There’s a guard at a basilica who wants us to be better.
It just wasn’t as elaborate as I thought it would be, I thought as I surveyed the interior of Venice’s Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Yes, it was beautiful, just not as beautiful as I expected for a “Top 10” ranking in the little book about Venice I had at home.
A sign at the door had notified us of a 3.50€ entrance fee to enter. My daughter and I both agreed that this view from the doorway would suffice. After all, we had been in many other Venetian cathedrals or basilicas.
Just two days before, we had ventured inside the Chiesa di Santo Stefano in the San Marco sestiere. The previous day, we had taken loads of photos inside Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna. The next day, a second tour inside Saint Mark’s Basilica was on the agenda. And then, two years earlier we had made time not only for Saint Mark’s, but also the Basilica dei Frari, Chiesa di San Zaccaria, and of course, the iconic Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. In short, we had seen many.
However, I liked the idea of at least a souvenir from Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The rotating stand at the edge of the entry steps might have one I could purchase. I spun the stand, picked out a couple of cards and stepped over to an ornate kiosk. From the back, a man entered the darkened kiosk.
He had just finished setting up for the day—repositioning the “No Photos” sign, stacking up the 1€ kimonos available for purchase by bare-shouldered women, arranging a selection of votive candles.
I slid the two postcards under the slot in the kiosk’s Plexiglass shield. The man looked intently at each one and then met my eyes.
“Did you see the originals?” he asked.
“No.” How could I explain in my non-existent Italian that we had already seen so many churches in this great city? He straightened the cards in his palms with a tap on the marble counter.
“Okay, you must see the originals.” He stepped out from the kiosk and stepped around to meet us. Grabbing the velvet partition rope, he said, “Come with me.”
He handed me the postcards, and we followed him into the cool darkness of the basilica. He strode purposefully to a mammoth collection of oil paintings on the large wall to the right.
As he walked, he spoke over his shoulder, “It’s a crime to come to Venice and buy a postcard and not see the original because you don’t want to pay three-fifty Euro.”
Ouch, I thought.
Here was a Venice enthusiast if I had ever met one. Flashing his dark eyes from beneath even darker curls, he continued: “I will show you the two paintings on your cards.” He stepped over to the wall behind the oil paintings and tapped a small plastic rectangle. Click. Light saturated the paintings.
My daughter reached for my postcards for a closer look. “This is a Bellini—those are why this church is on the list. These are special,” she whispered.
“Here is the Bellini,” he called from the light switch.”You look at this one, then go over to that one”—he pointed further into the nave directing our eyes to the darker painting of Christ with the apostle Thomas by Leandro da Bassano— “and then come back and see this one again. You turn on the light if you need to.”
“We will. Thank you,” I told him.
We looked at San Cristoforo and the assemblage of Giovanni Bellini paintings. Each one was large on its own. Framed in gold, the entire altarpiece composition (called the Saint Vincent Ferrer altarpiece, I later learned) spanned nearly nine feet in height.
I’m not an art historian, but a little online research revealed these paintings were not made with oils, but tempera paint on wooden panels. This particular one shows the Christ child being carried by Saint Christopher, a 3rd-century church martyr executed by the Roman emperor at the time. The painting glowed under the light, and reminded me of another glowing Bellini at the Basilica dei Frari. It seems Bellini knew the tempera medium well.
We walked to the other painting we had been permitted to see at no charge.
This second painting, L’incredulita di S. Tommasso by Leandro da Bassano was near the front of the church. It was dark and partially obscured by a screen of sorts. It shows Christ showing the doubtful Thomas his crucifixion wounds, proving the resurrection. I later learned that Leandro da Bassano was a famous painter who followed in his artist father’s footsteps and was later knighted by the Doge of Venice. Many of his works are confused with Tintoretto’s and are difficult to date.
We returned to the Bellini and switched on the lights one more time.
“Oh, thank you,” said a tourist staring at the painting who had entered after us.
We decided our visit was over. As we left, my daughter selected another postcard and paid. She offered the guard 5€ to thank him for allowing us in.
“No, no, you keep,” he said. “I just want to show you what you want to see. A postcard isn’t good enough. It’s how I make you… what to say… better tourists,” he said, smiling and shrugging his shoulders. I could tell he meant no offense by his remark.
He continued. “You know… when you’re inside a church here, tell the guard that you want to light a candle and say a prayer and they will let you in.”
Did I hear him correctly? I asked myself.
Still, I’m not Catholic, and using prayer as my ticket inside a church seems disingenuous. However, I did appreciate his candid tip and his enthusiasm for La Serenissima, the traditional name for the Venetian Republic.
We left the church and entered the campo, the large square outside. I knew I wouldn’t forget this brief encounter in a city coming to grips with the effects of mass tourism. Two weeks before, according to the blog La Venessiana, tugboats had allowed an out-of-control cruise ship to strike an occupied river cruise boat instead of Santa Maria della Salute. To compensate for the wear and tear that throngs of summer tourists wreak upon the city, officials are devising new tourism taxes.
In reflection, the guard at Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo was merely doing his part… politely doing what he could to help visitors he met to “be better tourists” in his city on the sea.