Santa Maria del Giglio facade, Venice

In 1689 the Venetian Admiral Antonio Barbaro died leaving detailed written instruction and the sum of 30,000 Ducats for work on the façade of the church of Santa Maria del Giglio (also known as Santa Maria Zobenigo) in the Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo, west of the Piazza San Marco. This remarkable baroque construction was erected with the sole aim of glorifying the Barbaro family, much to the disgust of pious Venetians who noted that there was not a single item of religious imagery anywhere on the façade. A detailed drawing by the architect Giuseppe Sardi was attached to the will making it clear that the entire decorative scheme was approved of if not actually designed by the admiral himself.

Antonio Barbaro was born in 1627 to a patrician Venetian family with a long history of service to the republic. He took part as a naval commander in many engagements against Turkish forces. In 1656 he fought bravely in an attack during which the Turks lost 84 ships and the island of Tenedo but was reprimanded for his unruly and undisciplined conduct.

Similarly in 1661 he was called before the great Venetian admiral Francesco Morosoni to answer charges of insubordination. In 1666 he was sent to support Cretan forces during the siege of Heraklion and was responsible for amongst other things the fortifications. However, he returned to Venice the following year with further accusations and counter accusations hovering about him. Despite this in 1669 he was named governor of Dalmatia and Albania and in 1672 of Padova (Padua). After a disastrous period as ambassador to Rome from 1675 to 1679 he was recalled to Venice where he died in the same year. His turbulent career had involved him going against some of Venice's most important families and it seems that his need both to justify and glorify himself and cock a snook at his enemies lay behind his extraordinary architectural commission.

A - Antonio Barbaro 1 - Zara
B - Giovani Maria Barbaro 2 - Candia
C - Marino Barbaro 3 - Padova
D - Francesco Barbaro 4 - Rome
E - Carlo Barbaro 5 - Corfu
6 - Spalato

As well as statues of himself, other members of the family and half a dozen panels showing naval engagements, Barbaro also had six panels sculptured and set at ground level portraying six of the locations where he no doubt, in his own eyes, distinguished himself. These are in effect relief models of six fortified places and his military interests are emphasized by the fact that fortifications figure strongly in the panels. The marble panels are around 2 metres long and a metre high and feature the following locations (moving left to right across the façade:

Although unique in their ostentation other carved relief sculptures of fortifications are known in Venice. There are carvings of the siege of Candia in the mausoleum of Alvise Mocenigo in the Church of St. Lazarus of Mendicoli, images of S. Mauro and Cephalonia on the Sarcophagus Benedict of Pesaro and views of Smyrna and Cyprus on the funeral monument of Doge Pietro Mocenigo in the Church SS. Giovanni e Paolo.

The Naval Museum in Venice has a collection of 18 models of Venetian strongholds from the sixteenth and seventeen centuries. Originally kept in the Arsenal they are made of wood, papier mache and plaster and were restored in 1872 and more recently. Models in the collection are:

  • Fortress of Chania - 1608
  • Castle at the mouth of the port of Heraklion - 1620
  • Cliff Grabosa in Heraklion - 1620
  • Scoglio S. Theodore in Heraklion - 1625 (Fortress Spinalunga)
  • Fortress of Kythira - 1707
  • Fortress Carabus - 1614 (Islet of Spinalunga)
  • Fortress Spinalunga - 1619 (Fort Botticelli in Split)
  • Fortress of Famagusta in Cyprus - 1571
  • Mama Morea - 1686 (Fortress Details Famagusta)
  • Fortress of Naples of Romania - 1625 (Zante)
  • Fortress Suda -1612
  • City and Fortress Zara -1612
  • Candia -1612

Two others have been lent to the Museum of Military Engineers in Rome.

The use of relief modelling for military purposes may have originated with Italian military engineers during the fifteenth century. Pope Clemens VII used a cork model of Florence created by Benvenuto di Lorenzo della Volpaia and Niccolò Tribolo to plan his siege of 1529. The first centre of relief modelling became Venice in the middle of the 16th century. Originally nearly 200 models were created to depict the possessions of the Venetian Doges in the Levant.

The close resemblance between the carved image of Heraklion and the pictorial map of Boschini published in 1651. The panel for Rome shares a viewpoint with a 1658 engraving by Janssonius. The appearance of the panels suggests that they were based on similar printed maps rather than from observations of the more technical relief models kept in the city. The printed maps which may have been used could have come from a number of different sources thus explaining for example the limited internal detailing for the Dalmatian sites and the striking use of elevation for the Corfu carving.

A detailed report on the history of the church and its restoration printed in 1969 for the World Monuments Fund can be found at: wmf.org.

An account in Italian of the relief models is at: iapad.org

A useful audio-visual tour of the church is at: museumplanet.com

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