It’s a bit of a surprise to walk in and see how pretty this church is, since the outside is a rather nondescript mustard-brown box. Founded in the 8th century or so, this church has been rebuilt and remodeled as many as six times, and the building we see today dates to 1611. The campanile is much older, 13th century with parts dating back to the 9th century; some think it was originally a defensive tower rather than a bell tower.
This church is on the border between San Polo and Santa Croce, and is not to be confused with the church of San Canciano on the other side of the Grand Canal in Cannaregio. Different church and different saint. This one is dedicated to 4th century martyr, St. Cassian of Imola. He's the patron saint of school teachers despite the fact that he died at the hands of his pagan students who stabbed him to death with their ink pens (there’s a Baroque painting of this gruesome/funny scene in the church). San Cassiano’s body is here along with other relics that include the head of St. Cecilia and the jawbone of St. Lawrence Martyr.
John Ruskin said that the only thing worth seeing of the building itself is a Byzantine door fragment leftover from an earlier incarnation, but proclaimed that San Cassiano is a “don’t miss” because of its paintings by Tintoretto. Many of the churches of Venice have at least one painting by Tintoretto, but this church has three, all on the high altar (The Crucifixion, The Descent into Limbo, and The Resurrection). Ruskin declared this Crucifixion as “among the finest in Europe.” Writer Henry James was gaga over this painting too.
This church is also known for its lost altarpiece by Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, who is believed to have introduced oil painting to northern Italy; he spent a couple of years in Venice studying with (or teaching) Giovanni Bellini. The Pala di San Cassiano disappeared mysteriously from the church in the early 17th century. It was divided into smaller paintings which were dispersed, but three of the pieces have been reunited and are now in the art museum in Vienna. You can see a diagram here that shows how much of the altarpiece was recovered (most of it is still missing). It gives me chills to think about cutting up a painting like this! I wonder if the church needed money to rebuild for the umpteenth time and sold it?
I’ve visited this church many times because I walked by it often when I stayed in an apartment in nearby campo San Giacomo dall’ Orio. I’ve come to think of it as “a Venetian lady" church…there are always ladies hanging out inside, arranging flowers, chatting with each other, and greeting visitors. The San Cassiano ladies hold bazaars in the campo around the holidays and sell cookies, crafts and such.
One time when I was walking around inside San Cassiano, a very sweet lady came up and began talking to me in Venetian dialect. I tried to explain….I’m American, speak English….but she didn’t care. She hooked her arm in mine and gave me a tour of her church, talking animatedly and pointing to the art. Even though I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, it was very kind of her (and funny). I wish I did know what she was saying because there were several times when she pointed something out and then laughed loudly and long!
9-Noon, 5:30-7:30 Tues.-Sat.
Mass: weekdays, 7 pm, Sundays at 10
A relief on the side of San Cassiano, with the inscription, "Immaculate heart of Mary, bless this parish dedicated to you." In the second photo, she's surrounded with flowers for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
The San Cassiano bell tower~
Henry James on the San Cassiano Crucifixion (from Italian Hours). I don't agree with him at all, but it's a beautiful rave.
“I had been curious to see whether in the galleries and temples of Venice I should be disposed to transpose my old estimates--to burn what I had adored and adore what I had burned…I repaired immediately to the little church of San Cassiano, which contains the smaller of Tintoretto’s two great Crucifixions; and when I had looked at it a while, I drew a long breath and felt I could now face any other picture in Venice with proper self- possession. It seemed to me I had advanced to the uttermost limit of painting; that beyond this another art--inspired poetry-- begins, and that Bellini, Veronese, Giorgione, and Titian, all joining hands and straining every muscle of their genius, reach forward not so far but that they leave a visible space in which Tintoretto alone is master. “
Two of the Tintorettos below (these reproductions don't do them justice)~