A Short History and Preview to Some of the Best
There are some 120 churches in historic Venice, or roughly one for every 500 people. Before Napoleon went on a church-and monastery-demolishing spree, there were even more, many of which are recorded here. The survivors are one of the joys of visiting the city, with some of Venice's greatest works of art still displayed exactly where they were meant to be seen.
One of the oldest is the city's first cathedral, Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. Others claim foundations that go back to St Magnus (or Magno), a 7th-century bishop of Oderzo who founded Santa Maria Formosa, Santa Giustina, San Salvatore, Santi Apostoli, San Pietro di Castello (another far-flung cathedral of Venice, for much of its history) San Giovanni in Brágora, San Zaccaria, and Angelo Raffaele.
Almost as old is the peerless St Mark's Basilica, the current cathedral, which was begun in the early 9th century to house the relics of the city's patron saint. Relics would remain a major Venetian obsession, although few are on display these days.
Because of the city's early links to Byzantium, it is fairly unique in the West to have churches dedicated to Old Testament figures— along with the aforementioned Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, Job, Moses and Samuel all have churches: Jeremiah, Daniel's and Isaiah's have been lost.
The vast medieval churches of the preaching orders, the Dominicans' SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the Franciscan's Frari double as art museums. Many of the smaller churches are rarely open, but 16 belonging to the Patriarchate of Venice's Chorus Association keep regular hours and charge a small admission fee.
A Preview of five little churches not to miss
San Zaccaria: Although only minutes from St Mark’s Square in Castello, San Zaccaria’s enclosed campo exists in a time zone all its own, where bundled-up locals take the air and kittens frolic under rare Venetian trees. Behind the lobed cream and peach marble façade, paintings carpet the walls, but make a beeline for the second chapel on the left and Giovanni Bellini’s sublime Pala di San Zaccaria, still in its original architectural framework, glowing like a window to another world. Equally uncanny: the flooded crypt where eight doges lie buried under mysterious vaults, mirrored in still waters.
Santa Maria dei Miracoli: Even by Venetian standards, this mini-church near SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Castello enjoys a too-bijou-to-be-true setting: its dove grey and peachy marble facade washed by a canal, amid dollhouse bridges, crumbling brick Gothic palazzi, and window-box jungles of lipstick red geraniums. Unusually, miraculously Santa Maria’s interior has been left unchanged since Pietro Lombardo and sons completed it in the 1490s. Fifty prophets gaze down from the barrel vault as the sun slants over its perfect Renaissance beauty, bathing marble walls so intricately, exquisitely veined they resemble Chinese fantasy landscapes.
San Sebastiano: This church, with a white stone façade that looks like a dozen others in Venice, broods in the afternoon silences of Dorsoduro’s western fringes, where the flutter of pigeon wings and water lapping in the canal seem loud. Only this just happened to be Veronese’s parish church, and he decorated it with a sumptuous ballroom-like feast of scintillating colour, pageantry, and trompe l’oeil wizardry. Take your time: don’t miss the Roman baddies shooting arrows at the Sebastian across the nave, or the extraordinary hoof-eye views of horses prancing on the ceiling.
San Pantalon: After visiting the nearby Frari in San Polo, most people ignore this crispbread-faced little church, still patiently waiting a façade. But don’t walk by: enter its shadowy nave, and wait. As your eyes adjust to the incense-scented gloom, look up at what is said to be the world’s largest oil painting. Giovanni Antonio Fumiani spent 24 years on this gravity-defying Busby Berkeley extravaganza starring Pantaleon, waving farewell as he’s hoovered up into heaven. It’s so gloriously bonkers you want to tag along.
La Pietà: Reflections off the lagoon play over the gleaming white facade, as vaporetti buzz in and out like pollinating bees and crowds swarm along the quay, five minutes from the Palazzo Ducale. Yet the luscious creamy oval interior deflects the cacophony, because this church was designed by Giorgio Massari to double as a concert hall, with the great Vivaldi himself offering hints on how to perfect its acoustics. In the evening, hear for them yourself; Tiepolo’s rapturous Rococo angel musicians on the ceiling seem to join in as the Virtuosi Italiani play The Four Seasons on 18th-century instruments; it’s pure Venetian bliss.