The Scuola Grande di San Marco: a “State within the State” that competed with the Doge's Palace

9 August 2021

Venice, 22nd July 2021- The decorated ceiling that competes with the Doge's Palace, a Christ that has safeguarded the place for ages and that, by twisting of 180 degrees around it, allows you to witness his death, and an incomparable collection of books and medical tools narrating the world medical history. This, and much more, is the Museum of the Scuola Grande di San Marco in Venice, enclosing stories and anecdotes of a Venice that, with its 1600 years, proudly looks into its past and, as strongly and fiercely, to its future. The museum stands in some of the spaces that, during the last century, have been converted into a Civil hospital. From Scuola dei Battutito Scuola Grande di San Marco, passing through the fall of the Serenissima up until the takeovers and the conversion into a military and civil hospital. Many are the events that the beautiful building has been holding for centuries. We discussed this with Mario Po', director of the museum complex.

In this building St. Mark plays a dominant role, but what does St. Mark really represent for Venetians?

To fully understand who St. Mark was, we need to take a look at the canvas by Domenico Tintoretto that depicts the body of St. Mark reaching Venice, on January 31, 828. In that canvas the Saint is received with great fanfare by the Doge, the political spokesperson of power. As a matter of fact, St. Mark was the actual head of the State, which means this was the arrival of the State representative and the Doge played as his delegate. A very bold statement that allows us to understand how the figure of the Saint seeped so deeply into Venetian genetics, as to be so alive and so recognized as a landmark. St. Mark is the patron saint of Venice but we must remember that Venice already had one: Todaro, a Saint of Eastern, Byzantine origin. St. Mark is an independent character, which combines a religious profile with a divine protection but he is also able to give his presence clearer evidence of the role that the Republic wanted to play in the Mediterranean”.  

What’s inside the Chapter house?

“This room was built with the aim of General Chapter for the representatives’ congregation of the Scuola Grande di San Marco. The General Chapter is what today is known as a fellowship Assembly, six hundred brothers who gathered here to then communicate the wishes to the leading bodies: the Zonta and the Guardian Grande. This room has its own pageantry and magniloquence and was created to communicate something really important to the State, to the Republic and to the Government. The golden-plated ceiling, that certainly represented a huge economic investment, was meant to say: “we are competing with the majesty of Palazzo Ducale, with the Doge’s private apartments, since we are a “State within the State”. Here a role of public interest was performed even though it was administered by a private body, especially one as powerful as the Scuola Grande di San Marco was. This was the purpose and the employment of this place. As soon as Napoleon violently suppressed the organization, this building became the headquarters of a new hospital unit. It was specifically during the first World War’s Austro-Hungarian raids that a bomb, dropped right next to the building, caused a partial collapse and a significant number of deaths and injuries, on August 14, 1917. It is believed that, immediately after this happened, the building lost its function as a place of recovery to become as we know it today: Museum of history of Medicine in the Scuola Grande di San Marco”.

What does the Museum of Medicine consist of?

We have an extremely rare and precious summary of the history of medicine, made up of around twenty thousand volumes illustrating the evolution of the history of medicine, as it is understood in the West, from Hippocrates to the enlightenment, through the Arabs and the Byzantines up until our Venetian’s doctors, including Niccolò Massa and Giovanni Della Croce. Then we have also the medical-surgical tools collection, often commissioned by Venetian care facilities to Venetians workshops, that show us how these instruments were employed between 1700 and 1800, then going through the first syringes and surgical tools before anesthesia was employed, as well as medical instruments before antibiotics and cortisones were produced. Secondly, there is perhaps one among the most important archives of Europe, the medical records: here the oldest document is dated 1094. We are talking about an archive that follows the history of Venetian healthcare institutions. Then, again, we have the hospital pharmacy that dates back to the Napoleonic era that, originally, was born as an exhibition open to the public and that today still preserves its furniture, its vases, and their contents, as well as an important museum of pathological anatomy born when the first finding, which are still retain, were discovered by 1874 and that, at this point, has turned into a museum of palaeopathology. Consequently, there is the Church of San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti that holds many art pieces and the putte da coro. In the end we find the Domenican section, protected with meticulous jealousy since inside we find one of the most important places dedicated to the preservation of traditional West culture: the San Domenico library, the place which the Cardinal Bessarione, the patriarch of Constantinople, had decided it  should contain all the treasures after the fall of the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

A Christ wooden sculpture overlooks the room.

A Christ who has been the guardian of these places over the centuries: the Christ symbolic of the congregation. We have a picture, dated back to the bombing period, where we can see the absence of the paintings, since they had been removed, while clearly appears the crucifix placed on the altar and, if we look closely to the right hand, we can notice he still carries the marks of that event. He was designed to be looked up from below, with a 180 degree view. During this journey we are able to notice that initially Jesus’ eyes are open but then they gradually close. At the end of the round we find a dead Christ, with his head bent to his right side.”

The Scuole Grandi played an essential role in the development of the city of Venice, why was the one of San Marco, which was originally the Scuola dei Battuti, born?

Two are the reasons that lie at the origin of these institutions: first and foremost, following the Flagellants movement of 1260, which affected many Italians cities including Venice, the sufferings of Jesus were rediscovered and with the practice of self-flagellation the Scuola dei Battuti was born. But then there is another reason as well: Venetians, when in Constantinople, observed everything they could and then seized the Imperial Palace, which for centuries had given a part of the imperial property on loan to a charitable institution, in order that it could assist those in need. In comparison to the ones of the mainland, the schools situated on the lagoon had their own peculiarities, since they were independent from the State and the Church and since they were in charge of taking care for the poor, that practice then known as “caritas”. A very important reality, considering that this was the foundation of subsidiarity which finds its roots and creation exactly in Venice, thanks to its Byzantine influence.

Venice, then, could be defined as a “modern” city also in this field

Venice had an undisputed leadership also in the field of medicine – which today will be defined as welfare - due to its ministry of health. As a consequence, a question may arise: Which were the other European States that had thought about taking care of people’s health by means of a state organ? Well, Venice did. Moreover, we could define as cutting-edge its contribution to the medical field. Some of the medical treatments whose origins we believe are far, were actually born in Venice. For instance, Venice played a key role in the development of anatomy, by recruiting many important doctors of the time: from Vesalio dalle Fiandre, who worked in Venice, to the anatomist Niccolò Massa or the famous surgeon Giovanni della Croce. Oral implantology was also born in Venice, thanks to the studies and knowledge of Umberto Saraval, expert in stomatology. Saraval was a jewish doctor who, due to the persecution, had to hide in a closet for a year. Nevertheless, he succeeded in writing a book which still is considered as a milestone in this field”.