When I went through customs on my return from Venice, I had nothing to declare, no glass, no lace, no gondolier's striped shirt or straw hat.
But I brought back something surprising, especially for a person without much religion: a love for the churches of the Serenissima, for the public squares in which they stand so majestically, for the islands they dominate and the canals they illuminate, for their quiet dignity and their flamboyant style, for their femininity and their muscle, their silence that demands whispers and their resounding bells that necessitate shouts.
Every church in Venice is a work of art, and because the city never was dominated by Rome, it practiced its own kind of faith, led by its doges (dukes) and patricians (nobles) -- and the painters, sculptors and architects hired to honor them. The stunning results have brought joy to untold millions. Granted, there's also much to see along the winding canals and in the museums, palaces and shops. But Venice is about churches. And the best ones are those that catch you unaware, that you never planned to visit and that may not even be included in the guidebooks.
My trip was filled with those kinds of churches, and it was over before I realized there wasn't time to see any more and there never would be time to see them all. But my favorites will always be with me. And for that I can thank my friend Chris.
Chris has the good sense, and the good fortune, to divide his time between New York City and Venice, where he happened to be during the first couple of days of my October visit. It began, as all good visits should, with an antipasto. We were at Corte Sconta, Chris' favorite restaurant, dining on a dish that included baby clams, spider crabs and just about every other creature in the sea. As we sipped white wine, two American women were seated at the next table.
"We'll have to go to that church," one of them said.
"What church?" the other asked.
"That one in the big square."
Of course, she meant the Basilica of San Marco, the most famous church in Venice, a Byzantine wonder with its layers of gold, alabaster and marble. I knew she was right. Everyone should go there, along with the Doges' Palace and the Accademia museum. It was one of the few must-see items on my list. Chris agreed; he just wouldn't go with me.
After lunch we strolled through the Castello area of the city, passing a quiet little campo (square). At one end was a simple brick church. On my own, if I'd noticed it at all, I would have judged it pretty -- if plain -- and kept on going.
But I was with a fan of all things Gothic. "This is a must-see," Chris said, and I followed him into San Giovanni in Bragora. At first I was surprised by the intimacy of the little church. Then I was stunned by the sheer beauty of its art. I remember thinking that if a church I'd never even heard of could be this impressive, maybe I should have a look at a couple of others.
Over the altar was Cima da Conegliano's "Baptism of Christ," realistic in every detail. The painting "Christ Resurrected" by Alvise Vivarini was markedly different from the style of the period, with foreshortened figures of youthful soldiers and a bemused Christ. And a painting by Palma Giovane, "The Washing of the Feet," had a moody, almost angry feeling -- not at all what I would have expected. But then nothing in the church was what I'd expected.
In case I thought San Giovanni in Bragora was an anomaly, Chris reminded me that there are 105 other churches in Venice, all with something to recommend them. I took it as a challenge. But instead of searching them out, I decided to wing it. And that's how I found my "accidental" churches.
A fascinating pastiche
I almost backed into the first one while trying to snap a long shot of the Arsenal, once the great shipbuilding center of Venice. When I turned around, there was San Martino, dominating its little campo, not quite sure of its style. And for good reason: San Martino was designed by Jacopo Sansovino (middle Renaissance) in the shape of a Greek cross (Byzantine), incorporating tracings on the main window (Gothic) that were a nod to his mentor Codussi (early Renaissance), with a trompe l'oeil ceiling above walls hung with 18th century paintings. Whew. That's about every style out there, but San Martino was a poor parish, built over time, and with the passing of each era, art and architecture changed.
The guidebooks that mention San Martino give it short shrift, and while it was meant to be the final resting place of Doge Francesco Erizzo, he requested that his heart be buried in the Basilica of San Marco, so I guess even he had mixed feelings about the church where the rest of his body is entombed. But tucked away inside are four carved angels by the great sculptor Tullio Lombardo. His work is found throughout Venice, but it's worth a visit to San Martino just for those angels.
Only three of Sansovino's churches remain, the others destroyed in various battles. I discovered San Francesco della Vigna one day when I got lost. The simple white nave with its gray marble columns exudes a rich Tuscan dignity while retaining the asceticism of the Franciscans cloistered there, for whom Sansovino designed the church. One of the monks let me into the courtyard, which is rundown but elevated by a beautiful statue of St. Francis.
Inside, I found Giovanni Bellini's "Madonna and Child With Saints," with its poignantly lovely Mary and pale and wistful St. Sebastian. But the painting paled beside the Giovanni Battista Tiepolo ceiling, festooned with elaborate carved garlands, that crowns one of the side chapels. I stood in awe beneath it, along with the other visitors -- half a dozen of us -- privileged to have discovered this jewel of a church.
I seemed to be on a roll. The sun was barely up the next day when I found my way to a campo in the center of the San Marco district. Overlooking it was Santa Maria Formosa, another Renaissance church, designed by Codussi the year that Columbus discovered America. Inside is a vividly restored polyptych of "St. Barbara and Saints" by Palma Vecchio and a triptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini, "Madonna of Mercy."
Tintoretto's stamping ground
Hardly anyone visiting Venice, even for an extended stay, finds time to explore Cannaregio, the city's own suburbia. Its wide canal cuts through neighborhoods where clothes are hung on lines above narrow streets and the family motorboat is docked outside for the commute to work. I would have missed it too, except that Chris suggested I might want to see a church there.
The area is easy to reach, just a 10-minute walk from the vaporetto stop to the church of the Madonna dell'Orto. And the streets are virtually devoid of sightseers, even in Campo dei Mori, where Tintoretto spent most of his life. Who could blame him? His house is one of the most charming in Venice. The nearby Madonna dell'Orto is filled with Tintorettos, including "Adoration of the Golden Calf," in which the artist appears as one of the men carrying the idol, and "Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple," among his most renowned paintings. His "Last Judgment" is a vivid, even violent, painting.
I crowded onto the No. 12 boat one cool and sunny morning bound for the basilica at Torcello, the oldest church in the Venetian lagoon and one of its most visited. On the way, the boat stopped at the island of Burano, known for its brightly painted houses and handmade lace. I piled off with the other passengers, checked out the colorful houses and gave a perfunctory nod to the local church, where even the women sweeping the floor looked as if they would rather be somewhere else. Then I decided to go exploring during the long wait for the next boat. That's how I found another wonderful church.
A footbridge connects Burano to the island of Mazzorbo. I headed for the distant campanile, but when I arrived at the church, I found it closed. As I turned to leave, however, the parish priest appeared from the side door and kindly let me have a look.
Mazzorbo was once a major port, but there's not much left now but a couple of villas and the Roman-Gothic church of Santa Caterina, which dates from 1283, small and lovely with a wooden ceiling and a number of interesting paintings. One of them, a somewhat foreboding but interesting "Baptism of Christ" by Giuseppe Salviati, held my attention. I later discovered that Salviati was a 16th century artist influenced by Titian.
It's a long boat ride to Santa Caterina, but it's only five minutes by vaporetto from Venice's San Marco landing to the island of San Giorgio, which is dominated by the dream church of painters through the centuries: San Giorgio Maggiore. Those who can't paint can point cameras, always from across the water. It's amazing how few people actually make the short boat trip to have a look inside at the altar, with huge bronze figures of angels, and a golden globe held by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I never expected I would take the boat to San Giorgio Maggiore. In fact, the last thing I expected to do in Venice was spend most of my waking hours in churches, but having done it, I highly recommend the experience.
And thanks, Chris.