Venice II: Further Down and Further Out

After a post as heavy as the last as bonus content, I hope you’ll forgive me if the regular one is more medievalist tourism pictures. If that’s annoying, then you may be reassured to know that these are the last pictures from the 2019 trip to Venice and Ravenna. (The trip home gave me less medieval to work with; I have a couple of grainy pictures of castles in the Brenner Pass snapped through a train window, and I want to go back there and explore the Trentino some day; but until then it’s not a post by itself.) But in the previous Venice post, I observed that actually the late medieval and early modern prosperity of la Serenissima has overwritten its origins so much that really early stuff, such as is beloved of this blog, is quite hard to find there. This post is about going looking for it anyway.

San Zaccaria

Façade of San Zaccaria, Venezia

Façade of the church of San Zaccaria (in Venice)

This may not seem an obvious place to start, being very obviously late by my standards, 15th-century as it stands in fact, and the interior is decorated in a style even later.
Interior of San Zaccaria, Venezia, looking eastwards from the entrance

Interior of San Zaccaria, Venezia, looking eastwards from the entrance

But as with so much else in Venice, it’s what was here before that matters, because in this case it still sort of is. If you pass through this baroquely-adorned edifice to the north wall, there is a portal into the Capella di Sant’Anastasio…
The Golden Chapel in the Capella di Sant'Anastasio, part of San Zaccaria, Venezia

The so-called Golden Chapel is the old presbytery, now just an apse, in the Capella di Sant’Anastasio, and is what I have the decent picture of, so that’s what you get

… which, I fully admit, is more modern, in so far as what we see here is from 1595. But that was a refit of the previous church on the site, which belonged to a Cluniac monastery built in the twelfth century, most of which was taken down after its suppression under Napoleon in 1797, leaving this fifteenth-century addition to its core up. Complex enough yet? But there’s more, because look at this floor.
Mosaic floor in the Capella di Sant'Anastasio, San Zaccaria, Venezia

This bit is apparently preserved within a more modern floor setting, and so might be the twelfth-century floor (see below)? But it’s not the significant bit…

The underlying floor level visible at the edge of the Capella di Sant'Anastasio, San Zaccaria, Venezia

… because at the edge, you get this, which allows you to see very clearly that there was something here previously

So what is underneath? And the answer is, there’s a crypt, and it’s quite strange.

Architectural features of the crypt of San Zaccaria, Venezia

Yes, that is water over the floor; it may have been above the water table in the tenth century but it isn’t any more!

Altar and central aisle of the crypt of San Zaccaria, Venezia

This is a view down the central aisle onto the altar. Worshipping here would be an unusual challenge, though!

This bit is usually dated to the ninth or tenth centuries, which places it under the church of a Benedictine nunnery which preceded the Cluniac monastery, but burned down in 1105. However, by then, because the nunnery had conceded some of the land on which San Marco was built, they had particular connections to the Doges, and eight of the early Doges are therefore buried down here, usually partly underwater. So, we have a ninth- or tenth-century crypt under the twelfth-century floor of the church which replaced the one it belonged to, that church then mostly rebuilt in the sixteenth century, by which time it had already been replaced by a Gothic one next door, which is now so full of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century art that it’s hardly possible to tell it’s a Renaissance building once you’re in it. When you have such restricted building space, history piles up a bit, I guess…


But it is possible to do better than that, and while you’re in Venice visit things that are actually older than Venice itself. How so, you ask? and the answer is that the city, a foundation of refugees from the Italian mainland, was their second attempt to build a home in the lagoon. The first was a kind of exilic bishopric set up on the smaller nearby island of Torcello, where even now there is a complex of three buildings that are well worth a visit.1

Churches of Torcello seen from the path from the landing stage

This is the view you get from the path from the landing stage

The three buildings are the church of Santa Fosca, the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and its separate belltower. Now, I have been to this place twice and the lesson I have to offer is: don’t try and fit it into an afternoon. Set out for it first thing, because the vaporetti (which you have to get to Murano even to catch) are sufficiently infrequent and so frequently overfull that you will, if you are like me and leave it till after lunch, arrive in the late afternoon (both times) and only have time to do two of the three, and those very quickly. There’s also a museum on site which I’ve never made it to at all. Next time! But this first time, we managed a quick run round the two churches, so that’s what I have to offer.

Façade and portico of Santa Fosca di Torcello

Façade and portico of Santa Fosca

Exterior view of the south-eastern corner and apse of Santa Fosca di Torcello

Exterior view of the south-eastern corner and apse (of Santa Fosca)

Interior of Santa Fosca di Torcello

Interior view towards the east end

Santa Fosca is the later of the two, being twelfth-century and possibly only having been there at all since c. 1000. And you know, it is perfectly nice, but it’s possibly not what you have come here for, because of the cathedral, that is, Santa Maria Assunta.

View of Santa Maria Assunta di Torcello and the Campanile from the sea, in low sun

You can tell the time of day I’d dallied till from the sun in this shot, which is the complex including the bell-tower taken from the sea side of the island

Façade and portico of Santa Maria Assunta di Torcello, in 2019 during conservation work

Here’s the sunny side and the way in

Now, this first time we were here, there was as you can tell a bit of work going on here, which seemed to be exposing one of those separate baptisteries we kept finding in Ravenna, and according to Wikipedia at least it would be seventh-century. So this is probably the oldest single bit of building we saw on this trip.2

Remains of the Byzantine baptistery at Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, under conservation

It looks as if it was quite large!

