04 May 2020
A lockdown ‘virtual
tour’ of a dozen
churches in Venice
Every twist and turn on the canals of Venice, every crossing of a footbridge, and every square and alleyway seems to bring me face to face with a church of architectural interest and with important works of art by great artists, including Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Veronese, statues by great sculptors, and shrines with the relics of saints and martyrs from the past.
In the spirit of my recent ‘virtual tours’ over the past month or so, I invite you to join me on a virtual tour of a dozen or more churches, basilicas and monasteries in the Lagoon.
In this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worth remembering that the Black Death devastated Venice in 1348 and again in 1575-1577. In three years, the plague killed some 50,000 people. Then, in 1630, the Italian plague of 1629-1631 killed a third of Venice’s 150,000 citizens.
The stories of the great churches of Venice are interwoven with these plague stories, The Church of Santa Maria della Salute, which has come to symbolise Venice, was built as a thank-offering for the deliverance of Venice from the plague, and many of the churches on Torcello and other islands lost their significance as people fled from successive waves of the plague.
These stories give these churches a very real – and not merely ‘virtual’ – relevance to today’s circumstances.
1, Saint Mark’s Basilica:
The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark is the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Venice, the most famous church in the city, and one of the finest examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. Originally, Saint Mark’s was the chapel of the Doges of Venice, and it has been a cathedral only since 1807. Before that, the Patriarchs of Venice were seated at San Pietro di Castello.
Because of its opulent design, its mosaics and the wealth of its decoration, outside and inside, Saint Mark’s has become a symbol of Venetian wealth and power, and it is often known as the Chiesa d’Oro or Church of Gold.
The first Church of Saint Mark on this site beside the Doge’s Palace was built in 828-832, after merchants from Venice stole the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria. The present basilica was built from about 1063 and was completed in stages, and its basic shape includes a mixture of Italian and Byzantine features. The supposed but lost body of Saint Mark is said to have been rediscovered in a pillar by the Doge of Venice, Vitale Faliero, in 1094.
Although the basic structure of the building has not been altered much, its decoration has changed greatly over time. Inside, there is a dazzling display of gold ground mosaics on all the ceilings and upper walls. But there are spoils of classical and Byzantine buildings too, including the ninth-century Pala d’Oro from Constantinople, installed on the high altar in 1105, that were plundered or pilfered during the Crusades and other wars, including mosaics, columns, capitals and friezes.
In the 13th century, the church changed from being the private chapel of the Doge and became the state church and the venue for great state and public ceremonies, including the installation and burial of Doges.
The exterior of the west façade is divided into three registers: lower, upper and domes. In the lower register of the façade, five round-arched portals, enveloped by polychrome marble columns, open into the narthex through bronze-fashioned doors. The upper level of post-Renaissance mosaics in the lunettes of the lateral ogee arches depicts scenes from the Life of Christ, culminating in a 19th century replacement Last Judgment. Mosaics with scenes showing the history of the relics of Saint Mark fill the lunettes of the lateral portals, some of the mosaics dating from the 13th century.
Above the large central window of the façade, under Saint Mark, the Winged Lion who is his symbol and the symbol of Venice, holds a book quoting Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus (‘Peace to you Mark my Evangelist’).
In the centre of the balcony, four bronze horses face the square. They were installed about 1254, but date from Classical Antiquity – some accounts say they once adorned the Arch of Trajan.
The horses were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, but in 1204 Doge Enrico Dandolo sent them to Venice as part of the loot sacked from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. They were taken to Paris by Napoleon in 1797 but returned to Venice in 1815. Since the 1970s the originals have been kept in Saint Mark’s Museum and the horses on the façade today are bronze replicas.
The narthex or porch, dating from the 13th century, prepares the visitor for the gilded interior, with Old Testament scenes from Genesis and the lives of Noah, Abraham, Joseph and Moses. On the wall above and at the sides of the main doorway, the Four Evangelists and saints are depicted in 11th-century mosaics, the oldest in the building.
