Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Italy | Venice | Church of San Zaccaria

Wandered by the Church of San Zaccaria, just east of St. Mark’s Square. Zaccaria (Zechariah), as you probably recall, appears both in the Bible, where he figures as the father of John the Baptist and the husband of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and in the Quran, where he named as the guardian of Mary and also as the father of John the Baptist. The gruesome remains of his body, presumably mummified, can still be seen here. The church is located on Campo San Zaccaria, a square which was once considered the private property of the Benedictine convent that grew up around the church. The square can only be entered by two narrow alleyways, one coming from the Grand Canal to the south and another from the small Campo San Provolo to the west. In each of these alleyways was a gated portal that allowed the square to be locked up at night and other times when the nuns did not want to be bothered by the public. I enter the square via the lane from the Campo San Provolo. Above the lintel on the outer face of the portal can be seen a marble relief of the Madonna and Child between John the Baptist and St. Mark. A half-figure of St. Zaccaria himself is poised above the pointed arch of the portal.
Portal to Campo San Zaccaria (click on photos for enlargements)
There may have been a church on the current site of San Zaccaria as early as the seventh century. We know for sure that Doge Agnello Partecipazio built a church on the site in 827 and that it was dedicated to St. Zaccaria, whose bones were sent as a gift to Venice by the Byzantine Emperor Leo V while the church was being built. Around this time a nunnery was also established. It became famous, and eventually notorious, as the depository for the unwed daughters of the Venetian aristocracy, not all of whom felt strictly bound by their oaths of celibacy. Many of its abbesses were the daughters of doges. Doges, however, were only allowed to visit the nunnery once a year, on Easter Monday.

One famous visitor to the convent was Pope Benedict III, who in 855 was granted refuge here during the upheavals surrounding the ascension of the notorious Antipope Anastasius, named pope over the objections of church hierarchy by Louis II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Anastasius was eventually sent packing and Benedict III placed on the papal throne. In gratitude to the sisters who had succored him in his hour of need (I am not suggesting anything untoward here), Pope Benedict donated to the convent a significant collection of relics, including the remains of the Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298—373) and a piece, one of many, of the True Cross. (Athanasius is also a saint according to the Egyptian Coptic tradition. During a visit to Rome in 1973 Pope Paul VI gave the Coptic Pope Shenouda part of Athanasius’s remains, which were then taken back to Egypt. The relics are now in Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo.) The convent built during the days of Doge Agnello Partecipazio burned down in 1105. One hundred nuns are said to have died in the inferno. A new convent was built and in the1170s the church was rebuilt or at least remodeled. During the years 1483–1504 a new church was alongside the old one, parts of which can still seen. The new church, which finally was consecrated in 1543, is the one the dominates the square today.
The latest version of the church, consecrated in 1543
The church opens at 10:00 a.m. and I enter with two dozen other visitors, including elderly Europeans, some of whom are clearly on their last legs, marking Venice off their bucket lists while they still mobile, and several groups of young and middle-aged Chinese. Many make a beeline for the Giovanni Bellini’s painting “Madonna and Four Saints” over the second altar on the left wall, probably the most famous of the many paintings which almost completely cover the walls of the church. It had been looted by Napoleon when he seized Venice in 1797 and carted off to Paris but was eventually returned. Several of the Chinese start taking photos despite the signs everywhere saying no photos. A docent appears and quietly—there are also signs stating that it is forbidden to talk loudly in the church—tells them to stop.

I head for the right wall, where stretched out on a shelf high on the wall can be seen the body—presumably, hopefully, mummified—of St. Zaccaria, donated to the church almost 1200 years ago by Byzantine Emperor Leo V. On a shelf below is the body of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, donated to the church by Pope Benedict in the 850s in gratitude for the succor he had received from the Benedictine nuns. Two Chinese girls, maybe sixteen years old, come and stand beside me. They gape wide-eyed and fearful at the relics, which could pass for props in some Gothic horror movie, Forget Bellini and the rest of the paintings—famous paintings are a dime a dozen in Venice—this is stuff to tell their girl friends back home about! One surreptitiously snaps a photo with her smart phone.

