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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of San Zaccaria in Venice

What is San Zaccaria?

Chiesa di San Zaccaria is a 15th-century Renaissance church and former convent in Venice that was founded in the 9th century to hold the relics of Saint Zechariah (father of John the Baptist).

Chiesa di San Zaccaria

San Zaccaria History

Throughout its entire history, this church and the adjacent nunnery were conceived as an essential part of the power of the state. Many of the nuns of this institution came from spectacularly wealthy patrician families and their lives in the convent attracted scandal, at times. Patricians were Venetian aristocrats who were desperate to ensure they kept their inherited privileges. If a patrician married outside their class, their children lost these privileges and could assume no political role. These families were immensely wealthy, although they often did not receive a salary for their political positions. In order to safeguard their wealth, the family fortune was passed to the eldest son, whilst unmarried daughters were sent to a nunnery.

Forced confinement of daughters had unsurprising consequences. The parlours of Venetian nunneries became social spaces, where nuns met friends and relatives, business was conducted and raucous formal balls were staged. In the 14th century, a law had to be passed ‘against those who commit fornication in nunneries’. The political power of these places was undeniable; the nuns of San Zaccaria were said to have invented the corno ducale (or doge’s crown), and in return, the doge visited the nunnery every year at Easter.

The church itself is said to be one of the oldest in Venice, founded in the early days of the city. There’s scant surviving mention of the church before the 12th century, however construction is said to have started in the 9th century following receipt of a diplomatic gift of the relics of Saint Zechariah from the Byzantine emperor. At that time, Venice was desperate for political recognition and so the remains of this important saint, the father of Saint John the Baptist, were particularly welcome. (It also suited the emperor who was keen for the Venetians not to break away from his rule!)

After the 12th century, the church was repeatedly rebuilt, first in the Gothic style, and then in a Renaissance manner in the 15th century. In 1458, the little-known architect Antonio Gambello was commissioned to build a new church. It’s one of the first instances in Venice in which a single architect was responsible for the entire building process.

The façade is truly breathtaking. It’s made from Istrian stone and polychrome marbles that shimmer in the sun. It’s harmoniously divided into three from left to right, and from the ground up it’s broken into five orders. While at its centre, perched above the main doorway is the wonderful 16th-century statue of Saint Zechariah by Alessandro Vittoria.

The lowest storey (up to the height of the main doorway) is the work of Gambello, who designed it as a patchwork of small panels of Verona marble, with elegant Gothic mouldings. Above, architect Mauro Codussi, who was chosen to help finish the project after Gambello’s death, abandoned this style in favour of a more sober Neoclassical look. The next four levels are composed of small arched columns, intertwined with marble, and topped by an elegant lunette, crowned with five statues: Christ the Redeemer at its peak flanked by angels carrying instruments of the Passion.

The church interior boasts many magnificent paintings by leading Renaissance and Baroque artists: Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Jacopo Tintoretto, and Anthony Van Dyck. The main work of interest is the colourful 16th-century San Zaccaria Altarpiece by a 74-year-old Giovanni Bellini, which depicts the Madonna and child enthroned. The year after it was painted, German artist Albrecht Dürer described Bellini as ‘very old yet still the best at painting'. The work, which was created as a continuation of the surrounding architecture, was taken by Napoleon after the fall of the Venetian Republic and remained in Paris for 20 years before its return in 1817.

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