The Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista, founded in 1261 at the church of Sant’Aponal (Sant’Apollinare), moved to the Contrada San Stin in 1301, renting some rooms owned by the Badoer family on the upper floor of a hospice for needy, elderly women next to the church. The Scuola was also allowed to conduct its own religious rites in the church, under the patronage of the Badoer.
The rented rooms were renovated. Two inscriptions under the relief in the Campiello della Scuola, with the brothers kneeling before St John, proclaim that the works were started in 1349 and completed in 1354.
The importance of the Scuola in the city having increased over the fifteenth century, partly due to the donation of the relic of the Holy Cross in 1369 by Philippe de Mezières, grand chancellor of the kingdom of Cyprus, it decided to buy not only the rooms rented from the Badoer family but also the hospice and renovated these (1414 – 1420) to create premises more in keeping with its greater needs.
A precious, Gothic reliquary in rock crystal and gilt silver was made for the relic. Two pictorial cycles were commissioned in 1420 from Jacopo Bellini, but they were soon ruined and in the last decade of the century Gentile Bellini, Jacopo’s son, and his assistants began work on the ‘Miracles of the Relic of the Cross’ to replace the previous ones.
In 1454 the Scuola was enriched with the lateral facade in Flamboyant Gothic style and, with works carried out from 1478 to 1481, also with the marble septum in the entrance courtyard, by Pietro Lombardo.
The doorway is crowned by a large lunette with an eagle, symbol of San Giovanni Evangelista.
In 1498 the Chapter of the Scuola decided to build a new staircase and engaged Mauro Codussi to design it.
The Albergo was completed in the early 1540s with inlaid wooden dossals and bas reliefs; in these same years Titian and his workshop completed the series of paintings for the ceiling of the same room. The ‘Vision of St John the Evangelist’ is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington while the workshop works (putti, grotesques, symbols of the evangelists) are in the Gallerie dell’Accademia.
Jacopo Palma Giovane was engaged to paint four big ‘Episodes of the Apocalypse’ to cover the walls of the Albergo at the end of the century.
The Scuola was the object of only a few works in the seventeenth century, but in the following one, thanks to a large bequest, new works were carried out involving the entire upper floor. The architect Giorgio Massari had the ceiling of the San Giovanni Room (Chapter Room) raised by five metres starting from 1727, completely rebuilding the wall structures and opening up twelve big oval windows to give light to the room.
The big statue of St John the Evangelist (1732-1733) , placed on the altar of the Chapter Room, was commissioned from the sculptor Giovanni Maria Morlaiter in these years. The magnificent coloured marble paving in this Room is also by Massari, an absolute masterpiece installed in 1752. Restoration works were also carried out in the Oratory of the Cross.
Giuseppe Angeli painted the big central ceiling canvas in 1761. A few years later, on 12 May 1797, the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice came to an end. The Scuola Grande was closed by Napoleonic decree of 15 April 1806 and the property partly taken into state ownership and partly sold.
The rooms were reduced to storage space and state deposits. The big paintings in the Oratory depicting the Miracles of the Cross by Gentile Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio and others were expropriated; taken into state ownership, they fortunately remained in Venice and can now be seen at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. When the Austrians took over from the French, they actually planned to demolish the Scuola building and even to take the paving of the San Giovanni Room to Austria.
Fortunately, in 1856 the Friuli building entrepreneur Gaspare Biondetti Crovato, with the aid of a group of Venetians who raised the necessary funding, bought the Scuola from the Austrian state. A Mutual Aid Society of the Building Trades was set up in the Scuola Grande, with the aims of restoring and maintaining the Scuola Grande building, helping members in difficulty and taking up what had been the aims of the brotherhood in the previous centuries.
Since then the brotherhood has resumed its work. Along with the members engaged in the building trades, other people were later also admitted as members with a commitment to pursue the aims of the brotherhood.
In 1931 the Scuola was raised to being an arch-brotherhood by Pope Pius XI. The reliquary of the Cross, which by Napoleonic decree should have been taken to the Mint to be melted down, was redeemed by the last Guardian Grande, in office at the time of the Napoleonic edicts, Giovanni Andrighetti. His heirs returned it to the Scuola through the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Pietro La Fontaine. The history of the past, the works of art, the architecture and the aims of the Scuola Grande are described in the 2005 guide edited by Chiara Vazzoler and published by Marsilio.
PHOTO: Cameraphoto Arte