It reads in the early modern treaties on capital punishment that the main purpose of the conforterias in Italian cities was to make sure that the condemned accepted his own death and accepted it in a state of grace. Only through this way would the soul stop in the transitory condition of Purgatory avoiding to sink into the infernal torments.
The School of San Fantin - the only secular brotherhood authorized by the Serenissima - was founded in the fifteenth century to give this spiritual comfort to those sentenced to death and for this reason it was also defined as the Good Death or the Picái (i.e. hanged in Italian ). In the hours preceding the moment of execution, which usually took place between the two columns in Piazza San Marco, the confreres tried to ensure the salvation of the souls of the prisoners, visiting them first in their cell, then accompanying them all the way to the gallows and, from 1614, providing them with a worthy burial.
Detail of the ceiling of the Aula Magna inside the Ateneo Veneto
Precisely for this reason, in the current Aula Magna - which was previously the Church of the old School - Jacopo Palma the Younger was commissioned to paint the ceiling representing the Cycle of Purgatory, choosing as the central theme an abstract and controversial doctrine, instead of the usual life of the patron saint. This choice produced something deeply innovative and original in the art of Venetian schools, as Sansovino is widely described in the book Venetia città nobilissima et singolare, with these words:
Il soffitto poscia è anch’egli vaghissimamente lavorato; egli è finto d’ebano, è quasi tutto in bella maniera indorato; forma egli diversi vani, e grandi, e piccioli in bel modo; ne i grandi dipinte in varie maniere si veggono di mano del Palma le pene, che patiscono nel luogo del Purgatorio le anime dei fedeli Christiani; nei piccioli dodici Dottori di Santa Chiesa; cioé i Quattro principali S. Gregorio, S. Girolamo, Sant’Ambrogio, e S. Agostino nel mezzo; da un de i capi, Sant’Atanagio, S. Basilio, S. Gregorio Nazianzeno, S. Giovanni Grisostomo; e dall’altro S. Bernardo, S. Beda, S. Hilario, e Sant’Anselmo, i quali hanno di queste penne scritto ottimamente.
An aspect that few people know - again according to Sansovino's story - is that before the Ciclo del Purgatorio, the ceiling had been made by the famous Jacopo Tintoretto but removed, a short distance away, shortly after the artist's death, of which only today remain two small fragments preserved in the current Reading Room depicting the two Evangelists Mark and John.