San Francesco del Deserto
Located between the islands of Sant’ Erasmo and Burano, San Francesco del Deserto, is an idyllic refuge in the Venice Lagoon.
Around 4 hectares in size, it is surrounded by cypress trees and pines and dominated by a 13th century Franciscan monastery of the Order of Minor Friars.
This oasis of peace and tranquility, is named after San Francesco d’Assisi, who spent time on the island in the year 1220 and is now home to a handful of friars; who reside in the monastery and offer tours of the monastery and its grounds, as well as limited accommodation.
Above. San Francesco del Deserto and its Monastery complex, with Burano just to the north. Note the deep water navigation channels.
The name “del Deserto”, goes back to the early part of the 15th century, when the island was abandoned for more than twenty years, because of the outbreak of malaria; most probably due to the exceptional silting up of the lagoon at that time.
The island is not connected to the vaporetto (water bus) system and so the only way to get there is by a private boat, best timed to coincide with the monastery’s limited opening hours for tourist visits. An alternative is to join a more expensive excursion tour of Burano which includes the island (see Information below).
From the jetty, a large wooden cross can be seen (left) and a short walk along a cobble-stone path bordered by cypresses on one side(lower left); leads to the monastery (a sign indicates that you should ring the bell).
Looking at the walls, you can see the writing on marble describing the “miracle of the birds silence” and the act of donation of the island to the Franciscan friars, by Jacopo Michiel, the original owner.
Walking in the garden full of trees and flowers, where the friars raise a few animals and cultivate the ground, you will come across two wonderful terraces; that allow you to admire the Venice lagoon and offer a stunning view towards the island of Burano.
On the island there is also the tomb of “Bernardino da Portogruaro”, general of the Franciscan Order who took charge of he restoration of the monastery and the Church of San Francesco del Deserto, after its partial destruction by Napoleonic troops that took place in the early 1800’s.
The charm and tranquility of the island has certainly inspired artists and poets over the centuries.
San Francesco del Deserto – HISTORY
The island is very ancient. Traces of a Roman presence was confirmed by archaeological excavations carried out in various eras, especially between 1961-1965; with finds from the 1st, 4th and 5th centuries AD.
Originally known as called Isola delle Due Vigne (two vineyards), it was owned by the Venetian nobleman Jacopo Michiel.
It is said that in 1220, San Francesco d’Assisi stayed there in retreat for a short time, after returning from the East and the Fifth Crusade; where he risked his life engaging with Malek-el-Kamel, Sultan of Egypt, trying to negotiate an end to the war.
Returning with a Venetian ship, he probably arrived in Torcello first, an important historical centre and seat of the Bishop. At that time on the island , there was already a small Byzantine church; where St. Francis stopped to reflect and pray with Friar Illuminato da Rieti, his traveling companion.
According to his biographer Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio in the “Legenda Maiorat”; on stepping onto the island, he and his companion were greeted by “the joyful song of a multitude of birds.”
His companion knelt in a prayer of thanksgiving, but could not concentrate because of the loud singing of the birds. St Francis remonstrated with them and they became silent until the prayers were over. There is a striking monument in the grounds to illustrate this event (left).
It is also claimed that he planted his pine walking stick in the soil, which sprouted and grew into a tree. Remains of a branch were kept in the church.
The saint chose the island to establish a shelter, where it was possible to pray and meditate in peace; far from worldly distractions.
In March 1233 (just 5 years after the canonisation of friar Francesco d’Assisi), the island was donated by Jacopo Michiel to the Friars Minor. He belonged to the doge’s branch of the family and was on his wife’s side, a nephew to Angelo Barozzi, the patriarch of Grado. Since this moment, the “Isola delle Due Vigne” was renamed “Isola di San Francesco”. The Church is dated from 1401 and was built over the ancient Byzantine church.
During the 15th century, the island was abandoned for a brief period, probably due to the silting-up of the lagoon islands and the subsequent spread of malaria. It was on this occasion, that the island was renamed “San Francesco del Deserto.”
Since then, the island has always been administered by the Order of the Franciscans, with the exception that in 1806; when the island was occupied by Napoleonic soldiers in 1806. They plundered the monastery and the church of ornaments and suppressed the community, who were forced to move to the monastery of San Bonaventura, in Venice. Napoleon’s troops transformed the island buildings into accommodation, a warehouse and powder store.
In 1858, through the work of the Padre Bernardino da Portogruaro, the island was given to the Diocese of Venice; which allowed the monks to re-found the monastery, that is still active today.
