When Cosimo de’ Medici, often credited for kickstarting the Renaissance, was exiled from Florence in 1433, he stayed in the Benedictine monastery on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, an oasis of knowledge whose origins date back to the ninth century. The powerful banker planned his comeback surrounded by illuminated thinkers, artists and men of God, returning to Florence the next year. In gratitude, Cosimo, patron of the arts and wealthiest man of his time, gifted the monks with a library, designed by Michelozzo, who had accompanied him in exile. In the late 15th century, the complex began to take on its present form. Giovanni Buora designed the immense dormitory, the Manica Lunga; his son, Andrea, the Cloister of the Cypresses.
Glass Study Center, photo by Matteo De Fina
Next, Andrea Palladio, inspired by Vitruvius’ De Architectura, written in 15 B.C. and unearthed in 1414 by Cosimo’s pal, Poggio Bracciolini, came on the scene and transformed the Gothic church into the majestic structure we know today; he built the Refectory, for which Veronese painted the Wedding at Cana (1563), and the transcendent second Cloister. Baldassare Longhena crowned the complex by adding the grand Scalone stair hall (1645), and the Library (1653), including the walnut shelving.
Cypress Cloister, photo by Matteo De Fina
The Benedictine monks hosted the Papal Conclave in 1799, attended by the Cardinal Duke of York himself, Henry Benedict Stuart, when Rome was occupied by the French Revolutionary Army. In 1806, Napoleon suppressed the monastery and swiped most of its loot, including Veronese’s painting, then scrapped it into a military garrison, which it remained for more than a century. The once-glorious compound was a devastated shell until the powerful entrepreneur Count Vittorio Cini came along in 1951 and transformed it into a tribute to his son, Giorgio, who was killed in a plane crash in 1949. Palladio’s original plans were rediscovered, and Vittorio Cini, like Cosimo de’ Medici 500 years before him, used his great wealth to bring humanism back to mankind.
Palladian Cloister, photo by Enrico de Santis
These days the island is again a thriving centre for elite international get-togethers, like G7 summits in the Longhena Library, and where the world’s brightest talents discuss great themes of political, social and cultural significance. Kings, queens and heads of state have slept in its exclusive chambers. The former dormitory was transformed into the Nuova Manica Lunga by Michele De Lucchi, a contemporary library where exceptional minds scour vast archives, sheltered at night in the Vittore Branca residential center. Together with the 17th-century library, the Cini holds over 300,000 volumes on art, history, literature, music, and drama, plus a rare book section that boasts the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The Wedding at Cana still hangs in the Louvre, but on 11 September 2007, an identical facsimile was hung in its original place in the Palladian Refectory.
Vittore Brance Center, photo by Alessandra Chemollo
In 2011, The Borges Labyrinth was created, a reconstruction of the one Randoll Coate designed to honour the celebrated writer, Jorge Luis Borges, a gaze-maze in the shape of an open book. That same year, the dynamic diva Eleonora Duse got her own room, with personal accessories. Outside the monumental complex is Le Stanze del Vetro, an exhibition space that hosts international glass artists.
Borges Labyrinth, photo by Matteo de Fina
Distinct from the Cini Foundation, the Benedictine monks have maintained a presence on the island for more than a thousand years. Today, the Benedicti Claustra Onlus collaborates with contemporary artists, hosting major installations inside their abbey. With a visit to the Palladio-designed church, and the spectacular view from its bell tower, a trip to the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore is a must for those who seek beauty and truth.
For more by Cat Bauer on San Giorgio Maggiore, see Cat's blog.