This is a strange part of Venice. It’s in the port area, and there are cars over there and even a parking lot right next to this deconsecrated church. I’ve learned that this southwestern tip of Venice has always been unique.
At one time, the Arzere (Embankment) of Santa Marta was connected to the mainland by a peninsula made of silt washed into the lagoon by the River Brenta. This natural bridge was called the Ponte dei Lovi (Bridge of Wolves) because it was overgrown and inhabited by wolves! The Venetians destroyed the Ponte dei Lovi in 1509 during the War of Cambrai to prevent a land attack on the city.
The church of Santa Marta was founded, along with a convent and hospice, in 1315 to house Benedictines nuns from the lagoon island of San Lorenzo in Ammiana (an island that’s now completely underwater). The convent was expanded and the church rebuilt in 1468, and that’s the church we see today. It's dedicated to St. Martha, sister of Mary and Lazarus.
In the 16th century, the convent was taken over by Augustinian nuns. As far as nuns go, the Santa Marta sisters seem to have lived a quiet life compared to those in other Venetian convents, though “Virgins of Venice” does share the news that in 1594, the Santa Marta nuns got in trouble for staying up all night playing cards with the young girls (not nuns) who were boarding at the convent until they were ready to marry.
This area was famous for a festa held every summer on Santa Marta’s feast day (June 29) This Dorsoduro neighborhood, from San Nicolo dei Mendicoli to Santa Marta, was working class for the most part, and home to many fisherman. Evidently the Festa di Santa Marta was so much fun (and the fish so delicious) that the Venetian aristocrats would attend the festa too, arriving in boats decorated with twinkling lanterns.
Some think the church created the festa to commemorate the banquet for Christ at St. Martha’s home. But others claim that it began with the local fisherman roasting fresh-caught sole on the beach and when people began coming, the church got involved. Either way, it was a popular celebration that began with a service in the church and then moved outside, a fish fry on the beach with music and dancing. Canaletto was inspired to paint it, one of the few night scenes he ever did; you can see the painting here – La Vigilia di Santa Marta.
I was so excited to read on Sig. Nonloso’s Venezia Blog that the Festa di Santa Marta was revived in the summer of 2012!
The Santa Marta religious complex was suppressed in 1805. The church building was used by the army to store animal fodder and later became a railway warehouse. The campanile (visible in the Canaletto painting) was demolished in 1910. For much of the 20th century, the church just sat there empty and neglected as the port grew around it, modern housing was built, and the university took over the nearby former cotton mill.
But just recently, the church was transformed into Spazioporto (spaceport), a conference center meeting space that opened in 2007 after a one million, eight hundred Euro restoration funded in part by Venice’s Port Authority.
Click on “foto” on the Spazioporto website to see photos of the interior. It’s pretty cool looking – a shiny modern wooden amphitheater thing but you can still see the church’s old brick walls and wooden ceiling. This space has been used as a venue for the Biennale among other things.
As you can see, the exterior of the church has been stripped of most all decoration. It’s interesting to look at it and try to figure out what used to be there. It’s also an odd mix of modern and ancient brickwork.
Over the main door, there was a bas relief of Santa Marta protecting some nuns under her cloak, similar to the image of the Madonna della Misericordia which can be found in so many places in Venice.
This relief was relocated to the church of Angelo Raffaele, and I happened to photograph it without knowing what it was at the time (I love it when things like that happen!). Other sculpture from Santa Marta was taken to the church of Sant’Eufemia on Guidecca.