An encounter with classical sculpture in a Christian church
En route to the Holy Land in 1483, Friar Felix Schmitt (1441–1502) spent a month in Venice, where he toured a number of the convents. The following excerpt from his travel diary describes the Domenican convent of Santi Giovanni e Paolo and expresses the bewilderment even a learned foreigner could experience when confronted with the abundance of repurposed classical antiquities integrated into the fabric of Italian churches.
There is also in that church the burial place of many Venetian doges. I have never seen more luxurious tombs and burials, and the tombs of the popes in Rome cannot equal the tombs of the doges of Venice. There are tombs elevated from the ground and set into the walls, and the whole surface of the wall is decorated with varied marble, and sculptures in gold and silver, and ornamented beyond the bounds of propriety. In these tombs the images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, the apostles and Martyrs, and other saints that one adores, are placed in the middle, as the main figures, but around them are the images of the pagans, Saturn, Janus, Jove, Juno, Minerva, Mars, and Hercules, with the representation of poetic fictions. There I saw…in the very rich tomb of a certain doge, the carved image of Hercules, in that form in which they present him as having fought, but wearing the skin of a lion which he had killed instead of a cloak, and in combat with the hydra, a horrible monster, which had seven heads so that when one was cut off seven more grew in its place. There are also fighters there with their bodies naked, with swords and pikes in their hands, and shields hanging from their necks, and no cuirass or breastplate or helmet, which are real figures of idols. There are naked winged boys, holding tokens of triumph or mourning, and many other such tokens of paganism are placed among the tokens of our redemption, and the simple people think they are images of saints, and revere Hercules thinking him Samson, and Venus, thinking her Magdalene, and so with others.
Italian Art 1400–1500, ed. and trans. Creighton E. Gilbert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980), p. 155.