Famous Churches in Venice, a journey through centuries of art
Sleep: the moon still hasn’t moved the width of a constellation since you were a girl. Since you have become a woman, the stars that stand above the halls of Palladios have not yet disappeared behind the domes of San Marco. But only since then has the world become the world. ― Alexander Lernet-Holenia
There are more than 250 churches in Venice, both consecrated and desecrated. Obviously, the sacred ones are first of all places of worship, but all together they make up a cultural, artistic and human heritage of inestimable value.
Venice churches are places where you’re likely to get lost amid a magnificence of colors, stucco, statues, mosaics, where you will be fascinated by the imposing and elegant tombs and burial monuments: Doges and Nobles have strived over the centuries to be buried with all the honors in the churches of Venice. But what is really interesting is that the greatest artists and architects who lived between the 14th and the 17th centuries, in turn, stirred like the damned in Dante’s inferno to work on the creation and set up of these places of worship.
Therefore, even the smallest church in Venice, designed by famous artists such as Palladio, Longhena, Scarpagnino and Lombardo, are decorated with frescoes and works by artists of the likes of Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, Bellini, Sansovino, Lotto and Jacopo Palma il Giovane, just to name a few. These are the people, their schools and students, that tourists should thank when visiting the beautiful churches of Venice.
There are religious buildings of great artistic value in each of Venice’s Sestieri. We have mentioned some of these in the pages about the city’s Sestieri. In this section, instead, we’d like to describe in more detail the 10 most famous churches in Venice, the not-to-be-missed ones. Adding some interesting facts and anecdotes that make these monuments of beauty and art a little less divine.
St. Mark’s Basilica, a Jewel made of Treasures and Mosaics
Heart of Venice, where the city’s political and religious life has flourished over the last millennium, the Basilica of San Marco is a jewel of the Byzantine period, even little remains of that style after the elements added in the Gothic period and during the 16th century. The first body of the Basilica dates back to the 9th century. Legend has it that in the year 828, two Venetian fishermen, Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello, they stole from Alexandria, Egypt, the body of St. Mark the Evangelist. Once they arrived in Venice with the relics, he was immediately proclaimed Patron Saint of the city at the expense of St. Theodore, the protector of Venice so far.
Completely rebuilt in the 12th century, St. Mark’s starts taking on its current appearance thanks to the wonderful and precious mosaics that are gradually added both inside and outside the building. The mosaic decoration of the Basilica is unique in the world: from the atrium to the presbytery runs the whole story of Christianity, from the Old Testament to the life of Christ, with important references to the life of St. Mark.
It may be impossible to describe in a few words all the magnificent works of art preserved in the church, as well as it is impossible to describe the beauty of the objects found inside of it, commonly referred to as the St. Mark’s Treasury. This is an incredible collection of hundreds of works of high artistic and inestimable economic value, collected over the centuries by Venetian nobles, merchants, and warriors around the world. Among the finest pieces, worth a mention the Byzantine chalices and goblets, crystal lamps, incense burners in the shape of a lovely little building of Islamic origin, small vases in gold and enamel, filigree objects, St. Mark’s icons and the throne- reliquary made of alabaster.
Curiosities about St. Mark’s Basilica: St. Mark’s Treasury has undergone theft, looting and burning over time. The greatest damage was caused by Napoleon who besides stealing objects from the church, he also forced the Venetians to melt, for an entire month, the gold works that were kept here. One of the most egregious attempts of theft, actually failed, is said to be that of a Cretan who in the 15th century spent several months digging a tunnel under the Basilica in an attempt to reach the treasury. He was caught before he saw the light.
Basilica of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Impressive Funerary Monuments
If you ask directions to reach Basilica of Saints John and Paul, you could be answered: “Do you mean the Basilica of San Zanipòlo?”, this odd name derives from the contraction of the names of the two saints. Anyway, this Basilica is the most striking example of Venetian Gothic style. Built by the Dominican Friars between 1246 and 1430, the Basilica quickly became one of the most important religious building during the Serenissima era: for centuries, Doges and Nobles did their best and managed to be buried within its walls.
