The secrets of Venetian churches – San Marcuola

Jan 20, 2017churches, famous characters, history, society, women0 comments

Often tourists wander around Venice overwhelmed by contradictory feelings about the city on water. On their way, they pass by the doors of churches and it may not occur to them to enter. But these religious buildings are repositories of Venetian history. Each painting or sculpture, ancient column or icon can reveal interesting details about unknown Venice and the people who lived in and created it. Today I invite you to have a guided tour and to enter the Church of San Marcuola.

Church of San Marcuola

To begin with, the name of the church is very strange. No Saint Marcuola ever existed: the church was dedicated to two saints, Hermagoras and Fortunatus. Their names were difficult to pronounce, so over time they were run rapidly together by the local dialect to produce Marcuola. The old church was rebuilt by Antonio Gaspari and Giorgio Massari in the 18th Century. The façade is still unfinished.

the façade of San Marcuola in Venice

the façade of San Marcuola in Venice

There are lots of good statues of the saints and one of the first paintings of Tintoretto, the Last Supper. For the same church Jacopo Tintoretto also painted Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet which is now in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The names of some of the people buried in this church are still visible on the floor. Some were patricians who lived nearby and others were foreigners who left their mark on the history of Venice.

One of the stones bears the name of a very famous singer of the 18th Century: Faustina Bordoni Hasse, who is buried inside the church. We will look in vain, however, for the name of an Italian poet, Caterina Dolfin, although she is also buried in this church.

Caterina Dolfin

A very beautiful woman with a strong character and an extraordinary fate, she published her sonnets with the pseudonym Dorina Nonacrina. As a young noblewoman she was obliged, as the custom of the time demanded, to undergo an arranged marriage. Her mother chose Marcantonio Tiepolo, a patrician with wealth enough to pay the debts of Caterina’s family and to assure her a life suitable to her rank. Many women of that period were given by their families in marriage to much older spouses. Caterina, however, fought back: she was able to prove that her arranged marriage wasn’t legal because it had been contracted without her permission and she even managed to obtain an annulment from the Patriarch of Venice! She certainly knew the price of freedom! Caterina lived at the centre of Venetian intellectual life and counted many powerful people among her friends. Her prestigious casini – a kind of literary salon – were visited by famous poets, professional writers and other local erudite figures. While she was still married, one of these young intellectuals became a close friend. This was the future politician Andrea Tron, Procurator of Venice Andrea Tron, known as a “Padron”, or leading man, of Venice.

Procurator Andrea Tron

Procurator Andrea Tron

Having regained her freedom from her husband, Caterina became the wife of Procurator Tron. She was an enormously intelligent woman who threw herself into serious political battles in the name of freedom. For example she gave important support to her husband over the question of ecclesiastic reform and the abolition of several monasteries known to be flaunting the rules of religious decorum. On one occasion, Caterina was called before the Venetian Inquisition, accused of owning the works of Rousseau and Voltaire. The political philosophy that had been developed by these famous writers and philosophers was prohibited because of its influence on the Enlightenment. But Caterina was herself an Enlightenment thinker, as she had shown by striving for liberty and progress or in her intolerance of church abuses!  In the eyes of her enemies, however, a noblewoman who ignored the laws of the church, who conversed as an equal in her salons with men who, though of high standing culturally were of doubtful reputation, a woman who read and wrote about freedom, love and tolerance – such a woman appeared to lead the life of a courtesan. Rumours were concocted that Andrea Tron could never be elected Doge because of the scandal surrounding his beautiful wife, and thus his rival, Paolo Renier, was elected instead. (On the subject of Renier’s imprudent marriage to a lowly ballet dancer, the town gossips were strangely silent). Among the many poets and writers of the day who dedicated works to Caterina Dolfin, was the playwright Carlo Goldoni, with his tragicomedy The Savage Beauty.

A small church in Cannaregio gives us a brief glimpse into Venetian life of the 18th Century and shows us how much art and history of this once powerful Venetian Republic is contained in the details of her churches.

Nataliya Dmytruk


Translations: English