The church of Santa Maria del Giglio – St. Mary of Lilly – is one of Venetian Baroque masterpieces and it is located close to St. Mark’s Square. The church is famous for its beautiful and pompously decorated façade. But, what makes this building unique?
Usually, in front of a church you would expect some religious symbology, for example a cross, angels, Jesus or other Saints. On Santa Maria del Giglio you won’t find any of them: its façade has a different function.
Take in consideration that in Venice it was prohibited to celebrate one’s image: Venice was a republic and if you wanted to celebrate something by building public monuments, decorating façades or erecting statues, you would be doing that in the name of the Republic.
In the whole history of the Republic of Venice, that lasted from the 8th to the 18th century, there was only one statue erected in honour of a man: the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni on Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo. He was a very successful General of Venetian army during 15th century, not only was he wealthy, decorated and famous, he also had a private army of 10,000 people.
Other important people in Venice needed to find a way to get permission to celebrate themselves.
One of those ways was to decorate a façade of a church in celebration of one’s life upon their death, that was a very expensive thing to do.
Santa Maria del Giglio is just one of most outstanding examples of this practice. The whole façade is a monument to the family Barbaro. The House of Barbaro was one of the oldest branches of Venetian nobility. In 1678 Admiral Antonio Barbaro died, leaving a bequest of 30,000 ducats for decorating a façade of the church as his family cenotaph.
Admiral Barbaro is right in the centre of the façade, wearing his armor and pretty funny shaped hat, which was the symbol of his rank. He is also holding a ceremonial rod, representing his authority over Venetian Navy.
In the lower part of the façade, there are other four statues portraying his brothers. On the left angle we have Giammaria Barbaro, wearing a luxurious fur-lined coat and a curly wig: these are symbols of his social status. The inscription just under the statue tells us he used to be a ‘Sapiens Ordinum’, which we can translate from latin with Ranks Adviser. In Venice, there was an administrative organ that assigned ranks and job positions for members of aristocracy, who in Venice had to work. So Giammaria simply decided who took which office.
Moving to the right, we have Marino Barbaro, represented while reading a document. Marino was a Senator: you have to imagine his robe of dark red coloured damask, the ‘uniform’ of Venetian Senators. All members of the aristocracy were also members of the Parliament, but just few of them were employed in the Senate.
The next is Admiral Francesco Barbaro who is pretty much like his older brother Antonio: the inscription reads ‘Legatus in Classe’ that basically means he was involved in navy administration.
The last one, Carlo Barbaro used to hold Giammaria’s same office which is Ranks Adviser.
But do not stop just at the façade: the interior of the church is breathtakingly beautiful and it holds important paintings by Jacopo Palma il Giovane, Titian’s critically acclaimed follower, and the only Rubens you can find in Venice.