Santa Maria Assunta as stands now is tenth-century, supposedly, with some eleventh-century additions. But the reason is famous is its interior artwork. Unfortunately, they are pretty clear at the door that you’re not allowed to photograph it, and to be honest, they need the money out here, I didn’t want to breach that understanding. Of course, that hasn’t stopped others.

Fresco of the Last Judgement at Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, from Wikimedia

Fresco of the Last Judgement, image by Ismoon (talk) 21:18, 9 June 2013 (UTC) – own work, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons. Perhaps they didn’t yet prohibit photography in 2013. This gives you an impression, anyway, but both because of the features in the way and the lighting I can safely say it is nothing like seeing the thing for real, which is amazing

But even that is really only part of the story, so rather than me try and describe it I’d rather just say, go and look at their own site, here:

And then if you like drop a few currency units on the project and then maybe some day get out there yourself and see what your money did. I don’t usually tout for historic projects, I know, but this place is so unusually rich and special, and usually so empty even in high tourist season, that I feel it’s a gem to which one can feel a very exclusive attachment and, paradoxically, I’d like to share that as widely as possible… So there we are; I’ve done, and next post will be about a doctoral defence in Barcelona, see if it isn’t.

As with too many of these posts of late, I didn’t have a lot of time to work this post up, so I’m afraid that where no specific source is cited (or linked) I was using Wikipedia, like a bad student. But hopefully it’s accurate on things like this.

1. For an up-to-date study of the sources for the origins of Venice see Stefano Gasparri, “The formation of an early medieval community: Venice between provincial and urban identity” in Veronica West-Harling (ed.), Three empires, three cities: identity, material culture and legitimacy in Venice, Ravenna and Rome, 750-1000: Volume offered to Chris Wickham as a gift for his 65th birthday, Seminari del Centro interuniversitario per la storia e l’archeologia dell’alto medioevo 6 (Turnhout 2015), pp. 35–50, on here.

2. Diego Calaon, Quando Torcello era abitata, Torcello 6 (Venezia 2013), on here, covers the early church at pp. 23-28, including further mosaic pictures, with some further archæological data (and pictures; this book has lots of pictures) at pp. 47-51; there’s also an English summary pp. 119-129, where the relevant bits are pp. 110-111 & 113.

4 responses to “Venice II: Further Down and Further Out

  1. Interesting stuff. Reading Liudprand* at the moment so anything on Italy is convenient though he doesn’t mention Venice much. I do wonder about a flooded crypt and a sump pump or something though I suppose with water so ubiquitous that you end up just sort of having to live with it – where would you pump it too?

    Thank you for this.

    *Reading sources from pissed off people is highly entertaining. Who can forget Procopius discussing how they fed geese in the Byzantine court? Liudprand does not disappoint though he does seems a bit obsessed with sex.

    • That is indeed the problem with moving water round in Venice; it’s a continuous operation when the water table is just higher than you are…

      I very much enjoy Liudprand, but the Anatapodosis is full of things where I just want to stop him and say, “wait, tell me more about that”. And I’m sure he would have obliged! And the obsession with sex is, yes, kind of obvious, but it’s also a good late antique tradition; if you want to shame someone, impugn their sexual morals, success or equipment… Liudprand never uses sex except as an attack on someone.3 Though admittedly, it would probably be fair to say that he never uses writing except to attack someone…

      3. Ross Balzaretti, “Liutprand of Cremona’s Sense of Humour”, in Guy Halsall (ed.), Humour, History and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge 2002), pp. 114–127.

  2. I’m gonna do a Liudprand post highlighting his attacks. From the little I’ve read so far here’s a lot of really cool Carolingian stuff going on – legal, bishop and pope-making, various estate surveys, etc. So many changes between the early 9th and 10th centuries. I keep having the urge to discuss, say, opinions in sources on the Judicial duel.

    But there’s so much more to read before I can intelligently talk about things that matter. So I’ll go with some of his more colorful stuff. Who knows – maybe someone will decide to read him based on it. Almost the medieval equivalent of a gossip rag.

    • I will, some day, maybe, work out a good way to formulate that ninth-century and tenth-century change, in which lots of people are doing the same things but somehow now it’s different. I haven’t got it yet but working my way slowly through the New Cambridge Medieval History III it’s some comfort to find the greatest experts of 1999 not doing much better. There is something about the carrying capacity of tenth-century kingship, even in the Ottonian era, that means its subjects are not as awed by it, and I am forced to wonder if some combination of Michael McCormick and Timothy Reuter together would have it right by saying, it’s all about victory, man, and in the mid-9th century that gets hard to find…

      But in that respect, to come back to the point, Liudprand is prime evidence. Apart from Otto I almost all his kings are literally losers, and even Hugh of Italy, who was obviously kind of a big deal (future post, but not a controversial statement I think!), wins by guile and in ways that actually undo the good of Christendom from it. But is this because he knows kings are vulnerable to that kind of representation and is running down everyone but his patrons? Or is it actually the word on the tenth-century street? And why didn’t the Carolingians face similar character assassination in the Viking era? The only answer that occurs to me is the tragic upset of having to wonder if God is in fact on your side, and maybe by the tenth century that had just become a silly question; it certainly doesn’t seem to be one on many chroniclers’ minds. But if we’ve moved to a world in which maybe God doesn’t intervene that much, when Charlemagne and Louis the Pious made it seem that He did, that’s actually just the kind of ideologicla bruise to kingship we might be looking for. Thankyou, Curt, for giving me reason to think this; I now need to think about it some more…

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