Well, here’s the short answer: there are 149 churches in Venice and its lagoon.
But it’s not quite that simple, so here’s the long answer!
My lifetime Venice church list only includes churches that I’ve actually been inside – there are probably 40 or so others that I’ve visited but they were closed. Part of my Venice trip planning is trying to figure out which churches I haven’t visited yet, so about a year ago I started working on a comprehensive list of all the churches.
I bought a little book called “Churches of Venice” last year, and the introduction says, “Venice has hundreds if not thousands of churches…” Thousands? Wow, that really helps narrow it down! I don’t think there are that many, unless the author is counting churches in the territories of the Venetian Republic about 600 years ago. My list is based on Venice today and includes the historic center (six sestieri) and surrounding islands in the lagoon.
My other criteria is “still standing” whether consecrated or not. Most books say that there are around 80 active, still-consecrated churches, but I decided to include others that are now museums or whatnot.
My main source when I started was John Freely’s book, Strolling Though Venice, which is the most comprehensive guidebook to churches that I’ve found. It’s a series of walking tours that identifies virtually every building in Venice; it’s currently out-of-print but a new edition is coming out in March 2008. Freely says that there are 115 churches (in the historic center, not including the islands), but he missed a few on Giudecca and elsewhere.
My next source was the Patriarch of Venice website which also lists the churches sorted by sestiere.
One complication concerns the oratories. From the Latin word “orare” which means “to pray,” oratories are kinda/sorta churches, but not really. I guess they are more like prayer chapels even though Mass is celebrated in some of them at times. Some oratories are adjacent to “real” churches but others stand on their own. And it seems that some churches began as oratories and then graduated to full-fledged church status while others were demoted along the way… the classifications aren’t always clear.
So I decided to count the oratories but separately. Whatever they are, I like them a lot; some of the ones in Venice are like dollhouse churches, very small and sweet with interesting histories. Like the Oratorio del Soccorso in Dorsoduro which was built by famous Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco in 1580.
And then there’s some confusion caused by Napoleon and the fact that so many churches, convents, and monasteries were closed and/or demolished in the 19th century when the Republic fell to the French. For example, there’s a church in Castello called Sant’Antonin that’s still standing (and possibly still active, though I haven’t found it open yet), but there was another church with the same name, also in Castello, that was demolished to build the public gardens. The research can be kinda challenging. Estimates of the number of demolished churches range from 27 to 60-plus. I’ve only started trying to sort that out.
So here’s my count:
126 churches and 14 oratories in the historic center
23 churches and 11 oratories on the lagoon islands
Grand total of 174 buildings that I want to visit.
That’s today’s count. I’ll probably pick up a book tomorrow and find mention of another one!
Update Dec. 2007: Found two churches and two oratories and added them to the count above.