Four of them in Venice, and one at Aquileia in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia
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Last week the archbishop of Venice, Monsignor Francesco Moraglia, caused a stir by asserting that churches should not charge entrance fees. Voices were raised in alarm because many Italian churches, including at least 16 in Venice, contain superb works of art, and issuing tickets to tourists helps fund upkeep and restoration.
But the controversy reminded me quite how many wonderful paintings, mosaics and scultpures are there are in Italian churches which you can see without paying to enter. Together they surely rank as Europe’s greatest free art gallery – much enhanced that they remain where the artists and patrons intended them to be.
Here are 20 of the best. Knowing the problems and costs of resoration, if you visit any of them, you may feel inspired to make a donation after all.
12th-century Mosaics, St Mark’s – Venezia
The interior of this magnificent church glows with two about acres of breath-taking mosaics. The earliest date from the 12th century, but work continued for 600-odd years, interweaving stories from the Old and New Testaments with lives of saints and in particular scenes relating to St Mark himself.
Tintoretto: The Last Supper and The Fall of Manna, San Giorgio Maggiore – Venezia
Hanging in the two sides of the presbitery in Palladio’s graceful church, Tintoretto’s huge canvasses of 1592 and 1594 are visible from the altar rail. The Last Supper looks much like a scene in a 16th-century Venetian bacaro, with the addition of some hovering angels and a sprinkling of glowing haloes.
Giovanni Bellini: Madonna & Child with Four Saints, San Zaccaria – Venezia
In this luminous, graceful work (1505) by Giovanni Bellini an angel plays the lute at Mary’s feet while saints Peter, Catherine of Alexandria, Lucy and Jerome seem absorbed in their thoughts around the Madonna’s throne. Also in this early 15th-century church are a Birth of John the Baptist by Tintoretto, and Tiepolo’s Flight into Egypt.
Titian: Annunciation and Transfiguration, San Salvador – Venezia
Drawn along by the surging tide of shoppers in the Merceria you can easily miss the church of San Salvador. Inside, two altarpieces by Titian light up the penumbra. In the Annunciation (1562), the Virgin Mary breaks a tradition of calm acquiescence by appearing alarmed at the news brought by a very meek angel with gleaming wings; the glass jar in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting is exquisite. The Transfiguration (c. 1560) hangs above the high altar.
Floor mosaic, Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta – Aquileia
This Gothic church in the north-eastern town of Aquileia about was constructed on the ruins of what may have been the first ever public Christian place of worship, built for the Emperor Constantine in 313.
It is from this earlier church that the floor mosaic comes – a spectacular, beautifully preserved fourth-century masterpiece covering the whole nave, and showing Old Testament scenes and portraits of donors, including some thought to be of Constantine himself, his mother St Helen and his family, perhaps done from life after the emperor visited.
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