The porphyry statue of the Tetrarchs at the south-west corner, removed during restorations, represent the four co-emperors introduced in the third century. This statue too was taken from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
Inside, Saint Mark’s is based on the design of the Emperor Constantine’s Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.
The lower levels of the walls and pillars are covered with polychrome marble slabs. The upper levels are covered with bright mosaics covering an area of about 8,000 square metres. The earliest surviving work, in the main porch, probably dates from around 1070. The main work on the interior mosaics was complete by the 1270s, but most of the mosaics were replaced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The large mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator, seated above the patron saints of Venice in the main apse, is a 15th-century recreation. The East dome over the high altar has a bust of Christ in the centre surrounded by prophets, the Virgin Mary and the Four Evangelists. The Ascension of Christ is depicted in the central dome and Pentecost in the west dome.
The marble floors of the basilica date from the 12th century.
In Saint Peter’s chapel in the left transept, the Madonna Nicopeia is the best-known Byzantine icon in Venice, also taken to Venice during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The treasury holds a collection of Byzantine objects looted from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade and later in 1261.
2, Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute:
Santa Maria della Salute, with its dome at the southern-most entrance to the Grand Canal, is an emblem of the skyline of Venice and the church and its silhouette have inspired artists from Canaletto to Turner and Sargent.
This baroque church stands between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, at the Bacino di San Marco, on the narrow finger of Punta della Dogana, and it can be seen clearly from the waterfront at the Piazza San Marco.
Although Salute is best-known for the dome that makes it an architectural landmark, its spacious, light-filled interior – like so many churches in Venice – is filled with artistic treasures.
So often, people raise their glasses in Italy with the toast Salute! It might be too easy to translate this as ‘Cheers!’ or ‘Your health!’ But the name of this church is associated with prayers for the health of Venice and its deliverance from the plague almost 400 years ago. Salute is one of the so-called ‘plague churches’ in Venice and its full name is Santa Maria della Salute: Saint Mary of Health, or Saint Mary of Deliverance.
After Venice was devastated by the plague in 1630, the Serene Republic agreed to build a church dedicated to Our Lady of Health or of Deliverance as a thank-offering for the city’s deliverance. The church was designed by the architect Baldassare Longhena.
Venice was devastated by the plague in a wave that began in the summer of 1630 and continued into 1631, killing almost one-third of the city’s population. In all, 46,000 people died in the city, and 94,000 more people died in the lagoon and the surrounding islands.
As they prayed for an end to the plague, the people of Venice held processions and public displays of the Blessed Sacrament, with processions to the churches of San Rocco and San Lorenzo Giustiniani. Over half a century earlier, during another plague attack in 1575-1576, the city had responded by commissioning Andrea Palladio to design the Church of Il Redentore (the Redeemer) on Giudecca.
On 22 October 1630, Church and State responded as the Venetian Senate decreed that a new church should be built, dedicated not to a another ‘plague’ saint or patron but to the Virgin Mary, who was revered as the protector of the Republic.
But the Senators also wanted a monumental church in a place that could be reached easily from Saint Mark’s Square. The location was chosen from among eight potential locations, partially because it was possible to link it with San Giorgio, San Marco, and Il Redentore, and the four churches form an arc in Venice. Salute also stands close by the custom house or Dogana da Mar, the symbol of the maritime commerce of Venice, and near the civic centre of the city.
At first, the Patriarch of Venice opposed the location of the church. Eventually, building work began in 1631. The architect Baldassare Longhena was only 26 when he was chosen by the Senate to design the new church.
Salute was novel in many ways, showing the influence of Palladian classicism and the domes of Venice. But this octagonal church is also influenced by Byzantine designs, including the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.
Salute is a vast, octagonal building with two domes and a pair of bell-towers, designed by Longhena as a crown-like church. It is full of Marian symbolism: the great dome represents her crown, the cavernous interior her womb, and the eight sides the eight points on her symbolic star.
Salute stands on a platform made of a million wooden piles. At the top of the pediment, a statue of the Virgin Mary presides over the church. The façade is decorated with figures of Saint George, Saint Theodore, the Four Evangelists, the Prophets, and Judith with the head of Holofernes.
