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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of Santa Maria del Giglio in Venice

What is Santa Maria del Giglio?

The Chiesa Santa Maria del Giglio, also known as Santa Maria Zobenigo, is a 9th-century Roman Catholic church that was redesigned in the 17th century and boasts an exuberant display of Baroque architecture and Venetian art.

Santa Maria del Giglio Interior

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Santa Maria del Giglio History

Santa Maria del Giglio (or Saint Mary of the Lily, which refers to the flower the Archangel Gabriel supposedly held during the Annunciation) is one of the most exuberant examples of Baroque architecture in the whole of Venice. It was established in the 9th century by the Jubanico family. But although it’s still known locally as Santa Maria Zobenigo (derived from the family’s name), it’s actually thanks to Admiral Antonio Barbaro that it stands as it is today.

Perhaps surprisingly for a church, the exterior lacks any Christian iconography. Barbaro left instructions in his will for the church’s redesign, intending its decoration to glorify not God, but the militaristic prowess and generosity of his own family. He left 30,000 ducats to this end, along with strict orders to devote the entire façade of the church to the Barbaro clan. Despite his undeniable arrogance, it was a generous bequest. The church was redesigned between 1678 and 1681 by architect Giuseppe Sardi who is best known for his lavish Baroque church façades.

Santa Maria del Giglio exterior

On viewing the impressive façade, you’ll notice representations of Antonio’s four brothers standing proudly in ground-level niches. These were sculpted by the Baroque Flemish artist Josse de Corte. Antonio as chief benefactor is, of course, positioned centrally above the church door (also the work of de Corte), and surrounded by allegorical figures of Honour, Virtue, Fame and Wisdom. The façade also includes a series of rectangular relief sculptures; topographical views of the cities in which Admiral Antonio had served (at eye-level), as well as naval battles the Barbaros had been involved in. Right at the top, you’ll see the Barbaro family crest, carved in relief.

The interior is just as remarkable. In this unexpectedly light and airy space, you’ll find an extraordinary compendium of Venetian art. Paintings by some of the city’s most gifted artists line the walls: Francesco Zugno, Giovanni Battista Crosato, Gaspare Diziani and Jacopo Marieschi. The magnificent painting on the ceiling of the nave was the work of Antonio Zanchi. Two canvases by Tintoretto feature the four Evangelists. Most impressively, the church is home to Rubens’ Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John. Painted in the early 17th century, when the Flemish artist was based in Italy, the work is characteristic of his style. Note the pale, fleshy figures and the detailed curls of the toddlers’ hair.

The 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin dismissed Santa Maria del Giglio as a ‘manifestation of insolent atheism’, its profane decoration having little (if any) relation to the religious function of the church. However, this decoration is of immense historical importance, recalling Venice’s militaristic as well as its artistic past. Rather than simply being a majestic monument to the Barbaro family, it’s pivotal to our understanding of the city’s grandiose place in history, as well as in the canon of Western art.

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