There are a bunch of churches in Venice that are hard to find, but once you can get there, you CAN see them. Not so with the little church of Santa Sofia – this one is easy to miss because it’s almost completely hidden by other buildings – all you can see is the roof and the campanile peeking over the stores and homes in front of it.
It’s on Strada Nuova in Cannaregio, the very wide (for Venice) street that runs parallel to the Grand Canal. This “new street” was created in 1871-72, shortly after Venice joined the Italian Republic, and a number of buildings were demolished to build it. But Santa Sofia wasn’t a victim of this demolition work – even in de Barbari’s map of 1500, the church was hemmed in by surrounding buildings (at that time, the church was larger, and the bell tower was taller and more elaborate).
About the name and dedication – this church might be dedicated to St. Sophia who was martyred in 137 AD in Rome along with her three daughters, Faith, Hope and Charity. Or because of Venice’s Byzantine roots, it might be dedicated to the “Holy Wisdom” like the former basilica Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom). Perhaps it’s dedicated to both.
There’s a lot of conflicting info about the church’s history. It might have been founded in 866 or maybe in 1020-25. Funds probably came from the noble Gussoni family. It was rebuilt or remodeled a number of times (1225, 1568, 1698) and might have been damaged by fire in 1760. In 1461, a priest from Santa Sofia was sentenced to life imprisonment for bad behavior with the wife of a wool merchant. The bell tower is possibly 10th century or maybe 13th – it’s one of Venice’s oldest towers, either way.
Most sources seem to agree that the church we see today closely resembles the late 17th century restoration by Antonio Gaspari (an architect who also restored Santa Maria della Fava and worked with Longhena on Santa Maria della Salute).
Santa Sofia was closed by the French in 1810, stripped of its artwork and decoration, and the building sold to the Jewish community who used it as a warehouse. But then in 1836 it was purchased by a Venetian citizen, reconsecrated and reopened as a church, and decorated with artwork from other suppressed or demolished churches.
Shortly after Santa Sofia reopened, a history of the church written by Gian-jacopo Fontana was published. According to Fontana, the church at one time housed paintings by the Big Three (Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto) but who knows where those paintings are now. Today there are some sculptures of saints from the nearby demolished church of Santa Maria dei Servi, a couple of paintings from the Bassano workshop, and on the high altar, a Baptism of Christ by Daniel Heintz (a junior member of the Heintz family of architects and artists). It’s sparsely decorated but pretty inside. My favorite thing in the church is this icon of the Black Madonna (I wish I knew its history).
There's a nice wooden shrine on the apse of the church~
And above the side entrance, a barely visible Madonna and Child~
Walk across Strada Nuova to reach Campo Santa Sofia, where you can ride a gondola across the Grand Canal to the Rialto Market. This is one of the oldest traghetto stands (gondola ferry) in Venice, dating back to the 12th century.
To Visit This Church
For centuries Santa Sofia was a parish church – today, it’s a “daughter” church of San Felice, which is now the parish church for this neighborhood. You enter Santa Sofia through the black double doors beside a mask shop (there's a sign next to the doors).
Open 9-12 daily (closed Thursday)
Mass: 11:30 Sunday