An enchanting church that is off-the-beaten path but so worth finding, this is one of my very favorites.
It took several tries across several trips to finally get inside this church. Before my second trip to Venice, my friends Susan and George loaned me their journals from a study-abroad trip they had taken with Elderhostel. George wrote that this was his favorite church of all the many they had visited, so I was eager to see it. On my first try, it was challenging to find but when I finally did, the church was closed because the adjacent canals had been drained and were undergoing repair.
Then finally in December 2006, I found it open. But the best part (which I didn’t know until I saw the sign on the door), I happened to visit on San Nicolo’s feast day (December 6). The church was all spruced up, music was playing, and it was a magical visit. So in December 2007, I made sure that I returned on the feast day. This time, I was the only one in the church except for the lady at the postcard table. I sat down on the back row of the church and then the postcard lady began singing; she had such a beautiful voice and the whole experience just blissed me out. It’s an awesome church.
There's been a church on this site since the 7th century. “Mendicoli” might be a reference to the original settlers from Padua who fled here to escape barbarians, or it might refer to poor people or beggars. This ancient working-class neighborhood in western Dorsoduro lacks the palazzi and obvious wealth of other parts of Venice - this is a church for the common people as opposed to the nobility.
The church is dedicated to San Nicolo, a third-century Greek bishop known for his generosity and anonymous gifts to the poor. An unusual saint who lived to old age and died a natural rather than a martyr’s death, San Nicolo was the most popular European saint in medieval and Renaissance times. He’s the patron saint of shipbuilders, sailors, fishermen, and merchants which explains his importance to the working-class Venetians who lived in this neighborhood.
He’s also the patron saint of children because of several miracles which involved saving kids’ lives. And yes, he’s the same St. Nicholas who morphed into Saint Nick, Father Christmas, and ultimately into Santa Claus, patron saint of toys and sleigh bells. And speaking of morphing, some modern scholars believe that San Nicolo was a Christianized version of the lord of the sea, Poseidon, which explains even more why the Venetians loved him so.
From Poseidon to Santa Claus….well, what a long strange trip.
Legend has it that this church was built over top of an ancient temple to Venus. There’s not any real evidence of this but it’s a nice story that was born when a very poor priest began restoring this church and was imprisoned for refusing to reveal where he got the money. Stories spread that he had found a cache of Roman coins under the bell tower, riches leftover from the Venus temple. There’s even a painting on the ceiling of the church that references this – it shows San Nicolo shaking demons out of a myrtle tree (a symbol of Venus).
This lovely Veneto-Byzantine church has survived fires, earthquakes, extended closings, and floods including the famous flood of 1966, after which the Brits stepped in. J.G. Links said, “Here is a miracle of enlightened restoration, largely carried out by the British Venice in Peril fund who have transformed the ancient parish church into one of the brightest jewels of Venice.”
It stands in a small campo with a few trees and a small column holding the winged lion of San Marco. The campo is surrounded by canals which is picturesque but has been a problem over the centuries. There are stories about the priests conducting Mass from inside a boat, and the floor of the church has been raised many times.
The exterior is a simple brick one with a stocky 12th century campanile that has a clock on the side. It’s one of only two churches in Venice that still has a covered porch, a feature that was more common many centuries ago when this provided shelter for the poor and homeless, and a place for women to pray. At some point, the main entrance was moved from the porch to the side facing the campo and decorated with white marble.
It’s believed that the 12th century rebuilding made few changes to the original 7th century plan. The interior is very warm and beautiful with lots of gilded wood, an open iconostasis, and paintings spanning many centuries. No famous masterpieces but it doesn’t need them. There are some beautiful ceiling paintings and a nice organ painted by Veronese’s son, and a medieval wooden statue of San Nicolo on the high altar. There’s something magical about this place. It feels the way a church should feel – holy, peaceful, and ancient. I love it.
Here’s a scan of a postcard I bought from the singing lady:
To visit this church:
Hours are 10-12 and 4-6. Be sure to take some coins for the light box (instead of lighting up individual paintings, the San Nicolo box lights up the whole interior).
Mass times: 11 am on Sundays, 6 pm on weekdays