I was eager to find this one, not just because it’s the church of my name saint, but also because I wasn’t sure if this church was still standing or not (it’s not included on the Patriarch of Venice list which does include other closed and deconsecrated churches). I found Sant’ Anna and it’s there, barely, stripped and crumbling with broken windows.
The church of Sant’ Anna was built in 1242 along with a Benedictine convent and dedicated to St. Anne, the mother of Mary. The church was remodeled in 1634, and then the entire religious complex was suppressed and closed by the French in 1807. The convent later became a naval hospice and then private residences, but the church has just been sitting there for a couple of centuries. Five altars from Sant’Anna were moved to the church of San Biagio close to the Arsenale. The church building is no longer even owned by the Church, it’s now city property and who knows what if anything will ever be done with it.
Even so, there are a couple of good stories about this one, both connected to the nuns. The photo below shows the courtyard with the church to the left and the convent to the right.
By 1566, there were over 50 convents in Venice, most of them filled with noble-born nuns who were placed there for economic reasons by their families. Today it’s common to see nuns walking around cities in Italy, eating gelati or whatnot, but back then, a nun entered a convent and never left the premises until she died. Scary to think about.
Two of Tintoretto’s daughters were nuns at Sant’ Anna in the early 1600’s and for their church, they embroidered a silk altar cloth that was a copy of their father’s greatest painting, his “Crucifixion” in Scuola di San Rocco. Could they have picked a more ambitious project? The girls made this cloth as a tribute to their father after his death, and there’s a legend that one of them went blind while completing it. Sadly, this altar cloth is now lost. There’s a black and white photo of it in Mary Laven’s Virgins of Venice and it’s quite impressive.
And then there’s the amazing story of Elena Tarabotti, another Sant’ Anna nun. She was born in Venice in 1605 and had the bad fortune to be both lame and the oldest of six daughters, so when she was 11 years old, her family put her into the convent in order to save their dowry money for the more marriageable daughters. After she took the veil, her name was changed to Sister Arcangela, and she remained in the Sant’ Anna convent until her death in 1652.
Elena was just one of thousands of young girls dumped into convents over the centuries, but she is one who raised hell about it. She ended up writing (and publishing anonymously) six books including “The Nun’s Hell,” “Paternal Tyranny,” and (I love this title!) “Women Are of the Human Species.”
Now praised as an early feminist, her works were more than just rants – she was very thoughtful about the whole situation. Not only is it unfair to the individual, she wrote, but it cheapens the whole religious institution. Scandals are inevitable, and forced religious life is damaging to the souls of those who have no interest in living a sequestered life. She praised monastic life for those who chose it freely, but blasted her parents and the society that placed women like her in convents against their will.
The liberal Venetian Republic (with its vast publishing industry) was probably the only place in the world where such controversial material could manage to be published, and Sister Arcangela had friends outside the convent who helped make it happen.
Whenever I walk by this church on my way to San Pietro di Castello, I think about Elena and all the other Venetian nuns, living in the most beautiful city in the world but unable to see it because they are locked up in a convent.
The Castello neighborhood around this church is prime shrine and laundry-spotting territory; I love this part of Venice.
The apse of Sant' Anna faces a canal; the lower windows of the church are broken out~