The Oratorio dei Crociferi, a lockbox hiding an unrevealed Palma il Giovane

31 August 2021

Venice, 8th July 2021 – A magical place, a treat for art experts, where an unrevealed version of Jacopo Palma il Giovane can be admired. Here, throughout the crusade era, soldiers and pilgrims, heading towards or coming back from the Holy Land, used to make a stopover. By revealing masterpieces hidden in every corner and surrendered to the decay as centuries went by, Venice is telling us its 1600 years.

This is precisely the case of the Ospizio Zen and the attached Oratorio dei Crociferi. From the outside, this building complex has a meaningless gabled façade which extends on the left side of campo dei Gesuiti whilst on the inside, it preserves a whole cycle of paintings of the late Venetian Renaissance’s popular artist. In the XII century, around this swampy area of the city, the religious order of the Crociferi funded its own hospital and church, entirely dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption. While in 1214 the church was destroyed by a fire, it was later rebuilt and enlarged. At that time, the order of the Crociferi played an essential role in society, especially in relation to activities connected with people's medical care, with the cleansing of the outskirts where the order settled in, and with providing accommodation to merchants, soldiers, and pilgrims.

“This whole area was given to the order of the Crociferi to develop cleansing policies – explains Laura Marcomin, coordinator of the cultural and exhibition section of the Fondazione Venezia Servizi alla Persona (Antica Scuola dei Battuti and Ire), which preserve the site –. This place was originally built to welcome pilgrims who made a stop in Venice on their way to Jerusalem whilst secondly, it was transformed into a two-floor structure with a long corridor and seven rooms – which included and still includes a private kitchen - facing it”.

It was in 1268 when Doge Renier Zen left almost everything he owned to the order of Crociferi, including the vineyards located in Istria and which hospitalized people would have forever benefited from. Renier Zen used to live in the next-door building that was called Palazzo Zen. About this building some people said that it was so close to the one of the Crociferi, that an internal passage connecting the two buildings was created. Throughout the 1400s, due to the lower number of pilgrims in Venice and to the end of the crusade, the Ospizio was transformed into a palace that could host at least 12 lonely women in need of help. In the 1500s, after a long argument concerning Zen’s legacy – which had never really been delivered by legal representatives that used to manage it - the building changed, due to the artistic bloom that it hosted, which made it a unique element in the whole venetian art scene of the XVI century. The whole cycle of paintings by Palma il Giovane, which can be dated back among 1583 and 1592, made the Opsizio a rare piece of art. Painted at the behest of Doge Pasquale Cicogna, the cycle of paintings stretches along the walls of the Oratorio as well as on the ceiling of the small room where the essential events, which characterize the story of the Crociferi, are represented.

“Next to this Ospizio there is a small chapel that, back in the 1500s, was enriched by the art works of the great Venetian artist Jacopo Palma il Giovane. Artworks by Palma il Giovane which in this case can be defined as unrevealed, due to the portrait skills used, which actually did not characterize his style, typically mannerist and classic instead – continues Marcomin -. This is a unique and magical place, just for art lovers and experts. As a matter of fact, visitors do not expect to see such a beautiful art cycle, with bright colours and almost completely preserved. Indeed, the only non-original artwork – not painted by Palma since it was stolen – is the altarpiece”. 

The Oratorio dei Crociferi was reopened to the public in October 1984, after twenty years of closure due to the damages caused by the flood on November 4, 1966 and consequent artworks necessary to recover the building.