A week in Venice afforded me enough time to visit about 40 of the city’s churches—fewer than a third of the nearly 140 that rise up from its watery foundation. Having endured the massive crowds at the most popular ones, I was delighted to find so many of the others undervisited; often, I was the only person there. They’re no less spectacular than the rest; they’re just off the overtrod trail that most visitors to Venice stampede on. And they often hold unforgettable secrets and beauty. These are my favorites.
#1 Church of the Assumption of Mary (Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta)
In the Cannaregio sestiere, or district, I arrived at the nearly deserted campo of Santa Maria Assunta and waited for the great doors to open at the appointed hour. The only sounds came from two boys practicing their soccer skills in front of a crumbling old palazzo, and the hushed, almost reverent conversation of the three other travelers waiting to enter. Santa Maria Assunta, commonly referred to as Gesuiti in acknowledgment of the Jesuits who built it between the mid-1710s and 1720s (and not to be confused with Gesuati, in a different part of town), commands attention, with its ornate Baroque façade of Corinthian columns that support the elaborate architrave and statues of the 12 Apostles, and topped by Mary, surrounded by angels as she ascends into heaven.
With only one window on the façade and buildings pressed against either side of the church, I was expecting the interior to be dark and, despite the imposing front, somewhat small. Upon entering, I was delightfully surprised by its grandiosity and brightness as well as the overwhelming but harmonious ornamentation. Amazing art fills the church, from statues of archangels to frescoes that adorn the ceiling. I peeked inside the side chapels, filled with striking paintings, including Titian’s highly dramatic The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. I was lured directly forward, under the complicated stucco ceiling, to the arresting high altar—a tabernacle covered by lapis lazuli, a globe sculpture with the Father and Son watching over it, and a baldachin with 10 corkscrew columns of green marble supporting a huge cupola.
As I took a seat in the first pew and gazed at this magnificent work, envying the talents of the 18th-century artisans, I wondered if, judging by the monumentality of it all, the Jesuits had something to prove when they constructed the church. Indeed, they did. This church was to mark their triumphant return to the city after being expelled in 1606 for siding with the Pope against the Republic of Venice—it had to be impressive, even beyond their usual elaborate churches. They secured the patronage of the wealthy and powerful Manin family to pay for the façade and altar—a stroke of good timing: Less than a century later, in 1797, Ludovico Manin, the last doge of Venice, surrendered the reigns of power to Napoleon, and the city began its decline.
My concentration was broken by a raised voice that sounded louder than it actually was in the expansive open space of the nave. An elderly Italian woman, clad in black mourning from head to toe, was reading the riot act to an obvious tourist—a post-pubescent girl clad in hardly anything, a definite no-no in Venetian churches. She didn’t understand why she was being scolded for her lack of decorum, and she eventually sashayed away, still oblivious, but I continued to look in that direction, now attracted by the green and white damask on the wall behind where they had stood. I began to notice the pattern everywhere—not only running up the walls, but on columns and panels, in curtains and drapery, in fringes and swags. Upon closer inspection, I ran my hand along it to verify what my eyes were disbelieving. I couldn’t help but smile at being taken in by one of Venice’s most enchanting tricks. It’s not the damask fabric I was expecting at all; in fact, none of it is as it appears. It’s all inlaid marble, right down to the tassels on the left-aisle pulpit and a swoop of curtain that’s tied to one side.
#2 St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco)
Venice’s signature church draws massive crowds on a daily basis. A wise tip led me to drop off my backpack a block or two away—and my receipt granted me access to the front of the lengthy line of tourists waiting to get in. But, first, I had to take a good, long look at the outside of this iconic basilica. Anchoring the incomparable Piazza San Marco, the basilica began its life in 829, but construction wasn’t completed until the 1500s. It was intended to celebrate the city’s economic, political, and military power—a goal it clearly achieved. That astoundingly lengthy period ensured that the final product would be a blend of various architectural styles, quite evident in its highly ornamented façade that combines West and East: Roman-style arches, French Gothic pinnacles, five Muslim-inspired onion domes topped with crosses, Middle Eastern ogee arches, and Byzantine mosaics (including an original from the 13th century) in the lunettes that depict both the journey of St. Mark’s relics from Alexandria, Egypt, to Venice, and a Last Judgment series: the Descent From the Cross, the Harrowing of Hell, the Resurrection, and the Ascension.
The main entrance boasts multicolored columns that separate five recessed portals, their spandrels occupied by sculptures including one of Hercules, allegorizing moral virtue that conquers vice. The four horses over the entrance are replicas of the originals—stolen from Constantinople—that now live in the basilica museum. And, above that, a golden winged lion, St. Mark’s symbol, holds a book, inscribed with “Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist.”
