We were told that today, our first full day in Venice, would be special because it is the feast of St. Mark, patron of the city. I expected maybe religious processions like those seen in Boston's North End, or maybe at least a bit of organized civic folderol. Instead, all we got was crowds. At mid-morning Katie shared a factoid she had read somewhere or other: that Venice has so many more visitors than inhabitants that someday they think they may have to start charging admission to the city itself. Like turning it into Disney Italia at the head of the Adriatic.
We have an apartment in the Cannaregio neighborhood on the north side of the Grand Canal, and just down a narrow alley and around a corner is the Church of St. Mary of Miracles, Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Having taken in the Basilica of Sts. John and Paul last evening, I figured it was time for a smaller-scale church. I stepped inside the door and ran into a ticket booth. With Katie by my side, I paused to look around. "You can't stand here!" the lady inside the booth said, somehow knowing that I was an American. "But this is a church!" I protested. "Three euros," she replied. "You can't stand there."
As I turned annoyed toward the exit, a German woman who thought she was being funny said something about the cost of hell being greater. I didn't think that was funny at all.
We soon discovered that for ten euros you can buy a ticket to seventeen churches, most of which I gather have been transformed from churches into museums for all the Tintorettos and Tiepolos that are hanging in these over-architected palaces of ancient faith and Renaissance civic pride. So we got ourselves a pair of tickets and set off in search of churches. Katie agreed to accompany me to the first two, after which she would split off to visit the Academy of Art and I would continue on my Camino of Chiesas. I know that that phrase combines three languages, but I don't care. Today, just to survive, I used every available scrap of English (fluent), French (semi-fluent), German (smattering of high-school phrases filtering randomly into my head), and Italian (clueless) just to get by.
First stop was Santa Maria del Giglio, although it took some time getting there because I persisted in asking Italians for directions to Santa Maria dei Julio. Like I say, clueless. The origins of Saint Mary of the Lily, as I think it should be translated, can be traced to the tenth century, but the final design was completed in 1680, seven hundred years later! Its façade is nothing less than a grand funeral monument to one Antonio Barbaro and his family, thanks to Tony's bequest of 30,000 ducats to the builders of the church—kind of like buying a permanent billboard inside Fenway Park. Yet with the church itself hangs an extraordinarily moving painting of Virgin and Child with an infant John the Baptist, by Peter Paul Rubens. No one mixes God and mammon like the Venetians.
Next up was the church of Santo Stefano, dedicated to the first martyr, St. Stephen. Here I sat for ten minutes gazing at a massive Last Supper painted by Tintoretto and his school.
After bidding Katie Adio, I headed to the waterfront and Santa Maria del Rosario (of the Rosary). Originally a small church built by a lay brotherhood, the Gesuati, in the late fifteenth century, it was taken over by the Dominicans after Pope Clement IX suppressed the Gesuati in 1668. Rebuilt on a far larger scale in the eighteenth century, the new church has an interior unity of design that shows the firm grip of the Order of Preachers. Three extraordinary frescos on the ceiling show key episodes in the life of St. Dominic: the Apparition of the Virgin to the Saint, the Institution of the Rosary (favored by the Dominicans and elevated in status by Pope Clement XI in 1714), and the Glory of St. Dominic (a flight of angels conducting him to eternal beatitude).
Just when I thought that should be enough for one church, I discovered the painting in the first chapel on the right: Tiepolo's "The Virgin appears to Saints Rose of Lima, Catherine of Siena, and Agnes of Montepulciano," all three of them Dominicans. Because my post-illustrating abilities are sorely limited on the iPad I am using for the trip, I suggest you Google this painting. It is impressive.
I was tired and soon got lost looking for church #4 on my list. In doing so, I stumbled into a church that is not on the list—and had the most beautiful experience of the day. Entering the Church of the Archangel Raphael, I heard what seemed to be a heavenly choir. Founded in the sixth century (!) and rebuilt many times, the final design was achieved in 1618. After a fire burnt the façade and the organ with it, a new organ was installed in 1749. In 1821 the brothers Antonio and Agostino Callido built the current organ, and it was this heavenly instrument that greeted my ears. An organist was playing a slow hymn in a minor key, and as I sat in silence, my heart rose and fell with the meldoy. I wanted it to last forever.
After about ten minutes, the piece ended and silence fell. The organist came down from the loft and passed me. I chased him to the exit, to find out the name of the piece. I asked in English and French, he answered in Italian and German. As a result, he never understood my question and I never got my answer. We did exchange smiles over our sincere though failed efforts to communicate.
But the afternoon had been transformed. I quickly found the listed church of Saint Sebastian nearby, then began to work my way back by a new path toward our apartment. Half in dream, I passed by an outdoor café in the Campo de S. Barnaba. I heard a familiar voice in a familiar Boston accent. "We have what we call vacation rules," the voice siad. "You get to do exactly what you want, so I went to the Academy, and he has been visiting churches."
It was Katie, of course, who had made fast friends with a German couple. I sat and reminded my wife that I had predicted earlier in the day that we were going to run into someone we knew today. I just hadn't realized that we would run into each other.