Inside, the church is octagonal with eight radiating chapels on the outer row. The three altars to the right of the main entrance are decorated with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary by Luca Giordano: the Presentation, the Assumption and the Nativity; and there is a painting by Titian of Pentecost or the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
Longhena designed the Baroque high altar, which displays a 12th or 13th century icon from Crete of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, known in Greek as Panagia Mesopantitisa, the ‘Virgin Mediator’ or the ‘Virgin Negotiator.’ The icon was brought to Venice from Iraklion in 1669 when the capital of Crete was captured by the Ottoman Turks.
The statues above the high altar show the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven driving the Plague out of Venice, a theatrical Baroque masterpiece executed in 1670 by the Flemish sculptor Josse de Corte.
Tintoretto painted the ‘Marriage at Cana’ in the great sacristy, Saint Mark Enthroned with Saints Cosmas, Damian, Sebastian and Roch, seen in the altarpiece in the sacristy, ceiling paintings of David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac and Cain and Abel, eight tondi of the eight Doctors of the Church and the Evangelists, all in the great sacristy, and the Pentecost in the nave.
The church was not completed until 1681, shortly before Longhena died. The Senate agreed to visit the church each year. On 21 November, the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, or the Festa della Madonna della Salute, the city officials paraded from San Marco to the Salute for a service celebrating deliverance from the plague. This involved crossing the Grand Canal on a purpose-built pontoon, and this parade is still a major event in Venice each year.
3, Church of San Giorgio Maggiore:
San Giorgio Maggiore can be seen clearly from Saint Mark’s Square. It is a landmark building just beyond the entrance to the Grand Canal, yet it is visited by few tourists during their brief stay in Venice. But this 16th-century Benedictine church on an island that shares the same name is of architectural importance and was designed by the great architect of Venice, Andrea Palladio.
The church, which was built between 1566 and 1610, is a basilica in the classical renaissance style. Its white marble gleams above the blue water of the lagoon opposite the Piazza San Marco, and it forms the focal point of the view from every part of the Riva degli Schiavoni.
The first church on the island was built about 790, and in 982 the island was given to the Benedictine order by the Doge Tribuno Memmo. The Benedictines founded a monastery there, but in 1223 all the buildings on the island were destroyed by an earthquake.
The church and monastery on the island were rebuilt after the earthquake. The church, which had a nave with side chapels, was not in the same position as the present church, but stood farther back at the side of a small campo or square. The cloisters in front were demolished in 1516, and from 1521 the monks began planning a new church.
Palladio arrived in Venice in 1560, when the refectory of the monastery was being rebuilt. He made improvements to this, and in 1565 he was asked to prepare a model for a new church.
His model was completed in 1566 and the foundation stone was laid in the presence of the Pope that year. The work was not finished before Palladio died in 1580, but the body of the church was complete by 1575 apart from the choir behind the altar and the façade. The decoration of the interior was completed later and the choir was built between 1580 and 1589.
Work on the façade began in 1599 and was completed in 1610.
The campanile or bell tower is a landmark on the skyline of Venice, but was not designed by Palladio. It was first built in 1467, fell in 1774, and rebuilt in neo-classic style by 1791.
The façade of the church is a brilliant white and represents Palladio’s solution to the difficulty of adapting a classical façade to the form of this church, with its high nave and low side aisles. On either side of the central portal are statues of Saint George and of Saint Stephen, the patrons of the church.
Two very large paintings by Jacopo Tintoretto, ‘The Last Supper’ and ‘The Fall of Manna,’ depict the institution of the Eucharist. In the Cappella dei Morti or mortuary, a second painting by Tintoretto depicts ‘The Entombment of Christ.’
A chapel associated with the Morosini family, who gave their name to the Morisini fountain in Iraklion in Crete, is dedicated to Saint Andrew. Here a painting by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto depicts ‘The Risen Christ and Saint Andrew with Vincenzo Morosini and members of his family.’ Other works in the chapel are by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto and Leandro Bassano.