Inside, I stepped into the narthex and looked up at the spectacular narrative illustrated in one of the dome’s rotundas: the stories of Genesis and Exodus, with special emphasis on Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Noah’s Ark, and a trio of early Bible figures—Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. Passing into the overwhelming main body of the church, I knew immediately that one can easily spend months here in order to see every detail. I was captivated by 500 columns, and the bronze and silver crucifix and statues of St. Mark, the Virgin Mary, and the Twelve Apostles atop the Gothic altar screen, from 1394, formed by eight columns of different marbles. The floor is a marble and mosaic carpet, with geometric designs and a circus of peacocks, lions, dogs, deer, and other animals.
Of course, the highlight is the glitter from the gold used in more than 4,750 square yards of mosaics on the ceilings, walls, piers, and domes—the oldest of which date back to 1000—that brighten up the darkish interior. That’s nearly two football fields of art. Among them, with some good binoculars, I found Noah stowing pairs of exotic birds in his ark, Jesus being presented at the temple, the Agony in the Garden, the enormous Christ Pantocrator, Judas’ fatal kiss, the magi, and far too many saints and prophets to name.
Behind the altar screen, four alabaster columns support the baldachin over the high altar, which, since 1835, has housed the relics of St. Mark (smuggled out of Egypt in a pork barrel so the Muslims wouldn’t look). Mark replaced St. Theodorus as the city’s patron saint because the Venetians wanted a patron less associated with the East, even if their grand basilica ended up with so many Eastern touches.
#3 Basilica of Glorious Saint Mary of the Friars (Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari)
At 110 yards long, the massive Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari dates from the 15th century. It is one of the few churches in the city still retaining its Venetian Gothic appearance. White Istrian stone accents the fairly plain exterior of this brick behemoth with some refined details, like the ocular windows, the arch friezes, and the graduated, curved pediments. The bell tower predates the church to 1396 and remains one of the tallest bell towers in the city.
The open and bright interior felt more like a vast meeting hall to me than a church. Six large pillars are joined by wooden beams that hold up large ogival arches and separate the three naves. The chancel is decorated with rows of delicate tracery windows, one above the other over two stories. The gorgeous High Gothic wooden choir, built in 1468, is divided into three orders with 124 seats.
Frari is one of the most important Renaissance “museums” in the city, with its work in situ—art that is located where it was designed to be seen, as opposed to hanging in a museum. Among the paintings and sculptures by the likes of Bellini and Donatello, the most important work of art commands pride of place on the high altar. I saw it as soon as I entered the church from the opposite end, attracted by the bright red robes of the figures, even at a great distance. Titian’s Assumption of Mary (1518) rocked Venice when it was unveiled. Its lifelike figures in dramatic poses and with ecstatic expressions scandalized viewers, so accustomed to the stiff icons they had always seen. Practically rejected in the 16th century, today it’s considered a masterpiece.
A large proportion of the in situ art is given over to the grand tombs and wall monuments. Three in particular commanded my attention. First was the Carrara marble monument to Antonio Canova, the astoundingly talented neoclassical sculptor who specialized in marble. Canova had designed it as a mausoleum for Titian, who had died nearly 250 years before, but that never came to be, and Canova’s janissaries used his designs to erect this monument to him instead, installing it in 1827. Three steps rise to an open door in the center of a perfect pyramid, leading to the burial chamber where Canova’s heart lies. Above the door, two angels bear the effigy of the sculptor surrounded by a snake, symbol of immortality. Figures at the base include women representing painting and architecture, and a winged lion symbolizing Venice.
The Carrara marble monument for Titian is even grander. Venice’s greatest painter died in 1576 and was one of the very few people to be buried within the city’s six sestieri (everyone else was buried on separate, outer islands for fear of disease). A statue of the artist, crowned with a laurel wreath, sits in the center, under a triumphal arch supported by four Corinthian columns and topped with a statue of the winged lion. Standing statues represent architecture, graphic art, painting, and sculpture, while bas-reliefs reflect Titian’s most important religious works.
Perhaps the most ornate is the monument to Giovanni Pesaro, who served as the 103rd Doge of Venice for just over a year in 1658–59. This colossal two-story Baroque monument features four black-skinned bare-footed Moors wearing torn clothing, standing on red and black marble pedestals with sculptured lion heads, and bearing the weight of the entablature on their shoulders. Above, the doge sits on his throne under a red marble canopy between sculptural allegories of religion, valor, concord, and justice. At his feet, two women offer crowns. And above the doge, two angels display the Pesaro family’s coat of arms. It’s an incredible work of art. What I found most surprising is that it was all created for a doge who was widely disliked by Venetians for a long list of reasons: abandoning his military command in the face of the enemy, embezzlement, abuse of office, land appropriation, and marrying his housekeeper, a low-born woman whose brother was a criminal who had been banished from the Venetian Republic (all of which occurred even before his election as doge), and continuing to overtax the Venetians to carry on the Cretan War. I wondered what his monument would have been if the Venetians had actually cared for him.
