The Discalced Carmelites in Venice and their church
Can we still find a peaceful place in Venice? Incredibly, just a stone’s throw from the chaos of the railway station and the surrounding bustle, the Discalced Carmelites offer an unimaginable and unexpected ‘sound’ of silence and beauty in their Church and vegetable garden.
The Discalced Carmelites settled in Venice in the 17th century. They were a new branch founded by St. Teresa of Jesus, born in Avila in 1515, with the help of St. John of the Cross (both of whom lived in the 16th century) of the larger order of the Carmelites.
Originally, in the 12th century, the Carmelites were eremites living in Palestine. They arrived in Europe towards the end of the century and turned into a Mendicant Order dedicated and oriented towards not only themselves but others too, in order to be better accepted by the Church and Papacy.
The Carmelite eremites lived on Mount Carmel where Elijah the Prophet, an eremite like them, lived in much earlier times (9th century BC). According to legend, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, also visited the Mount.
All Carmelites have always been particularly devoted to her, so much so that they dedicated the first church on the mountain to her who, as a child, used to visit that mountain not far from Nazareth with her parents to admire its beauty.
In Hebrew, Karmel means garden and the term was then employed by sacred writers to indicate a heavenly land rich with water and plants, just like Mount Carmel to this day.
Once in Venice (1633), after living in various parts of the city, the friars managed to purchase – with the help of a few local families – the area where the church (dedicated to St. Mary of Nazareth) and garden now stand. Actually, the area was much larger in those days, as the current garden was almost halved when the railway station was built in the mid-1800s.
The “new” wealthy Venetian families who lived – for work reasons – in the area near the new religious centre were the first to become sensitive to the new belief and Carmelite message.
Not century-old noble families then, but the Moras, the Cavazza Lions, the Tascas, the Flanginis, the Gussonis, the Lumagas, etc. Not all of them became part of the Venice patricians during the 1600s, they were families from Vicenza or Bergamo, Cyprus, Valtellina or other areas. Some of them would subsequently be buried inside the church thanks to their patronage.
Thanks to the proximity of Venetian noblewomen to the sensitivity and message of Saint Teresa of Jesus, wealthy patrician families who formed part of the old tradition such as the Badoers, Veniers, Contarinis, Valiers, etc. joined the former. They were often diplomats connected to the great courts of Spain, France or the Papacy and therefore had a deep and updated knowledge concerning the order’s mystical message bearing a new sensitivity, social transformation and much more.
The Church of the Scalzi, among the richest in the city, shows and at times even boasts the presence of all these families with its wealth of marble statues, a true spectacle of beauty incorporated in its stones and artistic creations (photos 1, 2 and 3).
Most of the marble is breccia from Seravezza (Lucca) along the entire nave and the beautiful red Languedoc marble (photos 4 and 5).
Moreover, there’s the Belgian black, a very precious marble found in two chapels designed by Longhena (photos 6 and 7), Genoa green, green Thessalian marble, yellow breccia from Trento (photo 8) and grey bardiglio marble, not to mention white marble from Carrara and many others.
Of course a special adornment is dedicated to the two Saints who founded this branch of the Order – the great mystique St. Teresa (photo 9) and St. John of the Cross (photo 10).
The chapel of Saint Teresa shows the skill of our 17th and 18th-century Venetian masters, including the great Tiepolo, to the fullest (photos 11 and 12).
Tiepolo can also be found in the chapel of the Crucifix with his symbols of the Passion which can be spotted clearly on a sunny day (photos 13 and 14).
But the lesser known Masters are just as spectacular: the angels of brothers Domenico and Giuseppe Valeriani, found not only in the presbytery (photo 15) but also in the choir behind the high altar (photos 16 and 17), easily grab our attention. They are visions of heaven, the Trinity, the virtues painted in the choir so friars could contemplate them – the same we see represented all over the church.
The recurrent themes inside the church are of course those addressed by Saint Teresa and therefore the object of the worshippers’ devotion, such as for example the centrality of the humanity of Jesus and of his Passion, found in Tiepolo’s frescoes, the Evangelical virtues and the presence of angels (photo 18). But, in addition to the numerous references provided by the sculptures, paintings or frescoes, it’s in the value attributed to nature that this Saint’s geniality manifests tangibly.
Saint Teresa focused on the relationship between prayer and life, and therefore on life as prayer. As a consequence, even work on Earth is prayer.
To other religious orders, cloisters represented Earthly Paradise in the Middle Ages and for centuries. For Teresa, Heaven on Earth was instead a slice of nature, a nice view, a lovely garden or a beautiful panorama (in our case, a lovely garden once offering wonderful views of the lagoon).
Ever since they first settled in the place they still inhabit in Venice, the Discalced friars have enjoyed a garden that remains unique and precious to this day. It is unique from multiple points of view: first of all, it belongs to the Discalced Carmelites and thus expresses the attention to nature typical of Teresa. Secondly, it is unique due to the large quantity of medicinal herbs grown there, which unfortunately are no longer present in other Venetian convent gardens. Lastly, it is unique also from the point of view of design, which is symbolic, allegorical and “mystical”.
A garden whose multiple facets are waiting to be discovered precisely for this wealth which will be discussed in the second part of this post.