4, Chiesa di San Giorgio dei Greci:
A significant Greek community has lived close to Ponte dei Greci (the Bridge of the Greeks) since the 11th century, when the first Greek artisans arrived to decorate Saint Mark's Basilica and many of the early churches of Venice. They expanded significantly with the influx of refugees following the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453.
The church of San Giorgio dei Greci, with its leaning bell tower – similar to the contemporaneous tower of Saint Spyridon in Corfu – was built at a cost of 15,000 gold ducats between 1539 and 1573, and the vivid iconostasis or icon screen was painted by Michael Damaskinos, the greatest Cretan iconographer of the day and a contemporary of El Greco.
As the Serene Republic lost its Greek colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, Greeks continued to flood into Venice, and their presence helped to spread classical culture throughout Europe. A whole Greek neighbourhood took shape around the church on the banks of the Rio dei Greci, and at its peak the Greek community numbered 15,000 people.
Napoleon’s abolition of the Republic of Venice in 1797 marked the beginning of the decline of this prosperous community as their assets and church treasures were confiscated. However, a convent of Greek nuns and their girls' school survived until 1834, and until 1905 the Greek College provided Greek communities in the Ottoman territories with educated priests and teachers.
Despite their decline in recent generations, the small Greek community continues in Venice. The Collegio Flangini now houses the Hellenic Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, a museum in the former Scuola di San Nicolo dei Greci displays a unique collection of icons, and San Giorgio dei Greci has become a cathedral, with an archbishop living in the old palace.
5, Chiesa di San Geremia:
Just a few minutes’ walk from the Santa Lucia train station, the beautiful Church of San Geremia faces onto the Grand Canal, between the Palazzo Labia and the Palazzo Flangini. Four tourists, because of its proximity to the train station, this is often the first or the last church they see in Venice. But for Italians, this church is a popular place of pilgrimage because the body of Saint Lucy of Syracuse is housed here.
The first church was built on this site in the 11th century, and was later rebuilt on several occasions. The Chiesa di S. Geremia e Lucia, or San Geremia as it is known, was founded in 1000 by a father and son to house the arm of Saint Bartholomew.
By 1206, the church was housing the body of Saint Magnus of Oderzo, who took refuge in this area from the Lombards and died in 670. The church was first rebuilt by the Doge Sebastiano Ziani, and this new church was consecrated in 1292. The church became the centre of a scandal in 1562 when the priest was accused of heresy and was drowned.
The present church was rebuilt in 1753 to designs by Carlo Corbellini, with an imposing dome. San Geremia is unique in having two similar façades, dating from 1861-1871, one facing the Grand Canal and the other, which is also the entrance, facing San Geremia square.
The brickwork bell tower, best seen from the Grand Canal, probably dates from the 12th century and has two thin Romanesque mullioned windows at the base.
Inside, the altar and the presbytery have statues of Saint Peter and Saint Geremia (1798) by Giovanni Ferrari. Behind the altar, a fresco by Agostino Mengozzi Colonna depicts ‘Two Angels upholding the Globe.’ A work by Palma the Younger (‘The Virgin at the Coronation of Venice by Saint Magnus’) decorates another altar. The church also has statues by Giovanni Maria Morlaiter (‘The Madonna of the Rosary’) and Giovanni Marchiori (‘The Immaculate Conception’).
The church is a centre for pilgrimage to the shrine of Santa Lucia di Siracusa or Saint Lucy, a third century martyr from Syracuse in Sicily whose feastday is celebrated on 13 December. She is known as the protector of eyes.
Her body was moved to San Geremia in 1861 when Palladio’s Church of Santa Lucia was demolished to make way for a new railway station, which is still named Santa Lucia. The façade of San Geremia facing the Grand Canal has a large inscription: ‘Saint Lucia, Virgin of Siracusa, rests in peace in this church. You inspire a bright future and peace for Italy and the entire World.’
