Friday, 14 March 2008

Rock on, Church of San Rocco

How boring is a church? Here in Venice, not very. Today I am going to take you to the Church of San Rocco to show you just how interesting a church can be. I am going to weave comments throughout an article I wrote for the International Herald Tribune-Italy Daily back in August, 2002.

First, you have to know a little bit about St. Roch. We will use his Italian name, San Rocco: "San" = "Saint" if it's a male saint. "Santa" = "Saint" if it's a female saint. (How Saint Nicolas turned into Santa Claus is a topic for another discussion.:)

There are many stories about San Rocco, so I will try to piece them together. San Rocco was a young nobleman from Montpellier, in the South of France, who studied medicine during the turn of the 14th century. His father was the governor.

At age 20, he gave up his privileged life to make a pilgrimage to Italy to help victims of the plague (some accounts say he was orphaned at age 20, gave up everything to the poor, and gave the governorship to his uncle). Everywhere he went, miraculous healing took place. After falling sick himself, he, too, recovered miraculously with the help of a friendly dog who brought bread to Rocco in the forest.

When he finally went back to Montpellier, he didn't say who he was, and his uncle didn't recognize him and thought he was a spy, so he threw him in prison, where he died.

Or so the story goes, which sounds a little fishy to me. Why go back to Montpellier just to go to prison? When he could have been out working miracles?

More than a century later, when the Venetians needed protection from the plague that was ravaging their city, one of the saints they turned to was San Rocco. They transported his body to Venice in 1485, and started work on the church that would become his shrine in 1489. (Venetians are always stealing saint's bodies and hauling them off to Venice. In fact, another time I will tell you how they stole the body of St. Mark, who is Venice's very famous patron saint -- hence, the Lion of San Marco adorning the Venetian "logo.")

The presence of San Rocco's body in Venice brought immediate status to the city, and would have attracted many pilgrims seeking the saint's protection from disease or a miraculous cure.

(Oh, those wily Venetians! I'm surprised they haven't dug up John Kennedy and hauled him over here and turned him into a saint! And here's another interesting tidbit -- when the Venetians took the body, San Rocco was just Rocco, he wasn't a saint! More than 100 years later, in 1590, the Venetian ambassador in Rome told a Cardinal that the Pope better canonize Rocco, or there would be a scandal. Well, the Pope did not! In fact, I have just checked and checked, and apparently this scandal still goes on today.  

CAT SUPER QUIZ QUESTION OF THE DAY: Does anybody know if St. Rocco is even really a saint? Or did the Venetians just build the church, the scuola, steal the body and put on a show? And do we really care? After all, this is the Magic Kingdom! And maybe the Pope was being stubborn for another reason. Maybe Rocco did saintly things, and for whatever reason, the Pope would not recognize him. Venice was always arguing with Rome. Well, we will never know, now, will we?:)

San Rocco interior
Today, the body of San Rocco is conserved at the high altar in the Church of San Rocco in a sepulcher embellished with with three images: Seizure, Captivity and Death of San Rocco by Andrea Schiavone, while paintings by artists such as Tintoretto and Pordenone record the life and miracles of the Saint.

Giovanni Antonio de Sacchis (1483-1539), who was called Pordenone after the town of his birth in Friuli, worked in Venice from 1527 until his death in 1539, and was a fierce rival of Titian's. (Everybody seems to be a fierce rival of Titian's! Something else you should know -- Pordenone, the town, belonged to the Hapburgs until Venice "acquired" it in 1514.)

Just seven years later Pordenone, the painter, arrived on the scene. Pordenone's dramatic style greatly influenced artists of the next generation, such as Tintoretto. (I am not going to get into the Scuola Grande of San Rocco right now, but Tintoretto was such a painting maniac, if you walk next door, you will see how he painted the entire ceiling over at the scuola.)

The Pordenone panels of St. Christopher and St. Martin, and the surrounding frescoes of Supplicants (1528-29) high up on the the left wall part of the nave, are part of an ensemble the artist created to beautify a cabinet that contained the church's considerable collection of silver liturgical objects and reliquaries.

St. Christopher and St. Martin were painted on the wooden doors of the cabinet, while figures of the sick and wounded seeking spiritual aid were frescoed on the surrounding walls. The ship moored at the left and the direction of the travelers' attention -- located on the high altar of the church beyond the right side of the fresco field -- emphasizes that they are directed to the shrine of San Rocco.

Tintoretto's Annunciation (1577-86) was originally composed of two separate canvases, the Madonna and the Angel Gabriel, which decorated the organ shutters of the church. At some point, they were seamed together to form a unified composition to be displayed on the wall of the church, no longer part of the organ.

On the right side of the church is a masterpiece by Sebastiano Ricci, San Francesco di Paola Resuscitates a Dead Child (1732-34).

The dome & apse by Pordenone
So, now when you go to the Church of San Rocco, you will know that St. Roch, real or not, was a young French man who wanted to be a doctor. He gave up his cozy life in Montpellier -- which, by the way, happened to have a very great medical university -- in fact, the oldest Christian school of medicine was founded there in 1021. Before that, the Moors (remember my Otello blog) founded medical schools way back in the 9th century. So, Roch probably knew a thing or two about healing, which is why he decided to help people who were dying from the plague. He nearly died himself, and was miraculously saved by a dog.

Now, doesn't that make the Church of San Rocco a lot more fun?

Ciao from Venice,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. Does anybody know if St. Rocco is even really a saint?

    Them's fightin' words over here in Montpel. I live right down the street from St. Roch church, which in order to get to I have to pass Bar St. Roch, Le Royale St. Roch restaurant, and 19 other similarly-named things. He is very, very much a saint!

  2. Well, darlin, I happen to think he is a saint, too! In fact, I was thinking about going over there to pray to him and give him a modern-day test, to make him a modern-day saint. Not for health, but for money, since that is all anyone seems to care about. Why don't you and I do it? We are Americans and we need money because of our Evil Government and the dollar collapsing. Let's see if San Rocco can give us some money! Not much, just a little, for necessities. If both of us get unexpected money, then, by God, you and I can declare him a Saint. (I just looked up the Rules for Sainthood, and they are very vague.)


  3. P.S. Aren't you folks in France a tad p.o.'d that the Venetians stole your saint?