On many of the "must-see in Venice" lists, San Zaccaria is a church with lots of layers and art that spans the centuries and styles – it’s a fascinating place but even someone not into churches should pop into this one and spend 10 minutes or so with the Bellini altarpiece, one of the great masterpieces in the city.
One of the San Magno churches, San Zaccaria was founded in the 7th century and then rebuilt after an 1105 fire. The church we see today was built in 1456-1515 and parts of the older churches were incorporated. The façade is a blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles, and the church has an enormous collection of art from Gothic to Baroque. The campanile (12th century) is one of the oldest in the city. San Zaccaria was John the Baptist’s father; some Byzantine emperor gave his body to Venice as a gift, and it's inside the church too.
For centuries, this church complex included a Benedictine convent which was among the richest and most powerful in town; the convent became even wealthier when they sold their orchards to the Venetian government during a Piazza San Marco expansion project. The abbess of San Zaccaria was usually a sister or relative of the Venetian Doge, and one of the early abbesses created the famous Doge hat. Every year on Easter, there was a grand procession where the Doge and all the other bigwigs would visit this church, not always a happy occasion as three doges were assassinated in the San Zaccaria campo.
Stories abound about the scandalous behavior of the San Zaccaria nuns, most of whom were girls from noble families who’d been placed in the convent against their wills. There were some wild times in the convent parlour where the nuns threw parties and hosted a sort of salon. During the 16th century, the powers-that-be organized an effort to get all unseemly convent behavior under control and in 1514, the authorities came to break up a party at San Zaccaria and the nuns chased them off by throwing stones at them! When I read that, I thought, way to go girls! Unfortunately the Council of Ten reacted to the rebellion by walling up the doors and windows of the convent.
Art in the Church
The walls of this church are packed with paintings, too many to look at in one visit. The highlight is the Bellini (more about that later; it deserves its own post!) but there’s also a mysterious Tintoretto altarpiece (it’s a nativity scene, but no one is sure whether it shows the birth of John the Baptist or the Virgin). There's also an elaborate marble high altar designed by sculptor Alessandro Vittoria, who is buried in this church.
Painting of the interior of San Zaccaria by Federico Moia, 1851.
Admission to the main church (where the Bellini is) is free but it costs a Euro to visit the three chapels of the old church and the crypt. I highly recommend spending the money since some of the most interesting art is back there. The chapel of San Tarasio is the Gothic choir of the 12th century church with early Renaissance frescoes by Florentine artist Andrea del Castagno; these frescoes are an interesting contrast to several large and intricate golden Gothic altarpieces in the same chapel. There's a hole in the floor with one of those little "viewing windows" where you can see remains of mosaic floors from the first church.
You can also go down into the crypt which contains the tombs of several early Doges as well as the ghosts of 100 nuns who perished when they fled to the crypt to escape that 1105 fire. Crypts are rare in Venice for obvious reasons (and there aren't really ghosts down there, but I do think about those poor nuns when I visit it). It’s often filled with water, but you can usually go halfway down the stairs and have a look. Kind of cool and spooky. Here’s a photo of it (flooded) from Wikipedia commons.
To Visit This Church
Open from 10-12 and 4-6 Monday-Saturday, and 4-6 on Sunday.
Mass: 6:30 weekdays; 10, 12 and 6:30 Sunday
The beautiful carvings around the entrance look rather pagan to me: