The interior we see today is the result of variations renovations over the course of the centuries.
The old church having been largely demolished and rebuilt during the first thirty years of the eighteenth century, retaining only the apse, we have only limited information on its sixteenth century decoration, only partially recycled in the new one, often after restoration or adaptation to new decorative priorities. Some of the pictures and sculptures from the original church, can still be seen in the Scuola, notably Christ Carrying the Cross, others are in storage.
Descriptions in the old guides are often sketchy, and archival information fragmentary, but we can glean from them that the body of St. Roch was initially placed in the left-hand absidal chapel, and that, with the exception of the high altar, all the others were of wooden construction. In fact, it was only in the seventeenth century that rich marmoreal altars of the Thorn and Holy Sacrament were raised in the absidal chapels, the right and the left respectively.
In June, 1725 pictures and decorations were taken down due to the forthcoming demolition work, and some sections of the frescoes detached, to be partially remounted in the new nave at the end of the decade. But, notwithstanding the serious tampering over the centuries, it will immediately be apparent to anyone entering the church that its devotional and artistic heart is constituted by the chancel, dominated by the monumental high altar, which, since 1520, has housed the body of St. Roch, framed by Pordenone’s frescoes, while the side walls boast the huge canvases of Jacopo Tintoretto, which narrate episodes from the life of the saint from Montpellier, pointing out to the confraternity, as an example to be followed, how his days were dedicated to charity and love for his fellow men.
The High Altar
As early as1498 the Scuola had decided that the body of St. Roch, originally placed in the left absidal chapel, should be translated to the main chapel, but it was only in 1516 that a competition was announced for an altar to enclose his urn. From a mixture of devotional and self-promotional motives the confraternity was keen to erect a ‘monument’ to its patron whose splendour would outshine all the other tombs and altars of the city. Once the Bergamo sculptor Venturino Fantoni’s design had been accepted, proposing a marble altar with seven statues, the work was executed under the supervision of the in-house architect Pietro Bon.
On March 31st 1520 the solemn translation of the relic was enacted, even though the altar was still unfinished. Over the following years four statues were mounted in the niches. Those of John the Baptist and St. Sebastian, flanking the patron saint, like the putti supporting the sarcophagus, are attributed to the Paduan Gianmaria Mosca, while those of St. Pantaleon and St. Francis, on the upper order, as well as the Announcing Angel, the Virgin Mary and God the Father on the crown, are close to the style of Bartolomeo Bergamasco.
The structure as a whole constitutes a marvellous example of a ‘tomb with altarpiece’, whose splendour is enhanced by the polychromy of the marble – veined, porphyry, verde antico – and its gilding, and would have found a natural complement in Pordenone’s frescoes surrounding it, amplifying the visual impact with an evocation of painted architecture.
Once the altar was finished, the Scuola decided to further decorate the main chapel, frescoing the apse and the cupola and planning to commission for the lateral walls four canvases with episodes from the life of St. Roch, which would however be painted much later. Only in 1549, in fact, was the task assigned to Jacopo Tintoretto, who eventually completed the cycle after a series of interruptions.
The original fresco decoration, which Giovanni Antonio da Pordenone had most likely finished by the summer of 1528, featured God the Father flanked by a host of angels in the cupola, Figures from the Old Testament in the drum, the Four Evangelists in the pendentives, and Four Doctors of the Church in the lunettes, while a Transfiguration of Christ looms from the vault.
Of this complex scheme only seven candelabra-style grotesques survive in the upper part of the apse, and below, two pairs of standing putti, displaying St Roch’s symbolic appurtenances (his pilgrim’s staff and hat on the left, his satchel on the right), in front of two small trompe l’oeil apses within a larger illusionistic architectural scheme that echoes that of the altar, at once amplifying it and integrating it. But even from the few remaining fragments, it is clear that this must have been one of Pordenone’s most important fresco cycles: a triumphalist work exercising all of his decorative skill and helping his fame to spread throughout the city.
Giuseppe Angeli’s repainting
The chancel’s remaining mural decorations having irretrievably deteriorated over time, they were painted over between 1764 and 1766 by Giuseppe Angeli, who while generally keeping to Pordenone’s scheme, translated it into an entirely eighteenth century dramatic language. He is responsible for: the Transfiguration in the vault, the Eternal Father in Glory in the cupola, the Four Evangelists in the pendentives, the Doctors of the Church – St.Augustine and St. Gregory the Great on the left wall , St. Jerome and St.Ambrose on the right – in the lunettes. Only in the drum does he depart from the subjects of the previous paintings as recorded in the sources. Angeli’s pictures instead depict (clockwise from the pendentive featuring St Mark): Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law, Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac, David and Goliath, Tobias and the Angel, Judith and Holofernes, Jael and Sisera, The Angel Appears to Gideon.
The Nave and its pictures
The nave decorations are of a piece with its eighteenth century (1726-1729) remodelling.
Dominant at the ceiling’s centre is Giovanni Antonio Fumiani’s grandiose depiction of St. Roch distributing his goods to the poor before setting out on his pilgrimage to Rome, a dramatic composition in full-blown baroque style: the saint is shown at the top of a flight of steps against a deep perspective backdrop, with men, women and children crowding up to partake of his generosity.
Fumiani is also responsible for the busy and forceful Cleansing of the Temple (1678), central to the lower part of the left-hand wall. Above are powerful renderings of St. Martin and St. Christopher, one of Pordenone’s most important works. These panels, originally the doors of a cupboard for storing the gifts and votive offerings of the faithful, are flanked by two detached frescoes also from the brush of the Friulian maestro, showing groups of supplicants afflicted with disease and disabilities, huddled under a loggia whose architectural framework appears to continue that of the central paintings.
Facing these, under The Arrest of St. Roch, a youthful masterpiece of Tintoretto’s, is Christ Healing the Paralytic (1559), this too originally the door decoration of a silver cupboard. Also worthy of note are the four altarpieces, in an identical architectural framework (c. 1733): Francesco Trevisani’s Miracle of St. Anthony, a striking Annunciation by Francesco Solimena, but above all two late works by Sebastiano Ricci, St. Francis of Paola Healing a Boy and St. Helen Discovering the True Cross, which, together with the statues of David and Saint Cecilia, sculpted by Giovanni Marchiori in 1743 for the organ loft, are surely the greatest masterworks from the eighteenth century decorative makeover.