San Zan Degola is located in a small campo of the same name, and this is one of those magical places in Venice where you feel like you’ve traveled back in time. There are no other tourists, no glass or mask shops, no indication whatsoever that you are in modern times. And the church itself is charming and wonderful with rediscovered frescoes that might be the oldest works of art in the city.
The church dates back to the 8th, 9th, or 10th century (sources vary). It’s possible that it was originally an oratory that became a parish church in 1007. Regardless, it’s definitely one of the oldest churches in Venice, and it’s one that hasn’t changed much despite various restorations over the centuries. In 1994, the church was restored and reopened after having been closed for over two decades, and it’s now the church for Venice’s Russian Orthodox community.
The church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist aka St. John the Beheaded (San Giovanni Decollato) which morphs into San Zan Degola in Venetian dialect. There’s a curly-haired stone relief of the martyred saint’s head on the outside of the church.
This very small and very sweet church is Veneto-Byzantine in style with a plain brick façade and a nice campanile in the back. The interior is simple with Greek marble columns with 11th c. Byzantine capitals and a gothic wooden ship’s keel ceiling.
The highlights of this church are the ancient frescoes that were unearthed during restoration. It’s unusual for frescoes to survive the damp and salt air of Venice, so seeing these is very cool. There’s an image of Saint Helena, an Annunciation, and a particularly nice image of Archangel Michael standing on a dragon.
To visit this church:
San Zan Degola is located in between campo San Giacomo dall’Orio and Fondaco dei Turchi (the Natural History museum). It’s open from 10-12 on Monday through Saturday (these were the hours in 2008; see updated opening times in the comments below).
It’s interesting that the Patriarch of Venice brochure lists this church as having Russian Orthodox services at 9:30 AM on Sundays and Catholic Mass at 7 pm. I like the idea of different groups sharing a church (and it’s not like Venice doesn’t have plenty to go around).