San Zaccaria, located in the district of Castello and near to St Mark’s Square; is dedicated to the father of St John the Baptist. It was part of the Benedictine order’s monastic complex and had close ties to the Venetian nobility and patronage of the Doges.
It houses one of the most famous work by Giovanni Bellini, the San Zaccaria Altarpiece. The walls of the aisles and of the chapels host paintings by other renowned artists including Andrea del Castagno, Palma Vecchio, Tintoretto, Giuseppe Porta, Palma il Giovane, Antonio Vassilacchi, Anthony van Dyck, Andrea Celesti, Antonio Zanchi, Antonio Balestra, Angelo Trevisani and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. The artist Alessandro Vittoria is buried in the church, his tomb marked by a self-portrait bust.
“The doge’s visit to San Zaccaria on Easter Monday” by Gabriel Bella (1730-1799). This Italian baroque painting shows the current San Zaccaria, with the previous Gothic church and campanile to the right and also the Benedictine monastery.
The original church on this site, was thought to have been founded by San Magno (Saint Magnus) in the 7th century.
In 827, Doge Agnello Partecipazio built a church here dedicated to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist; whose relics were sent as a gift to Venice by the Byzantine Emperor Leo V, while the church was being built. These are under the second altar on the right.
The convent of Benedictine nuns adjacent, is said to have been built at the same time and was for a while, the only convent in Venice; many of its abbesses were said to be the daughters of doges.
Historically, the church and convent were closely connected with the doge, as he visited the church every Easter Monday. On 13th September 864, Doge Pietro Tradinico, after attending vespers; was set upon by conspirators at the entrance gateway to Campo San Zaccaria and left to die. The ensuing riot meant that fearful nuns had to wait until nightfall to retrieve his body for burial. It was on this visit that Doge Tradinico had been given the typical “corno ducale” or cap; which all doges since have worn. Apparently, three doges have been assassinated in the streets around San Zaccaria. Eight doges were buried here in the crypt; from the mid-9th to the late-12th centuries.
The original church burnt down in the terrible fire of 1105, where at least a hundred nuns were said to have been suffocate, taking refuge in the basement.
Later the nuns sacrificed their land with orchard, to facilitate the creation of Piazza San Marco by Doge Sebastiano Ziani. This reconstruction work, also saw the demolition of the original church of San Geminiano, which was in the middle of the planned piazza.
The church was later rebuilt in the 14th century in Gothic style.
Left: Late Gothic to Renaissance facade
Above: Aerial view
THE PRESENT CHURCH
The church we see today, was built between 1458 and 1515 and unsurprisingly because of the close relationship, the state paid for the building. Unusually, the campo in front was declared private property, with gates closing its two entrances. As commanded on the old plaque at the entrance to the campo: “you may not gamble, argue, curse or fight here and you had better not throw any litter under the trees either”.
The convent was famous for the wealth and licentiousness of its pampered and high-born nuns, which also might explain the gated campo.
The current church and convent were built by Gambello from 1444-65. However, Gambello died in 1481 and the work was completed by Mauro Codussi from 1483-1504. The church was consecrated in 1543.
The facade of the earlier Gothic church is visible to the right of the current church’s facade; along with the attached Benedictine convent.
The truly special monumental facade of the main church recently cleaned, is in light polychrome marble and white Istrian stone. It shows the harmonious transition from late Gothic to Renaissance style; as Gambello’s lower two levels are surmounted by Codussi’s plainer upper three colonnades, topped by a characteristic semi-circular gable and supporting side quadrants with blind occuli. Crowning the gable is San Zaccaria.
The convent to the right, was closed down by Napoleon and is now a Carabinieri barracks.
The 16th century cloister to the left of the church (possibly by Codussi and now walled up) was built over the original convent cemetery.
The first tower was demolished in the 11th Century and rebuilt in the 12th century with recycled material. It’s pyramid-shaped spire is visible in De Barbari’s map. The spire and belfry collapsed in 1510 and the tower was rebuilt in its current spire-less form.
The tower is 24m (78ft) in height and has manual bells.
This is Gambello’s work, highlighted by the ambulatory that curves around behind the altar; a feature that is common in France but rare in Italy and unique in Venice. It may have been inspired by the one at the Benedictine mother-church at Cluny. Access is prevented by red ropes.
The nave is short, with very wide aisles. The piers have impressive capitals, carved by Giovanni Buora, and striking bases. The grills through which the nuns from the convent next door participated in services, have long been covered by large artworks.
The organ of the church was built by Gaetano Callido in 1790.
Paintings cover the walls, but the five-star attraction is Giovanni Bellini’s almost magical “Madonna and Four Saints”, also known as the Pala di San Zaccaria (1505); is in the second chapel on the left.
Painted when the artist was around 74, it is one of his finest works; a bridge between Piero della Francesca, Giorgione and Titian. Large, riveting and luminous, the perspectives of the painted columns and arch are continued into the design of the frame to create a unique sense of depth.
The saints on either side of the Madonna’s throne, and the angel musicians below, are posed symmetrically, in a spiritual, self-absorbed dance; Bellini was one of the few artists capable of giving even the most common subject and composition new meaning. It outshines the 17th and 18th century artists, whose canvases decorate the nave.
Napoleon took the altarpiece (then painted on a wooden panel) to Paris, but after 20 years, in 1817, it was returned to the church and transferred to canvas. This was a laborious and delicate operation, necessary when the wood was warping or rotting; that involved planning off the wood from behind, until only the paint and a thin layer of wood remained. It was restored again in 1971. At some point it lost a strip off its bottom that gave it even greater depth.
