A deconsecrated church in Cannaregio with a couple of great stories and some beautiful art that’s still in Venice though no longer in the church itself...
Santa Caterina was founded in the 11th century as a monastery and then became a convent for Augustinian nuns when a noble nun named Bortolotta Giustianian took over in 1289. The Santa Caterina religious complex included a convent with cloisters and this 15th century Gothic church that has a wooden ship’s keel ceiling and a large barco (singing gallery) for the nuns.
The first story concerns Bortolotta’s parents. Her father, nobleman Nicolo Giustinian, was a monk out on the Lido and after the plague wiped out his whole family, he received papal permission to leave the monastery and marry so the family line would continue. He married a woman with religious leanings herself and they had eight children in eight years, and then he returned to the monastery and his wife entered a convent.
Every time I run across this story, I wonder, who raised all those kids? It’s a mystery. But one of the daughters, Bortolotta, ended up as a nun in Santa Caterina.
The second story took place in 1517. The Pope wanted to put a still-married woman into the Santa Caterina convent, and the existing nuns protested by locking this woman out and locking themselves in the bell tower, where they proceeded to ring the bells non-stop, which riled up the neighbors and caused a little riot in the streets outside the church. Again, the story stops….what happened to those rebellious bell-ringing nuns?!?
By 1616, there were 100 nuns living at Santa Caterina and only one of them was not nobly born. Wealthy noble nuns meant lots of money to decorate their church, and Santa Caterina’s art collection included masterpieces by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. The complex was suppressed by the French in the 19th century, the art was removed, the campanile was demolished, and today, the convent is a secondary school and the church is used as a warehouse. I’ve seen a photo of the cloisters and they are lovely.
Onto the art which includes this beautiful painting by Titian of Tobias and the Angel.This painting has a pretty good story too.
There are two paintings of this same subject by Titian in Venice…the Santa Caterina one, now in the Accademia, and a smaller darker one that was in the church of San Marziale but is now in Madonna dell’Orto.
In “Titian to 1518, ” author Paul Joannides reveals that over the centuries, starting in the Renaissance with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, art critics have gotten the two paintings mixed up and heaped praise meant for the Santa Caterina painting on the wrong one (the San Marziale one). Art history mayhem, it’s kinda funny. Well, both paintings are still in Venice and anyone can go look at them and decide which one is the masterpiece. Sounds like there have been some “experts” copying from other experts without actually looking at the paintings they were writing about.
The church had several Tintorettos (a cycle of paintings depicting the life of Santa Caterina), and these are now in the Patriarch's Palace, which is occasionally open to the public.
The other great masterpiece was over the high altar of the church: Veronese’s Mystical Marriage of Santa Caterina. It’s a beauty, and it too is now in the Accademia.