The saint’s body was stolen in 1981 by two armed criminals who forced the main doors, entered the church and smashed the glass shrine holding her body. In their confusion, the thieves left behind her head and the silver mask. They demanded a ransom, but local police retrieved her body in the lagoon area of Montiron and she was returned to the church on her feastday, 13 December.
6, Church of Santa Sofia:
The Church Santa Sofia can be found near the traghetto or gondola ferry of Santa Sofia on the Grand Canal. A wooden church dedicated to Sant Sofia or the Wisdom of God was noted in Venice as early as 886.
A new church was built in the 11th century through the patronage of the Gussoni family. Building work began in 1020, and this church appears to have survived the great fire of 1105. Major rebuilding took place in 1507-1534, and the architect Antonio Gaspari designed another reconstruction in the late 1600s.
When the Strada Nova was laid out in the 1800s, the church was shortened in length. Then, when Napoleon captured Venice, this was one of the churches where celebrations of the liturgy were suppressed. The church was converted into a warehouse and its contents were dispersed.
The church has lost many of its original art works and paintings, including ‘The Last Supper’ by Paolo Veronese, ‘The Birth of the Virgin’ by Titian, ‘Christ preaching to the Masses’ by Francesco da Ponte, ‘The Crucifixion’ by Tintoretto, ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’ by Tintoretto, and paintings attributed to Francesco and Leandro Bassano and Jacopo Palma the Elder. These works are now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia.
The church now has two paintings by Bassano’s school at the side of the presbytery, and ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Girolamo Heinz above the main altar, as well as four statues of saints, attributed to Antonio Rizzo.
The church was bought back in 1836, it was cleared of debris and was re-consecrated. However, the ground floor of the façade and bell tower of the church are screened behind the buildings on the street front, making it easy to pass this church without noticing it, and the entry to the church is through what looks like a shop door.
7, Chiesa di San Stae:
The Church of San Stae, officially Sant’Eustachio, has a lavish external façade that faces the Grand Canal. The church was designed by Domenico Rossi in 1709, and is rich decorated, with sculptures by Giuseppe Torretto, Antonio Tarsia, Pietro Baratta, and Antonio Corradini.
Inside is a tomb of the Mocenigo family, and works by Niccolò Bambini, Giuseppe Camerata, Antonio Balestra. The roof of the presbytery has a ceiling decorated with a large canvas by Bartolomeo Letterini, while the walls have canvases by Giuseppe Angeli and small canvases dedicated to the Apostles, including the ‘Martyrdom of Saint Bartholemew by Giambattista Tiepolo, the ‘Martyrdom of Saint Thomas’ by Giambattista Pittoni, the ‘Martyrdom of Sain James the Greater’ by Giambattista Piazzetta, the ‘Liberation of Saint Peter by Sebastiano Ricci.
Works in the sacristy include the ‘Death of Christ’ by Pietro della Vecchia and ‘Trajan orders Sant’Eustachio to pray to the idols’ by Giambattista Pittoni.
8, Chiesa di Santa Maria di Nazareth (‘Scalzi’):
The Church of Santa Maria di Nazareth, known locally as the Church of the Scalzi, or simply as ‘Scalzi,’ is beside Santa Lucia railway station. The ashes of Ludovico Manin, the last Doge of Venice, are buried here.
This late 17th-century Baroque jewel of Venice was designed by the architect Baldassare Longhena, whose splendid façade is decorated with statues that attract the attention of every passer-by.
The church is known as ‘Scalzi’ (Chiesa degli Scalzi) because this is the Venetian church of the Discalced Carmelites – the word scalzi means ‘barefoot.’
The façade in Venetian Late Baroque style was financed by the aristocrat Gerolamo Cavazza, and erected by Giuseppe Sardi in 1672-1680. The four statues in the first order, the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Thomas Aquinas were sculpted by Bernardo Falconi.
The first chapel to the right has a statue of Saint John of the Cross, attributed to Falconi. The statues of Faith, Hope, and Charity are by Tommaso Rues. The third chapel on the left has a statue of Saint Sebastian (1669) with bronze bas-reliefs also attributed to Falconi.