For this reason, inside the Basilica visitors can admire funeral monuments of impressive beauty and size (with life-size statues) made at different times, so you can also get the idea of the evolution of artistic sense over time. Some of the most remarkable tombs include those of the Doges Pietro Mocenigo, Andrea Vendramin, Tullio Lombardo and Marco Corner, while among the paintings are the works by Giovanni Bellini, Paolo Veronese and Lorenzo Lotto.
Curiosities about Basilica of San Giovanni e Paolo: there are several anecdotes about the Basilica. Among these, there’s the one about Doge Jacopo Tiepolo’s decision (here has his own funeral monument) to allow Dominicans to reclaim the area and erect the church: legend has it that the Doge had a dream in which doves with crosses on their necks were flying around a new church in Venice. Finally, a grim story is about the tomb of commander Marcantonio Bragadin, who died defending Cyprus from the Turks: flayed alive, his skin was filled with straw and carried in triumph. When recovered, it was buried in the Basilica.
Church of San Zaccaria, a Fusion of Architectural Genres
The Church of San Zaccaria, in the Castello district, is particularly original because it bears a perfect Renaissance style on the outside, while its interior is entirely in the Gothic style. The church (century XV) contains some large canvases dating back to the period between the 16th and 18th centuries, including an altarpiece by Bellini, the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints. Other significant works can be found in the chapel of San Tarasio, such as the frescoes by Andrea del Castagno (one of the few Tuscan artists active in Venice in the 15th century,) or those by Francesco da Faenza, Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna.
The Church of San Zaccaria was originally part of a monastery of Benedictine nuns particularly respected by the Doges of the city. Every year, a solemn procession was led to the church in order to exhibit the Zoia, a ducal ceremonial cap, adorned with precious stones. Very original and interesting is also the “deambulatorio,” that is, the corridor surrounding the altar: it is typical of the churches of northern Europe and is one of the rare examples in Venetian churches.
Curiosities about the Church of San Zaccaria: in 1456, worried about the state of decay of the church, the nuns asked Pope Callixtus III to finance its renovation. Thanks to the lavish support, not only they were able to restore the existing structure, but also extend it to a new building in parallel with the old one. By overlaying the aisles of the two churches, a single large complex was created.
Basilica del Santissimo Redentore, the Symbol of Rebirth
On the occasion of the Feast of the Redeemer in Venice, on the third Sunday in July, the church kept by the Franciscan monks on the Giudecca Island becomes a symbol of rebirth. A rebirth after the plague of 1576, when the disease slaughtered illustrious people including painter Titian. In 1577, the Senate commissioned the erection of the church to Andrea Palladio: the great architect gave birth to one of his most remarkable works with regards to religious architecture.
The Basilica was appointed to the Capuchins, who asked and obtained from the Venetian Senate that nobody could be buried in the Basilica, so as not to betray the spirit of poverty and simplicity. The Giudecca Island was chosen as the place where the Basilica would have been built because the friars that lived there enjoyed the highest esteem, but alto for the location itself: the church overlooks St. Mark’s Basin and is clearly visible as it stands very close to the shore.
From an architectural point of view, the façade of the church boasts a typical Palladian style, while the interior, with its majestic simplicity, is the best expression of a very classic temple, dedicated to prayer. Among the major works kept in the Basilica, which is entirely of white marble, stand out the paintings by Pietro Vecchia, Jacopo Tintoretto and Jacopo Palma Giovane, but especially the beautiful altarpiece with the Baptism of Christ by Paolo Veronese.
Curiosities about the Basilica del Santissimo Redentore: Palladio’s designs of the Basilica del Santissimo Redentore were used to build the Duomo of SS. Peter and Paul in Villafranca di Verona, which is therefore almost identical to the original. Moreover, the solemn staircase leading to the Venetian Basilica was designed by Palladio precisely in function of the huge influx of faithful expected in the days of the functions and religious festivals.
Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, Architecture of Ancient Rome
The Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, on the island of the same name, is part of a monumental complex partially built by Andrea Palladio, the same architect who designed the Basilica del Santissimo Redentore. The complex also includes the Benedictine monastery (982 AD) now seat of the Giorgio Cini Foundation. The Foundation, established with the aim of revitalizing the island of San Giorgio after years of neglect, is now important promoter of research activities and organizes events, conferences and cultural conventions.