#4 Church of Saint Mary of the Carmelites (Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Carmini)
The brick and marble façade of the Church of Saint Mary of the Carmelites still bears the stain of the water level from when the canal it fronts flooded it and the piazzetta before it. Fortunately, all was dry when I was there, looking up at the octagonal window and the curved roofline decorated with statues of Elisha and Elijah, thought to be founders of the Carmelite order, who built this church in 1386 (although the façade was altered more than a century later—you can still see the bricked-in bottom half of a former circular window above the main door).
Inside, a series of 12 stone columns with simple 14th century capitals separate the three naves. Wooden statues of saints, prophets, and historical figures stand on little platforms above the columns. Above them, at least four different artists created 24 large paintings depicting the history of the Carmelite order over the course of 70 years. Sections of the ceiling are covered in frescoes and stucco, and side chapels illuminated by hanging lanterns feature altars with statues and paintings, including Saint Nicholas in Glory (1529), by Lorenzo Lotto. Measuring 11’ x 6’, this impressive altarpiece was Lotto’s first public commission after he returned to Venice—and it didn’t go over well. In this piece, St. Nicholas, with a halo around his head, sits on a cloud and looks heavenward, indicating his ascension. Three angels surround him, holding his traditional symbols—a mitre, an episcopal crozier, and three golden balls—while saints John the Baptist and Lucy look on. Underneath the grouping, a dark, romantic landscape features a seaport, a storm, and St. George killing the dragon (added to satisfy one of the donor’s wishes). Although I found the painting worthy of study and appreciation, Lotto’s contemporaries disagreed, slamming it as “an example of terrible hues.”
#5 Basilica of St. Mary of Health (Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute)
If you’re arriving in Venice via sea, the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is the church that will greet you. Sitting almost at the tip of an island in the Dorsoduro sestiere that marks the entrance to the Grand Canal, this minor basilica owes its existence to the Italian Plague of 1629–1631, when the disease killed off a full third of Venice’s population. Prayers and processions failed to spare the city, so the Republic of Venice vowed to build and dedicate a church to Our Lady of Health, a name assigned to the Virgin Mary. Apparently, it eventually worked, and this “plague church” was completed in 1681 after 50 years of construction.
The octagonal Baroque church is one of Venice’s most recognizable buildings, its two beautiful domes and bell towers essential elements of the city’s skyline. Constructed on a platform made of one million wooden piles, the church is a spectacular display of Istrian stone and marmorino (brick covered with marble dust). I climbed the broad staircase that leads up to the main entrance, with the Virgin Mary standing at the apex of the front pediment and presiding over the church. I noted the gorgeous spiral volutes and tried to identify the 125 statues of the four evangelists, prophets, and saints adorning the facade.
Inside, the inlay marble floor of the sanctuary, high altar, and choir—more than 4,500 pieces of marble spread out in geometric designs—is positively striking. Once I began to look up from this beautiful display, I took in the arches and columns that compose this holy space. Statues of saints stand atop the balustrade that circles the central nave at the base of the rotunda.
The homage to Mary and her life is prevalent throughout the church in the artwork. Of particular note are the works by Titian and Tintortetto as well as Luca Giordano’s The Presentation of Our Lady in the Temple in one of the eight radiating chapels. I was most impressed by the Baroque sculptural arrangement at the high altar, The Queen of Heaven Expelling the Plague (1670), that presents the impetus for the church itself: A kneeling lady Venice pleads with the Virgin Mary to save her from the plague, so Mary, holding the Christ Child, sends an angel to vanquish it.
If you happen to be here on November 21, make sure you join the pilgrimage for the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, when a specially constructed pontoon bridge crosses the Grand Canal and allows a procession to the church—part of the deal that the Venetians made with Mary in the 1600s that’s still respected today.
- Church of St. Alvise (Chiesa di Sant’Alvise, 1338)
- Church of St. Nicholas of the Beggars (Chiesa di San Nicolo dei Mendicoli, 12th–16th centuries)
- Church of St. George the Greater (Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, 1611)
- Church of St. Zachary (Chiesa di San Zaccaria, 1515)
- Church of the Madonna of the Garden (Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto, 1464)
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