2. The Octagon From East to West and Back Again

      Baldassare Longhena's Santa Maria della

      Salute and the transference of Architectural forms.

         JULIANA SU





The importance of the Virgin Mary to both the Salute and to Venice is further amplified by the inscription in the center of the nave floor: UNE ORIGO INDE SALUS, which translates as: Whence our Origin Hence our Salvation."


The persistence of architectural forms, in part because of their religious implications and symbolism, inspire continuous rediscovery and re-interpretation. However, the delineation of the transference of architectural forms is, for the most part, debatable at best (Howard Architectural History of Venice xi-xv).(1) In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the objective of this paper is to investigate the probable influences behind Baldassare Longhena’s choice of design for the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute, specifically the employment of the octagonal plan. The aim of my research is two-fold: first, to examine the forms which may have inspired Longhena’s choice of design for the Salute, and second, to place the Salute in the broader context of the mythology of Venice.

In 1629, the bubonic plague, which had been spreading throughout Northern Italy, finally reached Venice. After showing no signs of declining throughout the summer, the senate, on the 22nd of October 1630, decided to commission a new church to be called Santa Maria della Salute. The word Salute has the double meaning of Health and Salvation as the sixteen-month epidemic killed some 46,490 Venetian citizens (Howard Architectural History of Venice 213; Wittkower 3). The Salute was dedicated to the Virgin in the hope that she would intercede and save Venice from the plague, just as Christ had been invoked at Palladio’s church of the Redentore on the 4th of September 1576 (Hopkins 3-4, 117). The Doge and the senate had specifically requested the dedication be made to the Virgin Mary, one of the two patron saints of the city, rather than one of the traditional plague saints such as Saint Sebastian or Saint Roch, both of whom had little to do with Venice. The dedication of the Salute to the Virgin, then, was intended to focus Venetian devotion to the Madonna in a single monument built by the Republic (Hopkins 3-5).

The competition for the commission of the Salute began in December 1630. Eleven projects were submitted for consideration, though only two were deemed worthy of further deliberation (Howard Architectural History of Venice 214; Hopkins 16-17). While it was Longhena’s design for the Salute that won in the end, his plans were met with some reservations. No other church in Venice had been built on a central plan, because the centrally planned church was ill suited for Christian liturgy, and the Council of Trent believed that the central plan had pagan associations (Lotz 149; Hopkins 95). Despite these reservations, Longhena received the commission probably because it best suited the senators’ wishes for a grandiose monument (Hopkins 28). Furthermore, Longhena’s design was, as he described it, “new and original, such as [had] never [before] been built in Venice” (Longhena 22-3). Of course, this is not to say that the central and octagonal plan had not been used elsewhere in Italy. The centralized church has a long history in ecclesiastical architecture, and the commission for these centralized churches had specific criteria. The four principal functions for the centralized form were 1) martyria and memorial buildings; 2) hospital and plague related churches; 3) churches dedicated to the death and resurrection of Christ; and 4) churches dedicated to the Madonna (Hopkins 94-6).(2) Of all the centrally planned churches built in Italy, almost half of them were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and Longhena was certainly aware of the Italian tradition for Marian churches to be centralized. Howard points out that in nearby Verona, Sanmicheli’s circular church of S. Madonna di Campagna of 1559 is a striking example (Howard Architectural History of Venice 216).(3) Other centralized churches and plans for centralized churches were built such as Bramante’s Tempietto of S. Pietro in Montorio, 1502-12, and S. Sebastiano in Milan, both of which are votive churches. Various designs for centrally planned churches also exist in Rome, such as those by Michelangelo, Bramante and Baldassare Peruzzi, though there is no indication that Longhena had ever journeyed to Rome, so their influence for the Salute is debatable.(4) For the use of the octagon, the closest influence both Hopkins and Howard give is San Vitale in Ravenna, built from AD 526 to 547, which Longhena may have visited at least once during the five years in which he travelled from Venice to Chioggia to supervise the construction of a cathedral (Hopkins 101-103). A closer influence within Venice would have been Palladio and his writings and designs for the church of the Redentore, 1577-92.