Other works include, in the right nave, Niccolo Bambini’s “Adoration of the Magi” (1712); one of his better works. At the end of the left aisle is the tomb and a self-portrait bust of Alessandro Vittoria (1528–1608), who also sculpted the headless figure of San Zaccaria over the main door and the two saints of the holy water stoups.
Left:Giovanni Bellini’s almost magical “Madonna and Four Saints”, also known as the Pala di San Zaccaria (1505)
Through a door on the right are three chapels and the crypt.
The first is the Chapel of Saint Athanasius, which was most of the nave and right-hand aisle of the old church, rebuilt for the nuns in the mid-15th century and then converted into the chapel we see around 1595; when the inlaid choir stalls (signed and dated by Francesco and Marco Cozzi 1455-1464) were installed. It contains an early Tintoretto altarpiece of the late 1550’s, depicting The Birth of John the Baptist or possibly The Birth of the Virgin.
It is now over the altar, designed by Vittoria and installed at the same time as the altarpiece and the stalls. To the right of the altar is The Flight into Egypt by Domenico Tintoretto and there’s a lunette of the Resurrection of Christ with Adam and Eve by him also. The Crucifixion over the entrance door is claimed to be by Anthony van Dyke and very redolent of the counter-reformation in its minimalism and drama.
A door takes you through to the Cappella dell’Addolorata and then into the lovely Chapel of San Tarasio.
This latter chapel was the presbytery and apse of the old church, built in 1440 by Gambello. It was partly built to house the order’s relics, including the bodies of Saints Zaccaria and Tarasio and became a private chapel for the nuns after the expansion later in the same century.
Fragments of both the 9th century (under glass at the back of the chapel) and the 12th century tile floors (in front of the altar) are visible and the chapel features some very impressive frescoes in the vaulting by Andrea del Castagno. An inscription says that they were painted in 1442, in collaboration with a certain Francesco da Faenza – almost half a century before the Renaissance finally took root in Venice.
Also seen (Left), are three well-preserved late-gothic gilded altarpieces by brothers-in-law Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna. But the central three panels on the main level of the high altarpiece (Saints Blaise and Martin, with The Virgin and Child Enthroned in the centre) are signed and dated 1385 by Stefano di Sant’Agnese and were taken from another work and inserted in place of a reliquary in 1839. The two saints flanking them (Mark and Elizabeth) are by Giovanni d’Alemagna and Antonio Vivarini. It has more saints (said to have also been added later) on the back. There is also a recently discovered and restored predella on the front of the altar, which has been ascribed to Paolo Veneziano.
The Polyptych of Saint Sabina is one the left-hand wall and the Polyptych of the Body of Christ is on the right. Both are signed by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna and dated 1443. The frescoes and altarpieces were all paid for by individual nuns in the 1440s, from the wealthy Foscari (Elena), Donato (Marina and Margharita) and Giustiniani (Agnesina) families.
The Romanesque colonnaded 10th century crypt (below), another relic of the older church and the eight tombs of early doges found down there are usually romantically covered by lagoon water.
An early (c.1562) Paolo Veronese “Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints Joseph, Giustina, the young John the Baptist, Francis and Jerome”(the Pala Bonaldi), was looted by Napoleon and later (1815) returned to Venice, now in the Accademia. It looks influenced by Bellini It was commissioned by Francesco Bonaldoi, a procurator of San Marco, as the altarpiece for his funerary chapel in the sacristy here. Aside from commemorating Francesco the name saints refer to his son Giovanni, who died prematurely, and his deceased brother Girolamo.
The Church in Art
Francesco Guardi painted “The Visiting Room of the Nuns at San Zaccaria”.
“The doge’s visit to San Zaccaria on Easter Monday” by Gabriel Bella is in the Querini Stampalia. John Piper produced a lithograph of the facade in the early 1960s.
The Church in literature
Mary Laven’s “Virgins of Venice”, has a lot about the high-born reluctant nuns here and their consequent behaviour, as does “Convents and the Body Politic in Late Renaissance Venice” by Jutta Gisela Sperling. The convent is also the one in which the heroine is confined in Michelle Lovric’s novel, “The Remedy”.
“Early Renaissance, and fine of its kind; a Gothic chapel attached to it is of great beauty. It contains the best John Bellini in Venice, after that of San G. Grisostomo, “The Virgin, with Four Saints;” and is said to contain another John Bellini and a Tintoretto, neither of which I have seen”.
Left: Detail of Giovanni Bellini’s Altarpiece “Madonna and Four Saints”,1505.
Henry James wrote:
… “the Madonna of San Zaccaria, hung in a cold, dim, dreary place, ever so much too high, but so mild and serene, and so grandly disposed and accompanied, that the proper attitude for even the most critical amateur, as he looks at it, strikes one as the bended knee”.
Opening times: daily 10.00 – 12.00 & 4.00 – 6.00
There is a €2.0 entry fee, charged to visit the sacristy and the unmissable chapels and crypt.
How to get there: the closest Vaporetto stop is San Zaccaria, located about 120 meters away to the southern entrance of the piazza and about a 5 minute walk to the east of St Mark’s Square.
Please click on the links below, to see my other related church posts:
St Mark’s Basilica
Santa Maria dei Miracoli
Santa Maria della Salute
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
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