A wooden church dedicated to San Vittore was built on this location in the 8th century; it was rebuilt in 947 by Venetian nobleman Moise Venier who rededicated it to his name saint, Moses (San Moise). This is one of several churches in Venice dedicated to Jewish Old Testament heroes who technically weren’t Christians at all (Moses, Job, Jeremiah, Samuel, Zachariah).
The church we see today was built in 1628 and its crazy over-the-top façade added in 1668. Public statues were more or less forbidden in Venice so families who wanted to immortalize themselves in stone could finance a church façade instead. Many of the scenes on this façade are connected to the lives of the Fini brothers, a “nouveau riche” Venetian family who had only recently bought their nobility from a cash-poor Republic that had started selling titles.
John Ruskin called it a “frightful façade.” W.D. Howells, American ambassador to Venice in the 19th century, described it as “in every way detestable.” Guilio Lorenzetti (author of Venice and Its Lagoon) more kindly called it “a confused, picturesque Baroque structure with superabundant decoration.” Hard to believe, but at one time there was even more junk on the front of this church – some sculptures fell off or were removed when they became dangerously loose.
And as if the church wasn’t bizarre enough – in May 1752 during a violent storm, the priest and his server were killed while celebrating Mass when a bolt of lightning came in through the roof and down through the metal cord of a hanging lamp.
Inside, the church has a nice collection of 17th century art and a Tintoretto “Washing of the Feet.” But the main reason to go inside is to see the high altar, another funny and melodramatic Venetian “baroque-gone-awry” masterpiece. This one looks like a big rock pile with a sculptural scene showing Moses on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. Guaranteed to make you smile. A better photo is here.
There’s also an interesting 14th century icon of the Madonna – she’s well-lit and surrounded by fresh flowers.
In the 1870’s around the time that Venice became part of unified Italy, there were serious plans to demolish this church. It’d become dangerous with all those sculptures falling off the front, no one loved it, and even the Church had no interest in spending money on its restoration. It was saved by a Venetian nobleman named Count Alvise Zorzi, who wrote an “eloquent pamphlet” against the demolition, based on his premise that Venice has need of BOTH the ugly and the beautiful because ugly can be interesting and balancing, and as “a museum of the open air,” Venice should maintain a variety of architectural styles whether beautiful or not. The city stepped in, and San Moise was saved.
The campanile is much older than the church, dating back to the 13th or 14th century.
To Visit This Church
Easy to find along the highly traveled (and fairly straightforward) path between Piazza San Marco and the Accademia bridge.
Hours are 9:30-12:30 and 3:00-6:30 on Mon. thru Sat
Sunday: 9:30-11 and 3:00 - 6:30
Mass: Sundays 11 and 7, Weekdays: 7
A funny quote from Jan Morris (The World of Venice) about the camels on the façade:
Take, in particular, the myriad carved animals that decorate this city, and contribute powerfully to its grotesquerie….there is no zoo in Venice, but a mad-cap menagerie is carved upon its walls, for wherever you go these unhinged creatures peer at you from the masonry: dogs, crocodiles, birds, cockatrices, crabs, snakes, camels, monsters of diverse and horrifying species…there are some very queer dromedaries (the Venetian artist never could do camels, and the two on the façade of San Moise seem to have the heads of turtles).
And here it is behind the blue Christmas lights: