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 and is considered one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the city.
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 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.
San Zaccaria – HISTORY
- In the 7th century, the original church on this site, was thought to have been founded by San Magno (Saint Magnus).
- In 827, Doge Agnello Partecipazio built a church here dedicated to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist; whose relics were gifted to Venice, by the Byzantine Emperor, Leo V. These are under the second altar on the right. The convent of Benedictine nuns adjacent, is thought to have been built at the same time and was the only convent in Venice. Many of its abbesses, were said to be the daughters of doges and the nuns were from noble families. I have included a link below to a fascinating article on “Nuns and Their Art: The Case of San Zaccaria in Renaissance Venice“.
- Historically, the church and convent had close connections with the doge, as he led a procession to the church every Easter Monday. On 13th September 864, Doge Pietro Tradinico, on leaving a service; was set upon by a mob of conspirators at the entrance gateway to Campo San Zaccaria and left to die. The 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 according to chronicles, at least a hundred nuns were thought to have been suffocated; whilst taking refuge in the basement. Under the direction of Enrico Dandolo, the convent was reformed into a Cluniac house (focused on restoring the traditional monastic life, encouraging art, and caring for the poor).
- To enable the creation of the Piazza San Marco by Doge Sebastiano Ziani; the nuns for payment; gave up their land, which was an orchard, extending to the Bacino. 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; as seen to the right hand side in the painting above.
- At the end of the Republic in 1787, the monastery was suppressed by Napoleonic decree.
Above top: Aerial view. Above: Facade showing the the transition from late Gothic to Renaissance style
THE PRESENT CHURCH
The present church was built between 1458 and 1515. Antonio Gambello was the original architect, who started the building in the Gothic style; but died after completion of the first two levels. The upper part of the facade (next three levels) with its arched windows and its columns and the upper parts of the interior were completed by Mauro Codussi in early Renaissance style many years later, from 1483-1504. The facade is a harmonious Venetian mixture of late-Gothic and Renaissance styles. Because of the close relationship, the state paid for the building. The church was finally 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, which today is occupied by the Carabinieri as barracks.
Unusually, when the current church was built, the campo in front was declared private property; with gates closing its two entrances. On the north-western gate entrance of the campo, there is an old plaque, that reads: “you may not gamble, argue, curse or fight here and you had better not throw any litter under the trees either”. No doubt this was allowed, because of the attacks on previous doges and the fact that the convent was famous for the wealth and licentiousness of its pampered and high-born nuns.
Recently cleaned, the magnificent facade of the main church, is in light polychrome marble and white Istrian stone. 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 himself. The rear part is characterised by the presence of the high dome.
On the north side of the Campo, to the left of the church, was originally a multi-arched 16th century wall of a cloister; that has been filled in and now occupied by businesses. It was the site of the original convent’s cemetery.
The first tower was demolished in the 11th Century and rebuilt in the 12th century using recycled material. It’s pyramid-shaped spire is visible in De Barbari’s map of 1500. 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 is manually rung .
The interior space is divided into 3 naves, reflecting the outside facade and its different style of the lower and upper levels. The nave has wide aisles and substantial piers; that have impressive capitals, carved by Giovanni Buora and striking bases.
The apse is surrounded by an ambulatory, lit by tall Gothic windows; a typical feature of Northern European church architecture; which is unique in Venice. Nearly every wall is covered with paintings by 17th and 18th century artists.
In the second chapel on the left, is one of the top attractions: Giovanni Bellini’s wonderful “Madonna and Four Saints”, also known as the Pala di San Zaccaria (1505). Painted when the artist was around 74, it is one of his finest works; a bridge between Piero della Francesca, Giorgione and Titian. Large 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 relics of Saints Zaccaria and St. Athanasius the Great, form part of the second altar on the right (below).
The walls of the aisles and of the chapels host paintings by other artists including Andrea del Castagno, Palma Vecchio, Tintoretto, Domenico Tintoretto, Giuseppe Porta, Palma il Giovane, Antonio Vassilacchi, Anthony van Dyck, Andrea Celesti, Antonio Zanchi, Antonio Balestra, Angelo Trevisani and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo.
Through a door on the right, you enter the original nuns Gothic style church; which contains three chapels and a crypt.
The first is the Chapel of Saint Athanasius, which contains an early Tintoretto altarpiece of the late 1550’s the “Birth of John the Baptist“. This was the nave of the original church built in 1170 and contains choir stalls carved by Francesco and Marco Cozzi. It was turned into a chapel in 1595.
A door, takes you through to the Cappella dell’Addolorata (Sorrows), with restored and impressive “marmorino” plasterwork decoration in the vaults, from the 1460’s,
You can then pass through into the fine Chapel of San Tarasio. The “Cappella di San Tarasio”, was the apse of the 1170 church. The floor contains tiles from the 9th and 12th centuries. There are frescoes by Andrea del Castagno and Francesco da Faenza painted in 1442, discovered in 1923 and restored in the 1950’s. Also seen are the relics of Saint Athanasius and Saint Zacharias. The large wooden statues on the side walls are of Saints Zacharias and Benedict.
In the apse is a gilded altarpiece made by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna in the 1440’s (below). There are two more wonderful altarpieces on either side of the apse.
Wall Tombs of Saints Zaccaris (below) and Saint Athanasius (above).
Access can be made from this chapel down to the 10th-century Romanesque crypt (below) with colonnades; under the Chapel. It is another relic of the older church and the eight tombs of early doges found down there are usually covered by lagoon water.
Finally, the artist Alessandro Vittoria is buried in the church; his tomb marked by a self-portrait bust. The organ of the church was built by Gaetano Callido in 1790.
Campo San Zaccaria – 30122 – Venice VE
Monday to Saturday, 10-12 / 16-18
Free admission to the main church
Entering into the original church is the Museum and Crypt of San Zaccaria: part of the Chorus Scheme of Churches in Venice. Link below.
10:00 – 18:00 hours Entrance:3€ or free with Chorus pass Note that the crypt may be partially flooded part of the year with sea-water.
Getting there: the closest Vaporetto stop is San Zaccaria on the Riva degli Schiavoni and is located about 150 metres north in the campo. Alternatively, it is about a 5 minute walk to the east of St Mark’s Square; to the campo’s north-west gate.
LINKS: (internal – external)
This article discusses the ways in which fifteenth-century nuns financed, shaped, and used works of art and architecture at the Benedictine convent of San Zaccaria in Venice. Evidence from chronicles, account books, liturgical manuscripts, reports of visits to the convent, and inscriptions on the works of art themselves shows that the nuns viewed art within their convent extremely proprietarily. While they accepted subsidies from the civic government, indulgences from popes, privileges from Byzantine emperors, and donations from private patrons, the nuns paid close attention to the administration of commissions within the convent church and committed substantial funds to artistic projects, making them their own.