The vault of the nave once housed a major fresco by Tiepolo depicting the ‘Translation of the House of Loreto.’ Tiepolo had worked in the church, decorating the vaults of the Chapel of Saint Teresa (1727-1730) and the Chapel of the Crucifix (1732-1733). However, the frescoes were destroyed by an Austrian bombardment on 24 October 1915. The remains of the fragments of Tiepolo’s work are now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia.
9, San Apostoli:
One of the oldest churches in Venice is the Chiesa dei Santi Apostoli di Cristo (Church of the Holy Apostles of Christ), known as San Apostoli, a seventh-century church on the Campo dei Santi Apostoli.
Venice was not yet a city in the seventh century, but was a collection of small communities scattered throughout the lagoon. San Magno (Saint Magnus), Bishop of Oderzo, came to the lagoon and founded eight churches. According to legend, he had a vision of the Twelve Apostles telling him to build a church at a place where he saw 12 cranes, and this location became the site of San Apostoli.
The church is notable particularly for the Cornaro Chapel, an important example of Early Renaissance architecture, added by the architect Mauro Codussi in the 1490s. At the same time, Codussi oversaw the addition of a porch to the front of the church, the building of a sacristy, and other alterations.
The Cornaro Chapel was the burial place of several members of the Cornaro family, including Giorgio Cornaro and his sister Catherine Cornaro. Queen of Cyprus and Armenia, although her body was later moved to the Church of San Salvadore. The main altar of the chapel was the Last Communion of Saint Lucy (1747-1748) by Tiepolo.
The charity Save Venice funded the restoration of the chapel, including the relief carvings.
In the mid-16th century, the church briefly housed the Catecumeni, a Venetian fraternity for people preparing to convert to Christianity, before moving to San Gregorio in 1571. The church was completely rebuilt in 1575, with only parts of the earlier structure retained, including some frescoes and the Cornaro Chapel.
In the early 18th century, Andrea Tirali added details, including the onion dome, to the campanile, which was a late 17th-century addition.
The church retains its 16th century layout: a single nave supported by two rows of columns. One chapel has the funeral monument of Count Giuseppe Mangilli, designed by Luigi Trezza with a bust by Angelo Pizzi. The main altarpiece is a Custodian Angel by Bernardo Strozzi.
The church houses several works of art, including works by Giambattista Tiepolo and Paolo Veronese. The ceiling paintings by Fabio Canale include ‘The Communion of the Apostles and Exaltation of the Eucharist,’ and the Four Evangelists.
The paintings in the church include: Paolo Veronese, ‘Gathering of Manna’ (1580-1585); Cesare da Conegliano, ‘Last Supper’ (1583); Giovanni Contarini, ‘Birth of the Virgin’ (1599); Fabio Canal, ‘Communion of the Apostles and Exaltation of the Eucharist’ (17th century); Giambattista Tiepolo, ‘Last Communion of Saint Lucy’ (1747-1748); and Sebastiano Santi, ‘Christ between the Apostles’ (1828).
10, Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello:
Torcello is the most northerly island in the Lagoon. This is the island to which Venice traces its cultural and ecclesiastical roots, and the seventh century cathedral is the oldest building in the Lagoon.
The first people settled on Torcello in the fifth or sixth century, and over time it grew into a thriving colony with a cathedral, churches, palaces, and a population that peaked at 20,000 people. Today just a few dozen people at most live on the clustered islands that make up Torcello, and they depend mainly on tourism for their livelihood.
Torcello was the largest and most important settlement in the Venetian Lagoon. It was first settled in 452 and is known as the parent island from which Venice was populated. It was a town with a cathedral and bishops long before Saint Mark’s Basilica was built.
After the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, Torcello was one of the first islands in the lagoon populated by people who fled after wave of barbarian invasions, especially after Attila the Hun destroyed in 452.
Although the Veneto region belonged to the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna from the end of the Gothic War, it remained unsafe because of frequent Germanic invasions and wars. During the following 200 years, the Lombards and the Franks drove refugees to Torcello, including the Bishop of Altino. Torcello became the bishop’s official seat in 638, and it remained so for more than 1,000 years.
