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My Favorite Lesser-Known Churches in Venice
Annie Atwell (AnnieNC)
Most people who go to Venice know the "must-see" churches and hopefully find time to visit the Basilica San Marco, the Frari, Santa Maria della Salute, San Giorgio Maggiore, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli. I love all of these, but there are several wonderful and obscure churches that are also well worth a visit while you are in Venice.
I love to wander the streets of Venice all day and go in every open church I find. I'm keeping a "life-time" Venice church list - I'm up to 47 so far (there are over 100). Finding churches open is often just a matter of luck (either no opening hours are posted, they're closed for renovation, or they aren't open when they are "supposed" to be). It's like a treasure hunt - I'm always excited when I find a new one open! Here are some of my favorites.
San Giovanni in Bragora
This church is in Castello, not that far away from Piazza San Marco, but you will feel miles away when you get to this quiet campo. This was Vivaldi's childhood church (he was baptized here). The main attraction at this church is the painting over the altar; Cima da Conegliano's Baptism of Christ. It's an incredible painting with amazing colors and a beautiful blue sky filled with angels. I love the Christ in this painting - he looks like an American hippie circa 1972 (think Jesus Christ Superstar!). There's another Cima painting in the Accademia with the exact same Jesus in it. This church is open from 9-11 and 3:30-7:00, Monday - Saturday.
Santa Maria Mater Domini
This church is in a wonderful neighborhood between San Polo and Santa Croce with ancient Gothic palazzi in the campo surrounding the church. The church itself is very small and homey; there are only about six paintings inside, but each of them is exquisite - wonderful colors! There are many paintings in Venetian churches that are dark and hard to see (too much varnish and age, and in need of restoration or cleaning), but these paintings are vivid and beautiful. One of them is a Tintoretto. It's hard to find this church open (and there are no opening hours posted), but I have found it open several times around 10 AM Monday-Friday.
San Zan Degola
Another small ancient neighborhood church. This one is in Santa Croce north of Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio. There are some remnants of 10th century frescoes on the walls - it is rare for frescoes to have survived this long in Venice because of the damp, so seeing these is very cool. I also found this one open about 10 in the morning on a weekday.
San Giacomo dell'Orio
I love the way this rambling church looks from the outside; strange ancient rounded sections all merged together. It's in my favorite Campo in Venice. I love to sit outside at the Al Prosecco wine bar and look at this church. It's beautiful and interesting inside as well. It has a gorgeous carved wooden ceiling. Look for the huge green marble column that was part of the loot that the Venetians brought back from Constantinople. There are also fossils embedded in the floors; it's fun to walk around and look for them. Nice paintings and sculpture in this one; Lorenzo Lotto's Virgin and Child with Saints is over the main altar. This church is included on the Chorus Pass tour, which I highly recommend for church and/or art lovers (see below).
This church is not really obscure and is very easy to find (right next to Campo San Bartholomew on the main path between San Marco and Rialto). It is a large ornate church packed with paintings and sculpture. On my most recent trip, I went in this church every day to see Titian's Annunciation, my favorite Titian in Venice. It's a beautiful and amazing painting, on the edge of being Impressionistic, though it was painted several centuries before Impressionism even existed. Take some 20-euro-cent coins because you have to feed the light box to see this painting; admission to the church itself is free and it always seems to be open.
San Francesco della Vigna
It's a hike to this church but well worth the walk. It's in the far reaches of Castello and has a beautiful Palladio facade. There are some wonderful paintings including a Bellini in a side chapel and a gorgeous Negroponte Madonna surrounded by flowers. You need coins to light up the Bellini. The first time I visited, I didn't have any change and was hanging out in the dark hoping someone else would come and feed the light box. One of the Franciscan Friars walked in, looked at me, said "Bellini" and lit the painting up for me! Just one of the many "kindness of strangers" experiences that make me love Venice so much. There are also some beautiful cloisters and courtyards on the interior of the building complex. Free admission; open from 3-7 in the afternoons.
This is not a church but a former convent. One of my favorite spots in Venice - it is so close to the crowds in Piazza San Marco (right behind the Basilica and Palazzo Ducale) yet every time I go, there's no one else there. It's a beautiful ancient 12th century cloister, very romantic and serene. On the side is the entrance to the Museum of Sacred Art which has a nice collection of paintings and religious objects removed from other churches, including the Basilica. The museum is open from 10:30-12:30 Monday - Saturday, and admission is free.
The Chorus Pass
The Chorus Pass costs 8 euro and provides admission to 15 churches including the Frari, Maria dei Miracoli, and Madonna dell'Orto. It's a good bargain because individual admission to these churches is about 2 or 3 euro a piece. Another advantage is that all the Chorus Pass churches have posted and consistent opening hours so you will always be able find them open, unlike many others. Plus it's a fun way to see the whole city as you walk from church to church.
Churches that I hope to find open someday (more reasons to keep going to Venice!): San Marziale, Angelo Raffaele, San Niccolo dei Mendicoli, San Marcuola, San Trovaso, Santa Maria della Pieta, San Lorenzo.
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