The church is an imposing building that reflects the architecture of ancient Rome, in perfect Palladian style. The interior is painted with wonderful frescoes by Tintoretto, Jacopo Palma Giovane and Sebastiano Ricci, and other artists: particularly interesting are Tintoretto’s works in the Presbytery, the Last Supper and the Gathering of Manna as well as Carpaccio’s painting St. George Slaying the Dragon.
A special year for the Basilica was 1799, when within its walls Pope Pius VII was elected: the stove where the cardinals burned the ballots from their votes are still kept in the Chapel. The monastery adjacent to the church is taken care of by the Benedictine monks, who in addition to offer hospitality to those wishing to stay a few days on the island, also organize classes of Gregorian chant that accompany liturgical actions on Sundays.
Curiosities about the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore: the bell tower of the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, rebuilt in 1790 after the collapse of the original one in 1774, has always been in competition with St. Mark’s Bell tower for the most striking view over Venice and its Lagoon. Although the bell tower of San Marco is higher than 20 meters, some prefer to enjoy the view from the church on the island of San Giorgio for several reasons: there’s a smaller number of ‘climbers’ over there, a widest view over Venice, and also the ticket price is lower. 5 Euros against 8.
Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, a subject beloved by painters of all time
There where Dorsoduro ends with a final island facing north to St. Mark’s Basin and south to the island of Giudecca, in Punta della Dogana, stands one of the most famous churches in Venice, the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, since 1630.
The church, depicted by generations of artists over time, was built by architect Baldassarre Longhena commissioned by the Venetian Senate as a tribute to the Holy Mary after the end of the plague of 1630, which caused more than 80 thousand deaths in the city. On November 21, Venice celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Health (that is, Santa Maria della Salute,) which together with the Feast of the Redeemer (third Sunday in July) is one of the most important religious traditions for the citizens of Venice.
The Church, which is considered an excellent example of Venetian Baroque architecture, has an octagonal plan and looks like a huge mass of marble with dozens of statues sticking out, but also a high dome, which is a very modern element considering the time when the Basilica was built. Inside, there are valuable works by Tintoretto and Titian, and the main altar is adorned with statues Giusto Le Court, Flemish sculptor moved to Venice. Very interesting are the beautiful paintings by Luca Giordano, a great Neapolitan painter, on the altars placed on the right side of the church. Finally, it is impossible not to enjoy the lovely organ sonatas on Saturday afternoons, played on a pipe organ made by Francesco Dacci Junior in 1782.
Curiosities about the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute: in addition to favor the building up of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute, the plague of 1630 also brought another special change. In memory of that terrible period, since then Venice’s Gondolas are painted black.
Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, between Art and Music
The majestic Basilica of Santa Maria dei Frari is located in San Polo’s Campo dei Frari, and is a splendid example of Venetian Gothic architecture: the Basilica plays a key role in the cultural life of the city thanks to the busy schedule of concerts of classical and symphonic music organized on site. The Church, after San Marco, is one of the most important religious complexes in the city, and is one of the main Italian centers for the Franciscan friars.
Built in the early decades of 1200, it was later rebuilt a couple of times to be enlarged as the number of the faithful was growing fast: the current building is the final version of the 16th century. Due to the richness and beauty of the works of art kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, this is considered one of the most prestigious religious buildings of Venice.
The Basilica boasts a great historical importance, especially due to the influence of Franciscan Friars on the social life of the city; for this reason, the greatest artists have contributed to cover the church with wonderful works of art. Indeed, here you can admire a Triptych of the Madonna and Saints by Bellini, the Assumption of the Virgin and the Pesaro Madonna by Titian, a wooden statue of St. John the Baptist by Donatello, a painting depicting the same Baptist by Sansovino, and images of the Virgin and Saints by Bartolomeo Bon. Titian’s altar-piece Assumption of the Virgin was initially disliked by the monks for being too ‘modern’, but as soon as the Austrian ambassador in Venice proposed to buy the work at an astronomical price, the good friars immediately changed their mind and laid the masterpiece in plain sight.
Curiosities about the Basilica of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari: the basilica hosts as many as three pipe organs. The Piaggia organ dates back to 1732, Callido organ to 1795 and the third one, Mascioni organ, was made in 1928. The first two, which are placed opposite each other along the central nave (the third is behind the altar), still today play a ‘double chorus’ during solemn ceremonies.