Torcello grew rapidly, and for centuries was a more powerful trading centre than Venice. In the 10th century, it had a population of up to 20,000 people.
The Black Death devastated Venice in 1348 and again in 1575-1577. In three years, the plague killed some 50,000 people. In 1630, the Italian plague of 1629-1631 killed a third of Venice’s 150,000 citizens.
Many people eventually left Torcello for Murano, Burano and Venice, the bishopric was transferred to Murano in 1689, and by 1797 the population of Torcello had dropped to about 300. Many of Torcello’s numerous palazzi, its 12 parish churches and its 16 cloisters were purloined for building material by the Venetians and almost all have disappeared. The only remaining mediaeval structures are one small palazzo, the cathedral, its bell-tower, the adjacent church, the town’s former council chamber and archives.
The magnificent Byzantine-Italian cathedral, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, dates back to 639 AD and rises above the island, with the Bell Tower and Church of Santa Fosca alongside. The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was founded in 639, but underwent radical rebuilding in 1008. The present church is of basilica-form with side aisles but no crossing. It includes many earlier features, and has much 11th and 12th century Byzantine work.
One of the most moving mosaics in Venice is the 13th century mosaic in the central apse of the Virgin Hodegetria or the Virgin Mary in a blue robe with gold fringing, cradling the Christ Child, with the 12 Apostles at their feet.
A highly decorative and vivid Domesday mosaic depicting the Last Judgment covers the entire west wall, although when I visited recently it was being restored at present and was hidden from view by scaffolding.
The mosaic in the right apse depicts Christ the Pantocrator enthroned between two archangels, Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel, with the Lamb of God in a medallion of the vault.
The pulpit is made from fragments from the first, seventh century church. The Byzantine marble panels of the iconostasis or rood screen are carved with peacocks, lions and flowers. The finely carved capitals on the nave columns date from the 11th century.
The flooring of the basilica is a vivid swirl of colours in bright tesserae of stone and glass, with cubes, semicircles and triangles laid in square designs.
11, Santa Fosca Church, Torcello:
To the right of the basilica, the Church of Santa Fosca completes the architectural complex of the historical cathedral of Torcello, together with the Oratory of San Marco and the Baptistry.
The Church of Santa Fosca dates from the 11th and 12th century. It is built in the form of a Greek cross and has a Byzantine interior. The central dome and cross sections are supported on columns of Greek marble with fine Corinthian columns.
Outside, a five-sided, semi-octagonal colonnaded portico surrounds the church on its southern, west and north sides and connects Santa Fosca with the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta.
The church also holds the tomb of the martyr Saint Fosca from Ravenna.
Archaeologists and historians have compared the Church of Santa Fosca with a number Greek churches of the same period, including the Soteira Lykodemou in Athens, the main church of Daphni Monastery, the Basilica of the Transfiguration of Christ in Triphylia, the church of Hosios Loukas in Phocis and the Monastery of Nea Moni on Chios.
12, Oratorio ex Ospizio Briati, Murano:
Most of the churches on the island of Murano were torn down and replaced by housing or glass factories during the Napoleonic and Austrian occupations (1797-1866). Today, only four churches remain on Murano, and two are open to visitors.
The Church of Santa Maria e San Donato is known for its 12th-century Byzantine mosaic pavement and is said to house the bones of the dragon slain by Saint Donatus in the fourth century. The Church of San Pietro Martire includes the chapel of the Ballarin family built in 1506 and artworks by Giovanni Bellini.
On Bressagio street, a few metres from the main lighthouse and the pier, the Oratorio ex Ospizio Briati is the chapel of a former convent of the Discalced Carmelites. For a time, this was the Briati Hospice, built by the master of Murano glass, Giuseppe Briati (1686-1772), to house the widows of glassmakers.
The Discalced Carmelites of Venice were given permission in 1736 to build a convent for Carmelite nuns on the site of the palazzo of the Marcelo family. They received financial assistance from other prominent families, including the Contarini and Giustiniani families.