Further along on the left side is the entrance to two side chapels that have been turned into a museum. Entrance is €1.50 but photography (without flash) is allowed. The first, the Chapel of Saint Athanasius, contains an assortment of paintings, including two by Venetian stalwarts Tintoretto and Palma Giovane. The Tintoretto over the altar is said to be one of his early works and to my untutored eye is not particularly impressive. While I am examining it a woman in maybe her forties and a girl, presumably her daughter, come and stand behind me. The women is sheathed in a luxurious ankle-length fur coat—could it actually be sable?—and has a perfectly coiffured helmet of short blonde hair. Her daughter, maybe fourteen years old, is less elegantly dressed in faded jeans ripped across the knees and thighs and a waist-length coat of mangy, piled purple wool that looks like it may have come from a thrift shop. A huge, unruly mass of russet ringlets surrounds her face and cascades down over her shoulders. She has a ring in her nose and lip and her eyelids are shaded purple, perhaps to match her coat. Her mother leans in and eyes the sign on the painting. “It’s a Tintoretto,” she says. Rolling her eyes, her daughter announces, “If I see one more Tintoretto I-am-going-to-hurl.” I sidle over to a painting of the Madonna and Saints that the sign says was by Palma Vecchio. The most recent guidebooks say, however, that it has been re-attributed to one Marco Basaiti. In any case, the figures are clearly delineated and the colors are crisp and clear, making it in my eye much more attractive than the muddy looking Tintoretto. The mother and daughter move over to view it and I quickly move on. I do not want to be here if the purported Palma Vecchio makes the daughter hurl.
Painting by Palma Vecchio, or perhaps Marco Basaiti
Detail of painting by Palma Vecchio, or perhaps Marco Basaiti
A hallway to the left leads to the Chapel of St. Tarasius. This chapel was the real reason I was visiting the Church of San Zaccaria. I was curious to see if the relics of St. Tarasius had survived. Tarasius (c. 730—806) was born and raised in Constantinople and later the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople of the  Byzantine capital. He was a noted iconodule who believed in the veneration of icons, in staunch opposition to the iconoclasts who had come to power after Byzantine Emperor Leo III had ordered the destruction of many icons back the 720s and 730s. Before accepting the post of Patriarch of Constantinople in 784, Tarasius made the Empress Irene promise that she would restore the veneration of icons, which she did. He was also active in the movement to unite or at least reconcile the Roman and Orthodox churches. For this he was granted sainthood by both branches of the faith. His feast day is celebrated on February 25 by the Eastern Orthodox Church, using to the Julian Calendar, and on March 10 by Roman Catholics, the same day according the Gregorian Calendar.

Tarasius’s rule as a unifier of the two churches resonated strongly in Venice, which throughout the first centuries of its existence had swerved back and forth between allegiance to Constantinople and Rome. It was firmly in the Catholic camp in religious matters, but due to its trade ties with the East it was still inextricably linked with the Orthodox world of the Byzantines. Not for nothing was it known as the westernmost city of the Orient. These bonds, it was thought, would be further strengthened by having the body of Saint Tarasius, the unifier, in Venice where it would be properly venerated. No less, it would attract pilgrims from all over the Catholic world who would drop a lot of cash in the city, pilgrims at the time being the equivalent of today’s tourists.

Some enterprising Venetians merchants and priests in Constantinople soon located the body in a monastery near the city and concocted a plan to steal it. Surreptitiously they moved the remains of Tarasius to an awaiting ship belonging to Domenico Dandolo, who then transported it back to Venice. Dandolo was greeted with hosannahs and the body was transported with great ceremony to the Convent of St Zaccaria. This signaled the rise of the rise to prominence of the Dandolo family, one of whom, Enrico Dandolo, would mastermind the Fourth Crusade and oversee the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

Above the altar is a stupendously ornate gilded altarpiece and perched on the walls on either side are wooden statues of saints Benedict and Zaccaria. But there are no remains of St. Tarasius anywhere to be seen. Could they are inside the altar?
Chapel of St. Tarasius
Magnificent altarpiece in the Chapel of St. Tarasius
Altarpiece in the Chapel of St. Tarasius
The Chapel of St. Tarasius is actually the remodeled apse of one of the earlier versions of the church of San Zaccaria, possibly even the earliest version of the church built in the 800s. A section of the tile floor from the twelve-century church that burned down can still been in front of the altar, and fragments of the floor from the ninth century church have been preserved under glass.
Remains of the mosaic floor from the twelfth century church
Below the Chapel of St. Tarasius is crypt that contains the tombs of eight doges. There is usually several inches of water on the floor. 
Crypt with water on the floor
One of the eight doges’s tombs in the Crypt
Painting of the church and monastery by Francesco Guardi (1790)