The Church of San Sebastiano, Veronese’s mausoleum
There are several reasons why tourists should visit this small church in Campo San Sebastiano, Dorsoduro district. The first, and foremost, is the wealth of frescoes by Veronese that are found everywhere in the church, masterpieces by a great master that gave the best of himself and his art within these walls.
Of particular beauty and originality are the paintings on the ceiling depicting the stories of Esther as they are told in the Book of Esther – 2nd century BC: the young Jewish, wife of the Persian king Ahasuerus, she saved the Jewish people from the treachery of the dreadful Aman. The depiction of Esther’s story is not common in Christian iconography.
The Church of San Sebastiano dates back to 1455, but was not consecrated until a century later, when it was completed by architect Scarpagnino. Nowadays, it is considered one of the most important places of art in the city for being a unique temple of Veronese’s art. Other interesting works in San Sebastiano include a depiction of St. Nicholas by Titian as well as works by Tintoretto, Jacopo Sansovino, and Jacopo Palma Giovane.
Curiosities about the Church of San Sebastiano: the first Church of San Sebastiano dates back to 1393, while the actual building dates back to 1506. Contrary to what is often the case in modern times, all the expenditure documents which included the accounts related to the enlargement of the church, were collected in a file called “Process n. 7.” The file contains records of the donations by the faithful, the daily diary for orders, supplied materials, payments of tools, workers and transports, quotations and subcontracts with artisans, bank loans, agreements between builder and architect, receipts delivered to Paolo Veronese for his paintings.
Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the Casket of Venice
In Venice it is known as the casket because it bears a simple outline and is completely covered, both inside and outside, with colored marble pieces that are residues from the construction of St. Mark’s Basilica.
The Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which is located in the small Campo dei Miracoli in Cannaregio, is a splendid example of Venetian Renaissance architecture, built by architect Pietro Lombardo and his scholars. The building was commissioned to Lombardo by the nobleman Angelo Amadi to preserve an icon of the Virgin and Child that was considered miraculous: the image is now placed on the altar.
The church is second only to St. Mark’s in terms of wealth, and is particularly popular for weddings because inside there is a staircase leading to the presbytery, which, at certain times of the day, is flooded with light from the dome. An extremely charming spot where to seal the pact of love. Of great impact is also the wood paneled ceiling with carved and gilded frames. A noteworthy fact is that the left outer side of the church is fully immersed in the canal.
Curiosities about the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli: this church is particularly loved by the faithful attached to the Marian cult. For centuries, in fact, prayers and requests are made by the pilgrims to ask the help of Mary, mother of Jesus. As you can imagine, the month of May is intensely experienced by parishioners, as they daily flock to the church with flowers and acts of faith.
The Church of Madonna dell’Orto and its very Special Origin
The story about the origin of the Church of Madonna dell’Orto, located in the homonymous Campo, that is, Campo dell’Orto in the Cannaregio district, is quite weird. In fact, the church, built in the 14th century, was linked to a monastery of the Humiliati religious order, who preached a return to the origins of Christian poverty.
But there was a problem. The church rised in an area of merchants and traders, very devoted and dedicated to donations, so in a short time, the church and the friars accumulated wealth and power. Moreover, at first the church was dedicated to St. Christopher, but one fine day the monks decided to bring in the building a statue of Our Lady particularly loved by Venetians, and placed it in a garden nearby. Since then, the Church took the name of “Our Lady of the Garden,” and the only thing left of the poor St. Christopher is a statue at the entrance.
The importance of the church is given especially by the many works of art that are kept and preserved inside. Among others, worth a mention the works by Tintoretto (who lived nearby and here is buried,) by Cima da Conegliano, Giovanni Bellini, and Jacopo Palma Giovane. Of particular beauty and originality is the central rose window with two side windows adorned with white and red stones that create a particular color scheme.
Curiosities about the Church of Our Lady of the Garden: it is located in the extreme north of Cannaregio, on a portion of land that was once occupied by orchards and gardens. Campo dell’Orto, on which it stands, as well as the small adjacent Campo dei Mori and Campo di Sant’Alvise, are rare examples of the typical Venetian flooring, remained intact over the centuries. They are made with strips of white stones and bricks set in a herringbone pattern.