A year later, the nuns moved to the convent from the monastery in Conegliano. Later, the Augustinians restored the oratory, and it served as a parish church at a time when the Basilica of San Donato was still closed.
13,Churches and chapels in the lagoon:
Taking the vaporetto back from islands like Torcello, Murano and Burano, it is always captivating to see the small monasteries in the Lagoon, such as the Armenian monastery on San Lazzaro degli Armeni, or the smaller churches and chapels such as those at Cimitero on the island of San Michele, across the water from Fondamente Nuove, or San Giacomo in Paludo.
The island of San Michele, with a large number of cypress trees and enclosed within high terracotta walls, was originally the two islets of San Michele and San Cristoforo della Pace. Hermits of the Camaldolese Order moved onto the island in the 12th century and founded the Monastery of Saint Michael (S. Michele di Murano), which became a centre of learning and printing. The famous cartographer, Fra Mauro, who drew maps that helped European explorers, was a monk of this community.
The landmark building on the island, Chiesa di San Michele in Isola, was designed by Mauro Codussi in 1469. This was the first Renaissance church in Venice, and the first church in Venice to be faced in white Istrian stone.
The monastery was suppressed during his conquest of the Italian peninsula, and the monks were expelled in 1814. The Napoleonic administration had decreed that burial on the main islands of Venice was unsanitary, and the islands then became Venice’s major cemetery. The canal separating the two islands was filled in between 1837 and 1839, and the larger island became known as San Michele.
Coffins were carried to the island on special funeral gondolas. Those who are buried here include Frederick Rolfe ‘Baron Corvo’ (1860-1913), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996).
San Giacomo in Paludo in the Lagoon is a small island surrounded by a brick wall that makes one wonder what stands on the other side.
The buildings here were once part of a monastery that offered hospitality to pilgrims at a time Venice was a stopping point for people on their way to the Holy Land. People known as Tholomarii, the mediaeval equivalent of today’s tour guides, helped pilgrims to orientate and to find a place to stay, to eat and to board a ship of passage.
The Venetian Government even had to regulate the profession in 1255 because many unauthorised people who were trying to cheat the poor pilgrims. To host these people the town planned monasteries on some Venetian islands, including: S. Clemente, S. Maria delle Grazie, Lazzaretto Vecchio and S. Giacomo in Paludo.
San Giacomo in Paludo is a small island (12,496 square metres), between Murano and Madonna del Monte , along the canal called Scomenzera San Giacomo.
Orso Badoer granted the islet to Giovanni Trono di Mazzorbo in 1046 to build a monastery dedicated to San Giacomo Maggiore (Saint James the Great) that would welcome travellers and pilgrims. The convent passed to the Cistercian nuns in 1238, but they abandoned it in 1440 and moved to the Abbey of Santa Margherita di Torcello.
It was used briefly as a hospital in 1456, and the Greyfriars or Franciscan friars settled here in the 16th century. However, the island’s problems included the erosion of the banks and several times the friars were asked to restore monastic complex.
Napoleonic edicts in suppressed the monastery in 1810 and many of the buildings were demolished. From then until 1961, it was used as a military post, but most of the buildings have fallen into ruin. In 2019, the state sold the island into private ownership. However, the conditions of sale do not allow hotel development, and the island must be used for communal or cultural events.
Some recent ‘virtual tours’:
A dozen Wren churches in London;
Ten former Wren churches in London;
More than a dozen churches in Lichfield;
More than a dozen pubs in Lichfield;
A dozen former pubs in Lichfield;
A dozen churches in Rethymnon;
A dozen restaurants in Rethymnon;
A dozen churches in other parts of Crete;
A dozen monasteries in Crete;
A dozen sites on Mount Athos;
A dozen historic sites in Athens;
A dozen historic sites in Thessaloniki;
A dozen churches in Thessaloniki;
A dozen Jewish sites in Thessaloniki.
A dozen churches in Cambridge;
A dozen college chapels in Cambridge;
A dozen Irish islands’
A dozen churches in Corfu.