Don’t let the nondescript exterior fool you, this is one of the strangest churches in Venice. Strange in a good way though – it was well worth the many tries it took to finally get inside this one.
San Marziale dates back to the 9th century, though it’s been rebuilt a couple of times since then. It was high on my wish list since it’s one of a dozen or so churches in Venice with a legend about a miracle-working Madonna, this one a wooden statue carved from a tree trunk. The story is that she came to Venice on an unmanned boat, guided there by her own power with the help of angels, and she began working miracles after her arrival, healing a blind child among others.
I also really wanted to see the high altar. My hero J.G. Links (Venice for Pleasure) seldom recommends that his readers go inside any buildings, churches or otherwise, but about this one he wrote, “San Marziale…if open, demands a moment to glance at the strange scene under the altar, Venetian baroque at its most charming and idiotic.”
Hugh Honour (Companion Guide to Venice) was more specific: “The high altar which looks like a celestial rock garden with St. Jerome and two friends (Faith and Charity) picnicking under a table is one of the more endearing if most preposterous baroque fantasies in Venice.”
The church has some decent art too including a Tintoretto and four acclaimed ceiling paintings by Sebastiano Ricci, and I’d been trying to find it open for several years with no luck. I love these churches but I also love the thrill of the hunt. I don’t get disappointed when they’re closed (and they often are), but I DO get excited when I find an elusive one open and finally one night in December, this one was.
I went in and the place was largely dark and smelled like flowers. No one else was there. None of the church’s great art was lit, and there were no light boxes. Only two altars had lights on and sure enough, they were the high altar with the crazy tableau and the altar with the miracle-working Madonna.
Both things are so bizarre I don’t know where to begin. I’ll start with the high altar and to be kind, I’ll just say that the artist made up with passion what he lacked in skill. Sources vary about who the artist even was: Tomasso Ruer and Giuseppe Pozzo are both given the credit/blame for it. It’s dramatic and weird with Christ standing on top of the world and yes, St. Jerome is crammed in underneath the table. I’m not a big fan of baroque art overall, with a few exceptions, but I do like baroque-gone-awry like this. It just made me smile. (My photo doesn’t do it justice.)
And then there’s the miracle-working statue of the Madonna – I've never seen anything quite like her. Very large and made of painted and gilded wood, she’s strangely charming but looks a little worse for wear, like termites might have gotten to her. The Jesus on her lap is a boy not a baby, and both of them have these strange smiles on their faces, and Jesus has his hand raised in blessing. Forgive me, but Jesus looks a bit like a ventriloquist doll. Here’s a better photo than mine below.
The wooden Madonna sits in a fancy marble altarpiece, and there were tons of flowers in front of her. So many lilies! That’s what I smelled when I came in. The prayer cards on the altar rail had a photo of the statue along with its story; thanks to my friend Cristiano for translating it for me:
“The wooden statue of the Virgin with the Blessing Baby was made, according to tradition, in the 13th century by a young shepherd named Rustico, in a wood near Rimini.
Some angels finished the design of the face and moved it to Venice on a boat that stopped for a while in Sacca della Misericordia, where different miracles happened. In 1286, the Doge brought it to the church of San Marziale….”
Some say that the statue is a copy of the original work but Lorenzetti says that at least parts of the statue may be original. But really, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the real thing or not, what matters are ALL those flowers in front of her over 700 years later. And the fact that her lights were turned on and Tintoretto’s were turned off. :)
The art that I didn’t see in this church
I’ve seen the Tintoretto in books and it’s a nice one showing San Marziale’s assumption into heaven. The subject matter of two of the Ricci ceiling paintings is the miracle-working Madonna; one shows the angels carving her from a tree trunk and the other shows her on the boat arriving in Venice. As you can see below, Ricci made her look a bit more elegant than she does in real life.
The church used to have a Tobias and the Angel by Titian but it’s been moved to Madonna dell’Orto, the parish church of this area. Second chapel on the left.
To Visit This Church
Opening hours are 4-6 daily but it doesn’t always happen. The Patriarch of Venice brochure lists Mass times as 9:30 on Sunday and 6:30 daily (the daily Mass is suspended in July and August).