Sometimes I like legends better than facts especially when it comes to Venice and its churches. I tend to snooze a bit when I read long architectural descriptions but perk right up when a story comes along especially a magical one.
And as I’ve been reading about these churches, over and over again I’ve seen references to San Magno (St. Magnus) along the lines of “this church was founded by San Magno in the 7th century.” The writers seem to assume that Magno needs no introduction but I had no clue who he was and decided to poke around further.
Well, what a guy! There’s not a lot of info about him since he lived in the 600’s but he does seem to be someone who really existed, unlike some of the other “saints with an asterisk” like George and Christopher who are probably myths.
And San Magno was a Venetian, sorta. Venice as we know it didn’t yet exist as an organized city/state (the first doge wasn’t elected until the early 700’s). In Magno’s time, there were people scattered across the lagoon islands – fishermen and salt farmers – the original Venetians who some mainland bureaucrat described in a letter as “sea-birds” living in wooden huts on stilts. No mosaics, marble, or government yet. But Magno was born in the Veneto somewhere and became a priest and later a bishop, which meant that he was the religious head of a very large area that included mainland territories as well as the lagoon colonies.
But most importantly, San Magno was a visionary. He founded eight churches in Venice and the best part is the way he founded them. These are his churches:
1) Santa Maria Formosa. This is the most famous San Magno story, told often to explain the unusual name of this church. Formosa means “shapely and beautiful” along the lines of Sophia Loren or Marilyn Monroe. The story goes that the Virgin Mary appeared to San Magno looking very “formosa” and told him to build a church for her in the spot where he saw a white cloud descend and rest on the ground. He saw the cloud in Castello and built this church there.
2) SS. Apostoli. The twelve apostles appeared to San Magno and told him to build a church in a spot where he saw twelve storks. He saw the birds and founded this church in Cannaregio.
3) San Pietro di Castello. St. Peter appeared to Magno and told him to build a church in a spot where he saw oxen and sheep grazing together. And he did.
There’s another version of this story with a slight modification – there might have been a pre-existing church here dedicated to some other saints, but Magno rebuilt it and re-dedicated it to Peter. We can assume that the oxen and sheep were nearby either way.
4) Santa Guistina. This virgin martyr saint from Padua appeared to Magno and told him to look for a vine bearing fresh fruit and build a church for her there, and he did. This church is close to San Francesco della Vigna (vineyard) so perhaps this part of Castello really was a vineyard back in the day.
5) San Giovanni in Bragora. This one is a double-whammy. John the Baptist appeared to Magno and told him to build two churches close to each other, one for John and one for his father. This one’s for John.
6) San Zaccaria. The church built for John the Baptist’s father that’s not far from the church above. Both are in Castello.
7) San Salvador. Jesus himself (salvador = savior) appeared to San Magno and told him to build a church at the place where he saw a red cloud descend; Magno saw the cloud and founded this church in San Marco.
8) Angelo Raffaele. Two versions of this story. In one, the Archangel Raphael appeared to Magno and told him to build a church on a spot where he saw a large flock of birds, and he saw those birds in Dorsoduro.
The other version is even better. This church might have been founded by a woman named Adriana in the 5th century, before San Magno’s time. When Attila the Hun was wreaking havoc on the mainland, Adriana’s husband moved his family into the lagoon for safekeeping and went back to fight the Huns. Adriana made a vow that she would build a church if her husband returned safely, and he did so she built this church.
But then in the 9th century when Adriana’s church burned down, San Magno himself (long dead) appeared in a vision to some wealthy Venetians and told them to rebuild this church, and they did.
So there you have it….San Magno’s eight churches. Not the first eight churches in the lagoon (San Giacometto and the cathedral on Torcello were probably already there, and a church or two may have existed in the area that eventually became Piazza San Marco) but still, these are eight of the oldest churches in Venice.
All eight still exist, and all are active churches except for Santa Guistina which is deconsecrated and now a high school. All of them have been rebuilt numerous times since then but still, they're all still there.
What a wonderful world, where saints or angels appear and tell you clearly what to do, and you are shown the way by clouds and birds and grazing animals! I get a great image of San Magno tooling around the lagoon in a wooden boat, looking for his signs.
San Magno is buried in the Cannaregio church of San Geremia, where his relics are greatly overshadowed by the body of a more famous saint, Santa Lucia. It’s interesting that he wasn’t buried in one of the churches he founded but evidently, that was his parish.
It kind of surprises me that there was never a church built FOR him since so many other saints are honored in Venice’s hundreds of churches. But in 1454, the Venetian Senate named San Magno a Patron Saint of the Republic, honoring him alongside the existing patrons Marco and Teodoro.
Once I learned who he was, I started seeing him all over the city. San Magno makes an appearance in a gorgeous Cima da Conegliano altarpiece in the Accademia: The Incredulity of St. Thomas with St. Magno (photo left). He also appears in a painting in the church of San Geremia: The Virgin at the Coronation of Venice with San Magno by Palma il Giovane (photo below - he's the one putting the crown on Venice's head) and in various other reliefs and paintings around the city.
And a postscript:
I found this quote from John Ruskin when I was researching San Magno. It’s a typical funny Ruskin rant, but also kind of prophetic. Ruskin the environmentalist! Keep in mind that Ruskin wrote this in 1884 (and I have to wonder why he didn't blast the Americans along with the rest of the Western world). He was talking about the clouds that appeared in San Magno's visions.
“Note the curious observance of the color of the clouds. That is gone indeed, and no Venetian or Italian or Frenchman or Englishman, is likely to know or care, more, whether any God-given cloud is white or red; the primal effort of his entire human existence being now to vomit out the biggest black one he can pollute the heavens with.”