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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of Santi Maria e Donato in Murano

What is Santi Maria e Donato?

Santi Maria e Donato is a 12th-century brick church on Murano island (north of Venice) that is dedicated to Saints Mary and Donatus, and features a brilliant gold apse and wonderfully detailed mosaic floor.

Santi Maria e Donato in Murano

Santi Maria e Donato History

This unusual structure is one of the oldest religious buildings in the Venetian lagoon. Unlike most Venetian churches, which have been constantly renovated and revamped during their history, the exterior of this one remains very true to its original Romanesque design. It was founded in the 7th century by a handful of wealthy families from mainland Italy, and underwent its only rebuild in the 12th century after the body and relics of Saint Donatus, a 4th-century bishop, were brought here nearly 800 years after his death. In honour of these new treasures, the bishop’s name was added to the building’s dedication, with it thereby becoming the church of Saint Mary and Saint Donatus, as it’s known today. Donatus is one of three dragon-slaying saints venerated in Venice, together with Saints Theodore and George. In fact, once you’re inside, have a look behind the High Altar. There you’ll see a series of curving bones dangling from above. According to tradition, they once belonged to the fierce dragon that was slain by the saint – although it’s likely they’re the remains of a less fearsome large mammal.

The eastern façade (facing the canal) is iconic, and a landmark of the island. It was at this side of the church that visitors’ boats would have docked, and it’s particularly richly decorated. The apse is a semi-circular brick lodge with columns on both storeys. You’ll see that its lower level is a succession of niches, divided from the upper level by a series of triangular motifs, typical of Islamic art. (Venice was part of the Byzantine Empire until the 9th century, and its art and architecture remained deeply influenced by this history long after it had broken away from Constantinople’s rule.)

Entering the church is almost like taking a step back in time. The marble columns are sumptuous, and the semi-circular apse is decorated with an elegant mosaic of the Virgin against an uninterrupted golden background, producing an ethereal effect. Perhaps even more impressive is what lies beneath your feet: further mosaics, carefully fashioned to produce amazingly intricate designs. Look out for two mythological griffins facing one another, a basilisk, snails, peacocks, and two chickens carrying a fox tied to a rod. The floor is also covered in circular motifs in the shape of knots, and between five intertwined circles you can read the Latin inscription that commemorates the laying of this beautiful pavement in 1141. Don’t be fooled by this historic church’s bland west façade; what’s inside will amaze you.

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