Andrea Palladio (1508-80) wrote extensively on the theory and application of architecture in his quattro libri dell’architettura, 1570. In his fourth book, Palladio devotes a section to the ideological importance and superiority of the circle; he states that the circle is “the most perfect and beautiful form” and “[s]ince the circle excels all other forms in being simple, homogeneous, everywhere the same, solid and capacious, our temples [should] be circular” (Lotz 147-48; Palladio 147-48). Palladio also had an impact on other aspects of Longhena’s design for the Salute. These influences included the employment of the architectural vocabulary of interlocking orders, as seen with both the church of the Redentore and S. Giorgio Maggiore, and the use of colour treatment as a method of differentiations (i.e., the use of grey stone for the structure and whitewash for the rest). Palladio’s influence on the use of Istrian stone for the façade is especially important as the white enables the building to be distinguished from the surrounding architecture. However, the use of colour as a method of differentiation was not a Palladian invention or specialty, but a method that dates back to the medieval times that had been taken up by Brunelleschi and was used by various architects after him (Wittkower 6). While many of the architectural elements employed by Palladio had already been used in earlier Venetian architecture, Palladio utilized these elements and combined them with classical ideology to produce a new architectural system which, as seen through the Redentore, created an organic unity through the architectural scheme.(5) This was a system that Longhena also employed in his design for the Salute. Longhena, following in Palladio’s footsteps, employed architectural elements to guide the viewer’s gaze. This can be seen specifically with the entrance of the Salute, through which only the main altar is observable. Similarly, from the center of the rotunda each view of the six chapels is carefully delineated via the piers and arches of the ambulatory (Howard Architectural History of Venice 217-18; Wittkower 4-7). This is a criteria set out in the Redentore, where the side chapels cannot be seen from the entrance and only emerge into view as the spectator moves through the church towards the altars. The principal motif of giant pilasters in the apse is also taken from Palladio’s design of both the Redentore and S. Giorgio Maggiore.(6) The pilasters are an important motif as they link the spaces of the rotunda and the ambulatory together. As seen in S. Giorgio Maggiore, Longhena uses the minor order located on small bases to indicate spaces of secondary importance, and the major order raised on high pedestals for areas of greater status (Hopkins 117-20). Part of the ingenuity of Longhena’s design lies in the closely integrated interior and exterior, such that the design appears to have been conceived as a whole and not in sections (Hopkins 49). By looking to Palladio’s designs for inspiration, Longhena created an alternative to the Roman Baroque that manages to be significantly unique, yet still fits within the urban fabric of Venice.

Another important element in Longhena’s design for the Salute is the reference to the Madonna, specifically the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception is portrayed as being crowned with twelve stars and standing on a crescent moon, as seen on top of the main dome of the Salute. The imagery of the crown is a significant and recurring theme for Longhena and his design for the Salute. Longhena elaborated on his choice of the centralized scheme by saying: “[t]he mystery contained in the dedication of this church to the Blessed Virgin made me think, with what little talent God has bestowed on me, of building the church in the form of a rotunda, being in the shape of a crown, since it is dedicated to the Virgin” (Hopkins 22). Wittkower goes on to explain that it is due to the symbolic reference of the crown of 12 stars of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception that so many sanctuaries dedicated to the Virgin are centralized buildings (Howard Architectural History of Venice 216; Wittkower 6). In addition to this, the centralized form was also associated with churches dedicated to the Madonna, as the original martyrium that marked her grave was believed to be circular. The main exemplar is the Pantheon in Rome, which was rededicated to the Madonna as Sancta Maria ad Martyres by Pope Boniface IV in 609. The Pantheon was from then on a powerful model for architects. An indication of the continued influences of the Pantheon in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in northern Italy is Longhena’s own reference to the “rotonda di roma” in one of his memoranda. Longhena was not the first Venetian architect to appreciate the possibilities of the Pantheon; Vincenzo Scamozzi had based his design of Santa Maria della Celestia in Venice directly on the Pantheon (Hopkins 95-6).

