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Santa Caterina

Santa Caterina

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?!?

Santa Caterina

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.


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Comments (5)

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, I am so amazed at the depth of Venice's history. First of all, eight children in eight years, no time for rest. And I also wonder who raised the kids. And the visual of the nuns ringing the bell and causing a riot is too funny. I'm sure it wasn't for the neighbors at the time. I've thought this many times. I wish I could have seen Venice back then. Reading your interesting entries always gives me a wonderful glimpse into how Venice was back centuries ago. That last painting is amazing.

Thanks so much for writing this awesome post and for sharing some of your photos. Have a great day today.

Hi Kathy, I love the story about the nuns too! Thanks for your comments and you have a good day too.


So many interesting mysteries, Annie. I wonder how Bortolotta's family made out after their father returned to his monastery? And was that really a Christian thing for him to do?

The nuns shunning the married woman is also a wild story! Was it personal, I wonder, or just defending their right to chose their members rather than letting the Pope impose his will? (I wonder if that was still Julius?)

On the subject of convent members, have you read Sarah Dunant's Sacred Hearts? It's set in Ferrara, but an interesting look at life behind the veil in the late 16th century.

Sandra, I've read a couple of other Sarah Dunant books but not that one yet. I'll put it on my list (convent life in Italy is fascinating to me). Hope you're having a good summer!


Art history mayhem - lol!! Great post, Annie. Love the stories, although I too want to know what happened to those rebellious nuns!

Thanks to Sandra for the book tip! I've enjoyed a couple of Dunant's, but hadn't heard of this one.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 17, 2010 3:41 PM.

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