Santa Maria Formosa in the Castello district, designed by Coducci in 1492, was on the site of the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, that was built in the 7th C.

The campo is a fine space for relaxing, with renowned palazzos to admire and several cafe-restaurants; only about 10 minutes walk from St Mark’s Square.





According to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared to San Magno (St Magnus) Bishop of Oderzo, in the form of a buxom or voluptuous (Italian: formosa) woman and told him to build her a church under a white cloud. In fact, it was one of eight churches founded in the 7th century by St Magnus.

This first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was built in the 7th century probably by the Tribuno family. Documentation exists concerning rebuilding in 1060 and following this there was at least one more reconstruction; before the current church was built by Mauro Codussi in 1492.  However, Coducci died before the exterior was finished and was completed by others unknown. However, the cupola was probably added by Codussi’s son Domenico; following his father’s design.

Below: “The Campo Santa Maria Formosa” (detail). Bernardo Bellotto c.1742.

Codussi’s architectural masterpiece, marks the introduction of the full spatial vision embodied in the Tuscan Renaissance in Venice. The Latin-cross layout, with central nave and two side aisles, respects the foundations of the original 7th century church; partially maintaining the visibility of the remaking from the 9th century, during which the church endowed the cupola and a Greek-cross layout.

His Greek-cross layout, creates a well-articulated centre-focussed space, in which the complex roofing of vaults and cupolas seem to float above the steady light; that flows in through the deep windows of the main walls.

The church was visited by the doge and a procession of twelve young girls every 2nd of February. This “Procession of Marias” was to commemorate the rescue of the brides abducted by pirates from Istria and Trieste from San Pietro di Castello in 944 AD.

Santa Maria Formosa was the centre for the guild of “casselleri” (casemakers), who carried out the rescue and requested an annual visit from the doge as reward.

This was also the church of the school of fruit-sellers and gunners.




For the external facades, commissioned by the Cappello family, two different styles were chosen.

The classical-style facade facing the Canal (below), was built in 1542 and commemorates Vincenzo Cappello, a sea captain who was victorious against the Turks.

The Baroque facade (above left) facing the campo, was built in 1604 and contains portraits of other members of the Cappello family.

The facades were restored by Venice in Peril in the mid-1990’s. The interior was renovated by merchant Torrino Tononi in 1689. The dome was repaired in 1688 after an earthquake that year and again in 1921, following an Austrian bombing in 1916.




De Barbari’s 16th century map shows a squat brick tower with a sugar-loaf spire surrounded by four pinnacles. Between 1678-88, this was replaced with the current campanile, designed by Francesco Zucconi, a priest. The tower is 40m (130ft) in height and has electromechanical bells.

On the arch at the base of the campanile is a grotesque “mascherone” – a carved head said to dispel evil spirits; which was much loathed by a somewhat squeamish Ruskin. He stated that “Leering in bestial degradation too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant”.  He further claims that these faces, characteristic of the later years of the Republic, “symbolised the evil spirit that lead to Venice’s final decline”.






Codussi’s centralised interior kept the existing Greek cross plan. It is initially a confusing and rather asymmetrical appearing space, the nave is slightly longer than the apse and the two pairs of deep nave chapels have pairs of arched windows between and to the crossing.






Entering through the main door behind the Chorus desk, there’s the small tondo of “The Circumcision of Christ” by Catena, a Venetian artist.

This is followed by one of the highlights in the first chapel on the right – a triptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini dated 1473. The central painting depicts “Our Lady of Mercy”, the left one represents the “Meeting of Joachim and Anne”, her parents and concludes with the “Birth of the Virgin on the right.

The triptych, was painted with an egg tempera and it evidently follows the style of Mantegna and his studio that was considered the second most important in Venice during the 15th century. Far from the using “Bellini” shades, Vivarini enhanced the sculptural effect of the figures by using bright and translucent colours.




Another highlight located in the chapel of the Scuola dei Bombardieri, is the “Santa Barbara” polyptych by Jacobo Palma il Vecchio (c. 1542); depicted as a fine and forceful looking woman, in this his Giorgione-inspired masterpiece. She sits on an altar (1509) dedicated to artillerymen, for whom she is the patron saint.

St Barbara is next to St Anthony the abbot on the right and St Sebastian on the left; on top, St Vincent Ferrei on the right and St John the Baptist on the left; the Pietà is portrayed on the top between the mouldings.

This scuola played a prominent part in public processions, not because of its influence or relics; but because of its spectacular uniforms. Vasari thought her one of Palma’s best works. It is claimed to be the last great polyptych commissioned for a Venetian church, as the form was by then less fashionable. The marble framing is 18th century.

On the altar below, is a carved relief showing her lying on the ground with her head unattached; because she has just been decapitated by her father.

Opposite it, hangs Leandro Bassano’s sombre “Last Supper” (end of the 16th century).




In the Left Transcept, can be seen the “Virgin and Child” 19th C, by Lattanzio Querinia (photo 1). In the church’s oratory over the sacristy is still conserved “Virgin Mary with Child and Saint Domenico” painted in the 18th century by the artist Giandomenico Tiepolo (photo 2).  Also seen is ”St Peter the Apostle”, 18th C by Paolo Pagani (photo 3) and “Mother with Child” 18th C, by Giambettino Cignaroli (photo 4).

1.                                                          2.                                                            3.                                                          4.








The “Campo Santa Maria Formosa” by Canaletto in 1733-4 and reproduced by Bellotto, around 1742.  Also, there is an oil painting by Sickert and an etching by one D.S. MacLaughlan.

The composer Baldassare Galuppi worked as an organist, in 1722.


Above: Engraving by Jacobi Sansonini, date unknown.


Opening times: Monday to Saturday: 10.30 to 4.30.  Sundays: closed

Vaporetto: Rialto or San Zaccaria.

This church is a part of the “Chorus scheme”.    Chorus Scheme Website: HERE 

Click on the link back to “My Favourite Churches” category: HERE


Santa Maria Formosa    Santa Maria Formosa      Santa Maria Formosa



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