Venice in Peril

BASILICA DEI FRARI

Reliquary Altar

Francesco Cabianca (1665-1737)

BACKGROUND

The Basilica of the Frari represents the most complete ensemble of Venetian sculpture and painting to be found in situ, with superlative artworks from the middle ages to the nineteenth century. In October 2022, Venice in Peril concluded its intervention on the Cenotaph of celebrated Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova at the Frari, and in 2023 we completed work on the monumental wellhead and archangels by Francesco Penso “Cabianca”, in the adjacent Trinity Cloister, formerly part of the Franciscan complex. This Spring, Venice in Peril takes on another imperilled Frari masterpiece, also by Cabianca, the spectacular Reliquary Altar, for which funding is urgently needed.

Created in 1711, the altar is acknowledged as Cabianca’s greatest work, but it has become seriously unstable. An extraordinary tour de force of late Baroque sculpture, the altar, installed in the sacristy, was once part of an extensive eighteenth century decorative scheme. It was designed to frame the relic of the Holy Blood, the Frari's most sacred object. The relic had been brought from Ottoman-ruled Constantinople in 1480 by Melchiorre Trevisan, Commander of the Venetian fleet. Its arrival in Venice follows the Venetian tradition of rescuing sacred objects from presumed danger, most famously with the translation of the body of St Mark from Alexandria in Egypt.

Appropriate to the altar's purpose as the repository for the relic, blood-red Rosso di Francia marble predominates, and three brilliantly executed high reliefs in white Carrara marble depict scenes from Christ’s Passion – the Crucifixion, Deposition and Entombment, with two further reliefs comprising angels with symbols of the Passion. The altar is crowned with drapery and putti sculpted in marble and with a gilded canopy and angels carved in wood by another virtuoso sculptor, Andrea Brustolon (1662-1732).

The Reliquary Altar was commissioned and perhaps designed by Padre Antonio Pittoni, a friar and dilettante architect who was also responsible for Cabianca's elaborate Trinity Cloister wellhead.

CONSERVATION

With its close links to the Frari, in 2022 Venice in Peril was asked to fund a full investigation into the condition of the altar, following the appearance of apparently minor cracks and detachments. The subsequent report showed that the situation was grave, as the monument had become unstable, with many of its metal fixings decayed or broken, and that it was mainly held together through compression. Large sections of the Crucifixion and Deposition were at risk of detachment. Damp was affecting the marble cladding at the base, causing it to crumble, and decorative framing elements were fragmenting. The investigative work also defined a rescue project based on the findings.

The full intervention is a considerable undertaking: the altar will be stabilised, consolidated and cleaned in in situ. This will entail dismantling large sections of it, including the marble cladding and reliefs in the collapsing lower register; replacing broken cramps and dowels with corrosion-resistant and anti-seismic fixings; damp-proofing through the insertion of a lead-lining beneath the monument; reconstruction and consolidation of fragmented decorative marbles; cleaning the marble surfaces of accumulated layers of wax and dust; conservative maintenance to the gilded wooden elements and decorative metalwork.

DETAILS

Francesco Cabianca
Reliquary Altar
1711
Marble

Canopy: Gilded Angels
Andrea Brustolon

FUNDING

Venice in Peril has committed to raise €152,000 - half of the projected cost, with the parish funding the other half.

Venice in Peril supporters have become loyal friends of the Frari helping to rescue the Canova Cenotaph. We ask you to similarly support this new pressing and important project at the Frari, and to protect Cabianca’s greatest work from deterioration and collapse.

PLEASE CONSIDER SUPPORTING
THE CONSERVATION OF THE CABIANCA RELIQUARY ALTAR