Santa Maria dei Penitenti
There are a number of churches in Venice that are “chiuso al culto” (closed for worship) because they have fallen into disrepair. This small church, built as part of a larger complex to house “fallen women,” has been closed for some time but there’s restoration work going on now!
In the Venetian Republic, there was an impressive array of social services available to help the needy – orphans, widows, the elderly and even prostitutes. Most of these services were provided not by the government, but by the many scuole and other charitable organizations funded by wealthy Venetians.
Prostitution was a big business in Venice, and there were several institutions built to house the women when they left the trade. Not all of the so-called “fallen women” were prostitutes who had repented though, some of them were women who had been involved in public scandals. There was a home (ospizio or hospice) for these women close to Ss. Giovanni e Paolo that had become too crowded, and so in the early 1700’s, patriarch Giovanni Badoer (with the help of donations from wealthy Venetian women) purchased a 14th century building close to the church of San Giobbe and Ponte di Tre Archi in Cannaregio.
The property was expanded to house the women and in 1730, work began on this church (sometimes known as Le Penitenti). The buildings on either side of the church are part of the hospice, and in this Google Earth view, you can see how large the complex is, with the buildings surrounding cloisters behind the church.
The architect was Giorgio Massari, who also built the church of the Gesuati and Palazzo Grassi. As you can see in the first photo above, the façade was started but never completed due to lack of funds. Supposedly there are still Corinthian columns in the cloisters that were intended to decorate the façade. There are a several churches without facades in Venice, and most of them were built in the 18th century when the Republic’s economy was in decline and it became difficult to find wealthy donors to complete the work. This church doesn’t have a campanile; instead, there are Roman bells on the roof which you can see in the photo below and also in the video I’ve linked further down.
Lorenzetti (Venice and Its Lagoon) says that the interior of the church is harmonious and was once decorated with some nice paintings, including a Virgin in Glory with Lorenzo Giustiniani by Jacopo Marieschi. The church had a nuns' gallery so that the female residents of the hospice could attend Mass unseen by locals from the neighborhood.
In fact, the entire complex was designed so that these “redeemed women of questionable morals” (Another Venice by Jacopo Fasolo) could live self-sufficiently and isolated, much like nuns, with gardens, chickens, and wells for collecting water in the cloisters. In order to live in Ospizio dei Penintenti, the women had to be over 12 years old, they could not be pregnant, they had to have lived in Venice for at least one year, and they must have given up their sinful life for at least 3 months. I guess there was an application and review process?
After the fall of the Republic, this ospizio remained open and fallen women from Casa del Soccorso were relocated here. Because it was a secular organization and not a convent, it wasn’t suppressed like so many religious sites were. It continued to serve its original purpose for some time and then morphed into a home for the elderly in the 20th century. It closed in 1995 in a state of “advanced degradation.”
But in June 2009, a 12 million Euro restoration began, scheduled to be completed in 2013. Here’s a link to an article and a description of the plan:
“Site is designed with a rich functional purpose, more public services on the ground floor for the neighborhood (clinics, rehabilitation, gym), day center for common tasks, Alzheimer's day care center for 18 users, with garden and courtyard. More oriented towards the private sector, however, the two upper floors, with residences for 90 frail elderly people.”
And here’s a 2009 news story video with views of the interior of the complex as the restoration began. What a fantastic space, and what a big undertaking to restore it! I don’t know if the church will re-open too but I hope that it will. Look forward to seeing the scaffolding come down!