The church of San Lorenzo is well-known to readers of the excellent mystery series by Donna Leon. Her hero, Commissario Guido Brunetti, often looks at “the eternally-scaffolded façade of San Lorenzo” from his office window and reflects bemused on the never-ending restoration “work” with motionless cranes and no workmen in sight.
“Venice is covered with active work sites….but there are also eternal projects, work zones without workers that persist for decades, producing nothing….The church of San Lorenzo is the most notorious….” (James McGregor, Venice From the Ground Up, 2006)
I haven’t been inside this church but I keep checking by “just in case” and on my last trip, I found a cat sanctuary on the front porch!
One of the oldest religious sites in Venice, there’s been a church here since the 6th or 7th century and a Benedictine convent since 854. The San Lorenzo convent was among the wealthiest in Venice and was one of several Venetian convents that became notorious for the wild escapades of the nuns.
There were at least two churches here before the present one. The great fire of 1106 destroyed San Lorenzo along with 23 other churches; at that time, there were still many wooden buildings in Venice and after the fire, they began building mainly with stone. The church we see today is a 16th century work by architect Simone Sorella (who completed San Giorgio Maggiore after Palladio’s death and also built the leaning tower of San Giorgio dei Greci).
Marco Polo was buried in this church in 1324, but they lost his body during the 16th c. rebuilding – it’s assumed that he’s still in there somewhere, but no one knows for sure.
UPDATE 2014: Did they find him?!?
The convent was closed by the French in 1818 and is now a home for the elderly. Sources vary about the church – some say that it was deconsecrated at the same time that the convent was suppressed while others say that it closed after being bombed during World War I.
And here’s where it gets even more murky. The church has been undergoing restoration for decades now, though no one seems to know for what purpose. Will it become a museum? Will it re-open as a church? Will the restoration ever be completed?
San Lorenzo did re-open briefly in 1984 as a venue for the Biennale when architect Renzo Piano built a temporary wooden amphitheater inside the church for the debut of an opera by composer Luigi Nono. The only photos I’ve seen of the inside of the church are from this event - the church still had its altars and sculpture at that time.
San Lorenzo stands in a campo of the same name and has a plain brick façade that looks unfinished. Deborah Howard (The Architectural History of Venice) says that Sorella’s interior is “surprising and impressive.” She describes an interesting choir screen that separated the nuns from the public with a high altar that faced both ways.
San Lorenzo was famous for its collection of relics which included the torso of San Sebastiano and the undecayed mummified bodies of three Venetian-born saints. These were sent to Croatia when the convent and church were suppressed. The mummies are now in glass coffins in the church of St. Blaise in Vodnjan and evidently are a big tourist attraction.
Because the convent was so wealthy, I imagine that the church had some impressive art, but I can’t find any information except for one reference to a piece of a Carlo Crivelli polyptych that was sold at Sotheby’s in 2001. Perhaps some of the San Lorenzo art is in the Accademia? More research needed!
The convent is visible in Gentile Bellini’s “The Miracle of the Bridge of San Lorenzo” in the Accademia. This painting portrays a 1360 religious procession that was carrying a piece of the True Cross from San Giovanni Evangelista to the church of San Lorenzo. They dropped the relic into the canal but miraculously retrieved it.
My December 2006 visit
There was no scaffolding but San Lorenzo was locked up tight with what appeared to be an archeological dig in the campo (but no people digging, of course). But the best part of this visit was the cat sanctuary that my friend Yonnie and I found in front of the church. It was a cold winter day and we could see all these little faces inside the huts. We went back a few days later with a box of cat food, and 11 cats came out to eat!
More photos of the San Lorenzo cats and other cats in Venice are here.
To Visit this Church
It's in Castello and is pretty easy to find (just look for Campo San Lorenzo on your map). Don't expect to find it open (but if you do, please let me know!).
Will it ever reopen? Here’s what Brunetti says:
“The brick façade of San Lorenzo had been free of scaffolding for the last few months but the church still remained closed….he knew that the church would never be reopened, not in his lifetime….” (Dressed for Death).
Regardless, this church is still worth visiting - take some cat food!
UPDATE 2012: It has reopened!
UPDATE 2013 Photos of the inside of the church.