Of the 118 churches in Venice (that is, the surviving ones, as opposed to the demolished/decayed/collapsed, of which there are about fifty), many are never (in my experience) open. There is a uniform notice on each one, telling you what cultural delights lie within, but nothing about opening hours or access; and their doors, with flaking paint, rusted hinges, and cobwebs woven across them, seem to confirm that, like the cave where the Holy Family sheltered on the way to Egypt, nobody has been in for weeks, months or years.
The enormous abbey church of San Gregorio, between the Accademia and the Salute, is one case in point. The Benedictines left their abbey in 1775, and the building was then suppressed as a parish church by Napoleon in 1807. After a period as a laboratory, and later as an art restoration centre after the disastrous 1966 floods, it is now apparently completely unused.
(I have found one reference to it being opened briefly in 2013 to display a Canaletto veduta at the site at which it must have been painted.)
At the other end of the scale, the tiny church of Sant’ Eufemia on Giudecca is still consecrated, and apparently used for some services, but the building is certainly not open from 8 to 12 and 3 to 5 every day, as one website claims.
In the past, Giudecca had at least nine churches, some of them attached to monasteries, but today parishes have been combined, and Sant’ Eufemia is united with San Gerardo Sagredo (a startlingly ugly Brutalist church built in the 1960s and commemorating the Venetian saint who was martyred in Hungary by being pushed down a hill in a barrel spiked with nails) and the famous Redentore, designed by Palladio and built to commemorate a particularly severe visitation of the plague in 1575–6.
Let’s consider the saint first. The church was originally dedicated to four female martyrs: SS Euphemia, Dorothy, Thecla and Erasma. Euphemia herself (‘well-spoken-of’) was allegedly martyred in Chalcedon in 303. Having refused to sacrifice to Ares, she was tortured and then thrown to the bears in the arena. (This gorgeous image is by Andrea Mantegna, and apart from being full-length is very similar in style to his Saint Mark, currently on loan to Palazzo Cini, a short trip across the Giudecca Canal from the church.)
Euphemia’s martyred body played a crucial role in the Council of Chalcedon, but suffered various vicissitudes during the period of iconoclasm in Constantinople, with the result that parts of her can be found in the church of St George in Istanbul, and other relics are venerated in the church of Rovinj in Croatia.
There are two St Dorothys: of Alexandria and of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia (modern Turkish Kayseri). I think this Dorothy may be the latter: martyred in 311, she performed her first miracle on the spot. A lawyer named Theophilus mocked her, saying, ‘Bride of Christ, send some fruit from your Bridegroom’s garden.’ She sent him (via a small boy) her headdress, full of heavenly fruits and flowers, and is thus the patron of gardeners. (Theophilus was of course converted on the spot, and duly tortured and martyred.)
St Thecla, from Iconium (Konya) was a follower of St Paul, and thus an earlier saint than the other two. Having escaped martyrdom at the stake through the intervention of a miraculous hailstorm, she went to live in Pisidian Antioch, where she was saved from the beasts in the arena when the female animals ganged up on the males to defend her. She then lived in a cave on the south coast of Turkey for 72 years, and became a healer.
Aggrieved local doctors whose patients had transferred to her sent a gang to rape her, but a passage in her cave miraculously opened to save her, and she went to Rome to lie on the grave of St Paul. There is a catacomb of Santa Tecla in Rome, but she is also venerated as martyr, and several places claim her cave/tomb.
Finally, St Erasma seems to be both local and completely obscure. She was from Aquileia, at the head of the Adriatic. For an alternative view of this quartet, the 1921 Book of Saints, compiled by the Monks of Ramsgate, has this paragraph on them: ‘The two first were daughters of Valentius, a pagan nobleman of Aquileia, and the two others, daughters of his brother Valentinianus, a Christian. The pagan Valentius having heard of their baptism had them all arrested. After having been put to the torture they were beheaded (it is alleged by Valentius’s own hand) and their bodies cast into a river near Aquileia. Their martyrdom took place in the first century of the Christian era. They are venerated at Venice and also at Ravenna.’ This sounds a bit ex post facto to me, but who am I to judge?
Anyway, in the nature of things the church, founded in 865, became known as ‘Famia’. Merian’s map of 1635 (above) shows a typical Veneto-Byzantine church with a campanile and a so-called ‘sugarloaf’ spire, very different from the building today.
The radical change came when the strange loggia was added on the canal side of the building. It came from the church of SS Biagio e Cataldo further north along the canal, which was remodelled by Michele Sanmicheli in 1596. Unfortunately, there are two completely different versions of how it got there.
By one account, the portico was originally the gallery support (coro pensile) of the earlier church, rendered redundant by Sanmicheli’s changes and moved to Sant’ Eufemia at the time. The other is that the legendary Giovanni Stucky, Swiss entrepreneur, gave the portico to its current home when he demolished the (by now redundant) SS Biagio e Cataldo to build his extraordinary mill (now the Venice Hilton hotel) in 1883.
The relics of the two saints (Biagio (St Blaise), the patron saint of wool-combers owing to the unfortunate mode of his martyrdom, and Cataldo, an Irish monk who became archbishop of Taranto) were certainly moved to Sant’ Eufemia before the demolition. Photographs online of the interior look charming: bare brickwork contrasts with pink-and-white marble columns and pistachio-and-white baroque plasterwork.
The greatest artwork inside is the altarpiece (once part of a triptych) by Bartolomeo Vivarini (uncle, and possibly teacher, of the more famous Alvise), who is alleged to have brought oil painting to Venice, being himself a pupil of Antonello da Messina (whose extraordinary ‘Salting Madonna’ from the National Gallery brings to an end the current British Museum exhibition on Sicily). It shows San Rocco (St Roche) characteristically pointing to the bleeding plague sore on his thigh, accompanied by a sympathetic angel.
Under the portico are various plaques commemorating stages in the history of the church, most of them extremely worn and difficult to read, including an appallingly long list of victims on a First World War memorial.
What there isn’t, alas, is any clue to when the building is actually accessible – but we will keep wandering down there in hope.
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