He [Bepi] was staring across the canal at the façade of the church. It is not one of Venice’s most famous buildings but it has a charming bas-relief of the Adoration of the Magi over the doorway.
Sant’Isepo (Venetian for San Giuseppe or St Joseph) is Bepi’s parish-church, over in eastern Castello (see the map on this website), and is, as Alvise indicates, not especially well-known. I’ll admit that when I was compiling the sight-seeing pages for the first edition of The Time Out Guide to Venice back in 1995 I actually omitted the church altogether, and it didn’t make it into subsequent editions either. But then I’d only been living in Venice for fourteen years at the time, so what did I know?
In fact, it contains some remarkable works of art, including a Veronese Adoration of the Shepherds over the high altar, a Tintoretto painting of St Michael defeating Lucifer in front of an imperturbable Venetian senator, a sumptuous 17th-century ceiling painting of St Joseph being taken up into an elaborately baroque heaven, and a monumental tomb to Doge Marino Grimani and his wife Morosina Morosini by Vincenzo Scamozzi and Girolamo Campagna. The ostentatious splendour of this monument is in keeping with what we know of this Doge, who was in office from 1595 to 1605; the celebrations for his own election, which went on for almost a year, and then resumed in 1597 for the coronation of his wife as Dogaressa, were unmatched ever afterwards for sheer showiness and expense. Clearly a very different kind of Doge from the Grimani in office during the years of Alvise’s adventures, who was notoriously tight-fisted, not a quality likely to appeal to the Venetians.
However, the most fascinating work of art in the church is the so-called Lepanto altar, and it is this that Bepi shows to Alvise.
“The altarpiece consisted of another bas-relief, almost life-size, of the Nativity but he directed my attention to the altar-front beneath this. Again in bas-relief was a curious stylised representation of a sea battle, with golden war-galleys arrayed in curved lines on a background of green waves.”
“And look above.” Bepi pointed to the predella beneath the altarpiece, which bore three delightful carvings of Venetian galleons, complete with sails, rigging and fluttering pennants.
As Alvise notes, this small monument, with its graceful economy, is far more moving than the great pompous canvases celebrating the battle in the Doge’s Palace. The battle took place in 1571 and the altar dates from the same year.
It is often claimed that the military import of this battle has been greatly exaggerated, since in the end it didn’t prevent the onward expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which continued to conquer territories from the Venetians. However, coming as it did immediately after the fall of Cyprus to the Turks, it did break the myth of Turkish invincibility and so was undoubtedly a great morale-booster – something the Venetians definitely needed at the time.
As G. K. Chesterton suggests, in the final lines of his stirring poem on the battle, the battle also served as a stimulus for one of the greatest novels of all time, written by one of its combatants:
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade….
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
Perhaps Alvise has just a touch of the Quixotic about him…