Interestingly enough, the number eight seems to play an important role in Longhena’s design for the Salute. Whether the number had particular significance or if the repetition of eight was to further help emphasize the octagonal shape of the building is unknown. There exist eight massive piers inside, with eight minor spaces behind the piers of the rotunda alternating with eight larger spaces, which together form the ambulatory. Sixteen windows provide light inside the rotunda. The dome is articulated by sixteen ribs and above, the central tondo opens onto the space below the lantern supported by eight Doric columns (Hopkins 49-52). The repetition of eight and the importance of the Virgin Mary to the Salute is further played out by sculptural groups, including the eight Prophets from the Old Testament on the drum’s interior. The other sculptural figures all relate in some way to the story of the Virgin Mary. This program is elaborated through the incorporation of the imagery of the crown and the rosary. Hopkins points out that images and statues of the Virgin with golden crowns were fairly common until 1630, and it was also an image that was often invoked in relation to the plague (Hopkins 89-93). The reference to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception is further heightened through the choice of white marble for the altar as the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception was traditionally depicted in a white dress (Hopkins 81). The importance of the Virgin Mary to both the Salute and to Venice is further amplified by the inscription in the center of the nave floor: UNDE ORIGO INDE SALUS, which translates as: Whence our Origin Hence our Salvation (Howard Architectural History of Venice 216; Hopkins 75). The theme of the significance of the Madonna is continued with the reference to the Dome of the Rock and in association with the Temple of Solomon.

While it is important to keep in mind the type of theoretical, ideological, and historical tradition of Venetian architecture in Longhena’s design, it may prove equally important to consider what eastern architectural elements and their religious or political associations have been emulated. Architecturally, Longhena employed the same double dome, ambulatory and octagonal plan as found in the Dome of the Rock. The employment of the double dome in particular had specific advantages; the double dome lightened the structure allowing for greater depth to aid in spanning the room below, as well as raising the external dome so that it could be more imposing (E.J. Grubb 143). Longhena also incorporated other elements that can be found in the interior of the Dome of the Rock. For instance, the application of crowns and lanterns is seen with the crowns on the figures of Mary and the Christ child on the high altar, which, for both Islamic and Christian architecture serve to emphasize the greatness or sanctity of either person or place (Grabar 240-43). More importantly, though, during the Renaissance the Dome of the Rock was connected to the temple of Solomon. Deborah Howard points out that during the fifteenth century the Dome of the Rock began to absorb all the associations of the Temple of Solomon (Venice and the East 215). While no specific reason is given for this association, a contributing factor could be that the Dome of the Rock, built sometime between 691 AD and 692 AD, is the earliest remaining monument of Islam. The Dome of the Rock was originally meant to be a visual proclamation of the new faith in the city of Judaism and Christianity, which was gradually forgotten along with its identity as the Holy of Holies (E.J. Grubb 12; Howard Venice and the East 215). Another reason could be that after 1119 AD the Dome of the Rock became the church of the Knights Templar,(7) and the structure was represented on their seals (Rosenau 65; Howard Venice and the East 207). This could explain the transference of the octagonal plan from the East to the West. It was also during the same time as the Templars occupied the holy site that the Dome of the Rock was called the “Palatium” or “Templum Salomonis.” Images of the Dome of the Rock as the Temple of Solomon were replicated on the Knights Templars’ coins (Rosenau 65).

The connection between the Dome of the Rock and the Temple of Solomon seems almost fitting, as the use of Solomonic themes was by no means new to Venice. As David Rosand elaborates in his Myths of Venice, the figure of Solomon was equated with Justice and Wisdom, two of the highest virtues of the Republic (5). Furthermore, it was supposedly at the Temple of Solomon that the Presentation of the Virgin took place. The connection between the Salute, the Dome of the Rock, the Temple of Solomon, and the Virgin Mary, who was the patron saint of Venice, aided in emphasizing the tradition of Venice’s importance in the pilgrimage route. However, some scholars believe that the Dome of the Rock is not a truly “Islamic” building, and that it is in fact a monument of their victory, as the formal architectural language is that “of the vanquished and not of the victors” (E.J. Grubb 11). Thus, the architecture of the Dome of the Rock would follow in the tradition of the great Christian martyria, specifically the chapel of the Ascension of Christ in Jerusalem (Grabar 227). If we consider that a part of Venice’s self-imagery was identified with the Virgin Mary, and by association, connected as a figure of the biblical world, then the emulation of the Dome of the Rock, which was associated with the Temple of Solomon, can be seen as a continuation of this imagery. An imagery of Venice not just as “a new Rome or a new Constantinople, but as a new Jerusalem, a city beloved of God...humble...[and] resplendent, above the waters, a beacon of Christian liberty” (Rosand 13; Brown 3-29).

