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San Nicolò al Lido

The bones of Santa Claus

San Nicolò al Lido

Founded in the early days of Venice at the most important of the three porti, or sea entrances to the lagoon, the church of San Nicolò, or St Nicholas of Myra, patron of the sailors and protector of the Venetian fleet would be the last church sailors would see before leaving Venice.

Beginning in the year 1000, it would also play a major role in the annual ceremony marking La Sensa, where the doge, in his role as bridegroom of the sea, would meet the patriarch for the sposalizio, before tossing his gold ring into the waves (today the mayor of Venice re-enacts the famous ceremony on the the 16th-century bridge on the Riviera San Nicolò). In later years it was also the site of Venice's Protestant Cemetery, but it was demolished in the 20th century for an airfield.

The Bones of St Nicholas

Throughout history, the Venetians claimed the church also held the relics of St Nicholas—a claim many non-Venetians doubted, as the Venetian sailors in the First Crusade were famously beat to his tomb in Myra by sailors from Bari. Or were they? The reliquary of SS. Nicholas of Myra, his uncle Nicholas, and Theodore (the much neglected ex-patron saint of Venice, before Mark) stands proud on the high altar, crowned by statues of the saints, but drew few of the pilgrims who flocked to Bari, where the saint's relics miraculously ooze a clear liquid called manna.

In 1953, St Nicholas' relics in Bari were removed during renovation work on the crypt, and became the holy bones first ever to be scientifically examined, photographed and x-rayed by an anatomy professor, Luigi Martino. In 1992, hoping to settle the 891-year old debate once and for all, he was asked to give the relics on the Lido the same treatment.

These turned out to be much smaller bone fragments, broken into small pieces (which match the story that during their heist, the Bari sailors only had time to grab the bigger bones, leaving the saint's rib cage, which the Venetians accidentally stomped on when breaking into the tomb). There was also a stone with an inscription in Greek identifying the relics as Nicholas', and a jar of manna, which the saint's body had already begun to exude in Myra.

After a careful examination, Professor Martino realized they were bits from the same skeleton in Bari. The sailors there had grabbed all the big pieces; the Venetians had picked up the rest. So both city's claims were correct, but even now, as more and more pilgrims (including a growing number of Orthodox Russians) pour into Bari, few make the effort to visit San Nicolò al Lido.

With its unfinished facade and portal monument to Doge Domenico Contarini (founder of the 11th-century church) by Tommaso Contin, the current church of 1626 hardly seems compelling, but if you do go, there are some Baroque paintings: on the inside of the facade, Venice Paying Homage to St Nicholas by Girolamo Pellegrini, and an Ascension of Christ by Pietro della Vecchia, and exquisite walnut choir stalls behind the altar, depicting 27 scenes from the Life of St Nicholas, carved in 1636 by Giovanni da Crema and Camillo di San Luca (and pretty much ignored since they were dissed by Ruskin).

Remains of the 11th-century church of San Nicolò are in the cloister of the adjacent monastery, which is now used as a research centre. You may have seen it already: it was used as a set for a monastery in Brazil in the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker.

Practical Info Practical Info icon

Riviera S. Nicolò

Hours Open for Mass only, Sat 6pm, Sun 11am

vaporetto: Lido San Nicolò

+39 041 5260241

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Tony Hisgett, Creative Commons License