THE MONASTRY COMPLEX
Once you arrive at the entrance of the monastery, after ringing the bell, you are greeted by a monk who will accompany you during the visit on the island.
The Church of San Francesco del Deserto is from 1401 and was built over the ancient Byzantine church (Plan view below left)
In the monastery there are two cloisters. The first cloister goes back to the 13th century and was partially destroyed by Napoleon’s troops and rebuilt by the Franciscans in the second half of 19th century.
The second cloister (above right) is private, for the monks’ own use and very beautiful. The central well is 15th century, supplemented by rainwater, being collected in a cistern underneath.
The church has a campanile but no bell: thanks to Napoleon again. He used the melted down bronze for canon, but when the Church of Santa Lucia was demolished by Mussolini to make way for Venice’s station; they sent their bell to San Francesco del Deserto. It stands in the cloister.
Napoleon did further damage by using the church as an arsenal, making an additional floor above the nave for storing gunpowder. The soldiers slept in the choir.
There are fragments of the earlier church floor to be seen through glass in places, but it has been much altered over the centuries.
The side chapels are of particular interest (left) The first contains the tomb of Fra Bernadino, once the head of the order, who led the monks back to the island after Napoleon withdrew. He is in the process of beatification, with one miracle established; the curing of cancer in a child, through her mother’s prayers.
Another chapel holds a semi-fossilised tree trunk claimed to have grown from a branch (? walking stick) planted by St Francis when he arrived on the island. (Padua University has apparently certified that it is the correct age).
The Oratory of St Francis comprises a narrow cell with a grille and a life-size figure of St Francis in prayer; depicting the moment when he reached the island.
The story of the “miracle of silencing the birdsong“, is told on a stone tablet outside the church. Next to this tablet and indeed throughout the monastery, is the symbol of the Franciscan Order; two crossed arms. One arm belongs to Christ, while the other in a sleeve belongs to St Francis. Both have stigmata.
INFORMATION (Please check all information, because of current Covid-19 restrictions)
Address: Island of San Francesco del Deserto, Burano, Venezia
Opening times: 9am-11am, 3pm-5pm. Monday closed
Closed on the morning of 17 September (feast of the Stigmata of St. Francis)
Closed on the morning of 4 October (feast of St. Francis)
The visit is led by a Franciscan. Admission by voluntary donation
WHO WAS SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI?
Francis of Assisi was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, (Italian: Francesco d’Assisi; Latin: Franciscus Assisiensis), sometime between 1181 and 1182.
the story goes that his father, Pietro Bernardone returned from a trip to France, to find out his wife had given birth to a son and was said to be furious because she already had his new son baptised “Giovanni”, after John the Baptist. As a cloth merchant, he wanted a man of business; not a man of God. Infatuated with France, he renamed his son Francesco – the equivalent of calling him a Frenchman!
Francis enjoyed a very rich easy life growing up because of his father’s wealth and the permissiveness of the times. However, it was many years before his final realisation, that God would provide everything he needed in life; stripping himself of possessions and garbed in simple clothing.
He founded the men’s Order of Friars Minor, the women’s Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in Christianity.
Pope Gregory IX canonised Francis on 16 July 1228. Along with Saint Catherine of Siena, he was designated patron saint of Italy. He later became associated with patronage of animals and the natural environment (? the first ecologist). It became customary for churches to hold ceremonies blessing animals on or near his feast day of 4 October. In 1219, he went to Egypt in an attempt to convert the Sultan, to put an end to the conflict of the Crusades.
By this point, the Franciscan Order had grown to such an extent, that its primitive organisational structure was no longer sufficient. He returned to Italy to organise the Order. Once his community was authorized by the Pope, he withdrew increasingly from external affairs.
Above: The oldest surviving depiction of Saint Francis is a fresco near the entrance of the Benedictine abbey of Subiaco (Province of Rome), painted between 1228 and 1229 . He is depicted without the stigmata, but the image is a religious image and not a portrait.
Francis is known for his love of the Eucharist. In 1223, Francis arranged for the first Christmas live nativity scene. According to Christian tradition, in 1224 he received the stigmata, during the apparition of a Seraphic angel in a religious ecstasy; which would make him the first person in Christian tradition to bear the wounds of Christ’s Passion.
Years of poverty and wandering had made Francis ill and eventually he began to go blind. He died on the 4th October 1226, at the age of 45, apparently while listening to a reading he had requested of Psalm 142.
If you would like to read a fuller account of his life and a video, try this post at: Catholic Online