco.
San Geminiano's façade, with aedicules on each side of a pediment, stood in dialogue with the church of San Marco, which features similar elements.35 San Geminiano's aedicules differed slightly in form from those shown in Visentini's and Cicognara's façade elevations. Here, we based our interpretation of San Geminiano's appearance on a comparative analysis of the aedicules shown in the painted representations by Canaletto and Bellotto, which present the church as seen from different locations within Piazza San Marco. These paintings also informed our understanding of the locations of the cross at the peak of the pediment and of the relief of the lion of Saint Mark on the church's façade.36
Further connections between San Geminiano and San Marco became clear when we considered the placement of our model on de Cotte's plan of Piazza San Marco (see Figure 2). In front of San Marco stand three flagstaffs. Sculptor Alessandro Leopardi's bases for these, which celebrate the Venetian state, include a profile portrait bust of Doge Loredan in bronze relief, completed in 1505. That same year, inscriptions celebrating Loredan's involvement in San Geminiano's first phase of renovation were placed on the pedestals of the columns in the church's choir.37
Jacopo Sansovino's mid-sixteenth-century contributions were also celebrated nearby. Sansovino's burial in the Chapel of the Crucifixion physically connected him to his numerous sculptural and architectural projects in Piazza San Marco, not least his work at San Geminiano and his sacristy door for San Marco, which included impressively rendered scenes of Christ's Entombment and Resurrection. Today, a rectangular plaque depicting Sansovino's façade for San Geminiano is located on the ground in front of the church's original location in Piazza San Marco; there, it resembles a tomb marker. On the floor above Christopher Wren's burial site at Saint Paul's Cathedral in London are the famous words “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (If you seek his monument, look around you). Much the same might be said of Sansovino's relation to San Geminiano.
Our digital reconstruction has virtually resurrected Sansovino's ruby among many pearls, extending the scholarly conversation about the architect's instrumental role in the coordination of buildings for Piazza San Marco and San Geminiano's architectural and historical value. The act of making a digital model has given rise to new understandings of Sansovino's interventions, and of the church's connection with San Marco across the square. Now, San Geminiano, the final structure among the many that Jacopo Sansovino completed for Piazza San Marco, may respond in visual, architectural language to the question that Jacopo's son, Francesco, first published in 1561 in the form of an exchange between a foreigner and his Venetian guide: “Please tell me … why is the church of San Geminiano placed there facing that of St. Mark's?”38