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San Zaccaria

San Zaccaria

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.


San Zaccaria

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

San Zaccaria

The beautiful carvings around the entrance look rather pagan to me:




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Comments (16)

Very nice post Annie! I went there again on my last trip. The crypt had been flooded due to heavy rain during the night, but they had emptied it by the the we went and we were able to visit it. We also payed two euros to have the church lit up (it was so dark in there!). Thanks for the Moia painting, I'd never seen it!
Take care,

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, this sounds like a really wonderful church with all the great art and history. I'm sorry that I missed seeing it during my visit. Learning about the nuns in the convent and about the crypt was so interesting. I feel sorry for those poor nuns too. It looks like it is located in a quiet little campo.

Thank you for the wonderful post and for sharing your beautiful photos. Have a great day today!

Hi Annie: Such an enjoyable and educational post! Quite a checked past shared by the church and abbey. Way to go, nuns!

Is constantly amazes me the availability of masterpieces throughout Italy! Mahalo, Cindy

Barb Cabot:

You capture so much of the beauty of detail in your photos. I want to print everyone of your descriptions out and carry them with me and go from church to church and read it as I stand before the churches in person. if only...

Annie, I am glad I am back in time to read your fascinating post.
Thanks for taking the time to tell us the interesting history of this church, and the wonderful art it holds. Clearly, I have not spent enough time in Venice, I need to go back.


Fascinating post, Annie. Your photos are wonderful and the research, very interesting. I'm very sorry that I haven't seen this church for myself!

I love the reliefs around the door, they DO look pagan. Curious, for a church.

Your previous entry on the San Magno churches is so interesting. I find legend is often more revealing than "fact" (whatever that is!) I think legends and myths can sometimes tell us more about what was really happening in a society than can the historical record.

I also found this fascinating. The name of the church sounds familiar but I am pretty sure I have not seen this church (or at least I don't remember seeing it). I enjoyed reading about the history of the church and am putting it on my list. Loved our photos!

J'aime passer souvent sur ce campo quand je visite Venezia et j'ai toujours remarqué qu'il n'y avait jamais grand monde!!!
Quelle émotion que le Bellini.


I have just started to read "Miss Garnet,s Angel" and was scouring the net for a picture of the statue of Tobias and the angel when I found your delightful blog. Of course it just makes me ache for Venice even more.
Thanks for the magic and the mundane. Both equally beautiful when you have the eyes to truly see.

Thanks to everyone for your comments.

Hazel, thanks so much for your kind words! One of the best parts of blogging is all the fellow lovers of Venice I've met from all over the world.

I haven't written a post about that church yet; it's on my to-do list. I'd never heard the Tobias story until I read that novel and then I began seeing images of them all over Venice. There's a statue of them over the entrance to the church and also on a tabernacle on the side. Also an image on the campo well-head!

Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! Annie

Lynda Ann Samuel:

Hi Annie,could look out on this church from our hotel window,wonderful.Wish i had read your post prior to going to Venice,would have entered then for sure.Missed a real treat, so annoying. Take care. x

Hi Lynda, thanks for your comment. How wonderful to be able to see this church from your window. Hope you had a great time in Venice!



what a wonderful blog you have!

I've been a long time fan of Venice and have visited it around 20 times over the years. (Which is how I know your blog really IS wonderful. :-))

May I presume to ask for a favour?

As you well know, there is a late Gothic relief in the arch between Campo (or is it Salizzada?) San Provolo and Campo San Zaccaria.

If you ever happen to take a close up picture of the Madonna's face, you would do me - and, I am sure, many others - a great favour.

I will probably never visit Venice again, but that Madonna has a special meaning to me.

I have found one or two images of the sculpture on the web, but they are not close ups. And I do not have that great compendium of Italian outdoor sculpture that was published maybe 15 years ago (in Italian), so I am really dependent on the kindness of strangers. ;)

Thank you anyway.
And may you have lots of fun and happiness in Venice yet.

Palisandre, thank you so much for your kind words.

I'll put that Madonna on my list! I hope to return to Venice later this year, so I'll try to get the photo for you.

I have a photo of that relief, but not a close-up of her face (and I don't think I've ever seen one anywhere else). I'll be interested to see her face more closely too.

Thanks again, Annie

Woah this blog is fantastic i really like studying your articles. Keep up the great paintings! You already know, a lot of people are hunting around for this info, you can help them greatly.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 11, 2009 12:16 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Sunday Small Bites: Salmon.

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