It is important to note that the reference between the Salute and the Temple of Solomon is not a modern day creation. The connection between the Salute, the Virgin and the Temple of Solomon was played out beginning with Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, where he describes the Temple of Solomon as having “fifteen steps, one for each of the fifteen gradual Psalms.” Then, in 1644, Lorenzo Longo associated the Temple of Solomon with the Salute, making reference to the presence of fifteen steps, although in actuality there are sixteen steps to be found in the entryway of the Salute. Longhena, however, originally envisaged only thirteen steps for the entrance. His original plan of thirteen steps then coincides with the best-known representation of the Temple in Venice by Titian, whose painting at the Scuola Grande della Carità of 1534-48 has only thirteen steps. The Solomonic temples were also traditionally paired with great columns, like those found on the facade of the Salute, which were also held to be a feature of the Biblical Palace of Solomon (Hopkins 75). It may be safe to say, then, that Longhena had, in part, intended the Salute and its octagonal plan to be associated with the Dome of the Rock, which was believed to be the Temple of Solomon.

The myth of Venice, and its associations as a key site in the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, plays an important role in viewing how Longhena’s design may fit into Venice’s self-fashioned identity. Myths, as J.S. Grubb notes, can have an “affective force, they convey knowledge and also the power to act on that knowledge; they provide meaningful strategies to handle conflict and so are more active instruments than passive explicators” (45). Thus, Longhena’s appropriation and consideration of the implications of his designs may be viewed as an act to reinforce the myth of Venice during a time of steady economical and political decline. This is not to say that seventeenth century Venice was a period of exceptional political or economic upheavals, despite the decline in trade; nor was it a culturally barren era. After all, music reached great heights in Venice during the seventeenth century.(8)

If we take into consideration the history of the octagon, specifically in relation to the Dome of the Rock, and the political and economic climate of Venice during the construction of the Salute, can Longhena’s appropriation of the octagon then imply something more within the framework of Venice’s self-identity? The myth of Venice plays a large part in viewing how Longhena’s design fits into a larger historical tradition. By “myth” I am referring to Venice’s self-fashioned identity as the “most serene Republic,” (Rosand 1) as well as a wise and just city with associations with both the Virgin Mary and with Venus. All these guises, as Howard points out, connote virtue, beauty and good fortune and are achieved through the emulation of other cities, such as ancient Athens, Rome, Troy, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Byzantium. These associations helped enrich and extend the historical resonances of the Republic’s identity (Howard Venice and the East 209). In particular, the reference and association to Jerusalem through the Salute, via the Dome of the Rock, is a continuation of the evocation of the pilgrim site. In effect, Venice would incorporate itself into the ritual of pilgrimage as both a physical carrier of pilgrim traffic and a station on the sacred itinerary (Howard Venice and the East 190-91). Deborah Howard suggests that the appropriation of elements of Islamic architectural innovations by Venetians can be seen as an affirmation of Venice’s ideological mastery over a rival and threatening force. If we take this into account with Oleg Grabar’s proposal that the Dome of the Rock, which was modeled after the chapel of the Ascension of Christ, was seen as a symbol that emphasized the superiority of Islam, can the appropriation of the octagon by Longhena be viewed in a similar light? One might posit that, through the employment of the octagon, Longhena was following in the tradition of the use of architecture as a tool to assert a political and cultural authority over an opposing force. Moreover, the Salute may be an affirmation of Venice’s history as an important religious site and her superiority over the east. The Salute, a votive church dedicated to the Madonna, can be interpreted as a powerful symbol of the renewed self-confidence and economic strength of the Republic and was to remain a sign of the Venetian devotion to the Virgin.

Longhena’s employment of the octagon and central plan for the Salute, while undoubtedly original and innovative, can also be viewed as a work within a historical tradition of architectural types and ideas. His choice of the octagon was not only an indicator of his understanding of the past, but also his ingenuity in distinguishing his own work from that of his predecessors and his contemporaries. The choice of design for the Salute follows in the continuation of what Howard calls “the persistence of the Venetian awareness” (Venice and the East 215). Through the Salute, the use of architecture as a tool to reaffirm the allusion of Venice can be seen through Longhena’s adoption of the octagonal plan for the Santa Maria della Salute.


Works Cited

Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unmeldy Field.” The Art Bulletin, 85.1. Mar. 2003: 152-184. Print.

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image Before the Era of Art. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.

Brown, Patricia Fortini. Venice and Antiquity: The Venetian Sense of the Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.

Grabar, Oleg. “The Umayyad Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.” Early Islamic Art and Architecture. Ed. Jonathan Bloom. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002. Print.

Grubb, James S. “When Myths Lose Power: Four Decades of Venetian Historiography.” Journal of Modern History, 58 Mar. 1986. Print.

Frommel, Christoph Luitpold. The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 2007. Print.

Hale, J.R. Renaissance Venice. Totowa, N.J.: Rowmann and Littlefield, 1973. Print.

Hopkins, Andrew. Santa Maria della Salute: Architecture and Ceremony in Baroque Venice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Howard, Deborah. Venice and the East: The Impact of the Islamic World on Venetian Architecture 1100-1500. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. Print.

---. “Venice between East and West: Marc’Antonio Barbaro and Palladio’s Church of the Redentore.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 62.3 Sep. 2003: 306-325. Print.

Lotz, Wolfgang. Architecture in Italy, 1500-1600. Introduction by Deborah Howard. Trans Mary Hottinger. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Print.

Michell, George. Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning. London: Thames and Hudson, c1978. Print.

Nigel, Hiscock. The Wise Master Building: Platonic Geometry in Plans of Medieval Abbeys and Cathedrals. Aldershot, Eng.: Ashgate, c2000. Print.

Rosand, David. Myths of Venice: The Figuration of a State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c.2001. Print.

Rosenau, Helen. Vision of the Temple: The Image of the Temple of Jerusalem in Judaism and Christianity. London: Oresko Books Ltd., 1979. Print.

Pignatti, Terisio. Venice. 1st ed. Trans. Judith Landry. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971. Print.

Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy 1600 to 1750. 3rd rev. Ed. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1973. Print.

---. “S. Maria della Salute: Scenographic Architecture and the Venetian Baroque.” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 16.1 Mar. 1957: 3-10. Print.

---. Palladio and Palladianism. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1974. Print.



1. Howard points out that the idea of influence from east to west and vice versa is problematic as the transfer of ideas and styles cannot be so easily described and attributed to a certain time. Our idea of what is “Eastern” and “Islamic” is also problematic. Despite our broader knowledge of cultures today the concept of east to west remains fundamental to our political, ideological and cultural framework, and is usually studied from the perspective of western civilization and mindset. See specifically Sheila S. Blair, Jonathan M. Bloom “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unmeldy Field,” The Art Bulletin, 85, no. 1. (Mar., 2003): 152-184.

2. See specifically 95 for the criteria for the commission of centralized buildings in Renaissance Italy, research by Staale Sinding-Larsen, “Some functional and iconographic aspects of the centralized church in the Italian Renaissance,” Acta ad archaeologiam et artium histoiam pertinentia, II. (Rome, 1965): 203-52.

3. The Madonna della Campagna was presumably commissioned by Bishop Lippomano for which Sanmicheli, the only leading northern Italian proponent of the school of Bramante, designed a round church in the summer of 1559, three months before his death. For more information see Christoph Luitpold Frommel, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance, (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2007): 157-162.

4. For centralized plans see Frommel, The Architecture, 23-25, 77-78, 83-86, 100-102, 142, 148-151; Lotz, Architecture, 148-149; for information on Bramante’s Tempietto see Arnaldo Bruschi, Bramante, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973): 129 - 143. See specifically 129-132, 134-135, 139-147 for the employment of the central plan.

5. For more information on Palladio’s influence on Venetian architecture see Rudolf Wittkower, Palladio and Palladianism, (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1974): see especially 13-16.

6. The Palladian influences as seen through Longhena’s designs of the Salute are only briefly examined in this paper. For further information see Wittkower, “S. Maria”; Howard, The Architectural, 213-221; and Hopkins, Santa, 116-128.

7. In relation to the Venetians, Howard indicates that the Templars, founded in 1118, were on good relations with Venice, and were often trusted agents in transporting goods from west to east for pilgrims and crusaders alike, for more information see Howard, Venice, 192.

8. Deborah Howard details in some length the political and economic stability of late sixteenth and seventeenth Venice, and the precautions taken by the Republic to ensure a more self-sufficient Venice. Despite this, Howard notes that economically the Venetian state experienced an steady but very gradual overall decline in prosperity throughout the seventeenth century, The Architectural, 212.


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Juliana Su is originally from Vancouver, British Columbia. She is a senior student completing an honors specialization in Art History and Criticism.