Venice – The Early Churches

The first wave of “relocation” settlements built in the Venetian Lagoon, moving from long-established Christian communities on terra firma, would have had as a very high priority the building of “parishes churches”. 

Sticks and Stones

The first churches would most often have used wood construction, later clay brick, and later yet imported stone to better resistant damage from salty brine at the base of the structure.  Eventually, heavier brick and stone replacement churches used timber pile foundations driven into damp sand and muddy marsh soils for stability.  Quantities of brick, stonework, interior furnishings and art were moved from old mainland parishes in more than a few instances. 

Recycling was important!  Upon the collapse of the San Marco Campanile in 1904, a good quantity of Roman Empire era bricks were found amidst the heap of rubble.

Legends versus “Settled History”

By a written wave of the hand, many histories discount the existence of a number of wooden chapels and churches when posting establishment dates, and often discount legend has it stories of early churches and founding dates.  “Legendary” may be myth, exaggeration, poor memory, or lost records, but cannot be totally discounted because of a missing link in the chain of documented evidence.  

“Legends” are often created when historians and commentators serially repeat preceding work over centuries, in the fog of further removal from events.  Similarly, a misleading level of confidence is often built by repetition of allegedly bona fide but not independently researched dates.  Ongoing repair and reconstruction of Venice “below the ground” often finds ” evidence of those earlier, legendary structures! 

“Trust but verify” is a reasonable course of action. 

New! Improved! Model 15-C (version 3.2)  (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

New! Improved! Model 15-C (version 3.2) (c)2007 Randy D. Bosch

If an early church is reported to have


existed on a site where a “date certain” is given for a more recent brick or stone edifice, there is a reasonable likelihood that the earlier structure existed. 

At the least, a review of reported dates for “church built” in context with a careful search for identifiable physical relationships that may be due to the presence of earlier churches (a.k.a. “clues”) is warranted.


The St. Magnus Churches

Eight new parish churches are recorded as commissioned by St. Magnus, the Bishop of Ordzero.  He removed to Venice from the mainland with most of the inhabitants of the City of Ordzero in the face of attack by Rotari forces in 638.  The relocation of his episcopate to Venice was validated by the Pope in 640. 

Many histories set founding dates for those churches in the “mid-7th-Century”.  Use of “century” as a division or designation of a “milestone” of progress is an artificial compartmentalization for “good order” that recorders, historians and students adopted to aid comprehension.  There were no required “performance dates” or “deadlines” that happened to align with the end of Centuries!  Therefore, do not be misled that the use of “century” is a defining limitation. 

Straighten “the corner of time” and look seamlessly into Centuries prior and subsequent to dates given for events, people and places that you study! 

The eight Magnus-founded parish churches had to be authorized by him between his arrival in Venice in around 638 and before his demise in 670 (yes, “mid-7th-Century”).  With uncertain and “legendary” dates given a ??, those churches were apparently:

  • San Giustina                        : 640? 
  • San Zaccharia                      : 640? (On the island of Ombriola)
  • San Salvatore                      : 640? 
  • Angelo Raffaele                   : 640   
  • Santi Apostoli                      : 643   
  • Sergius e Bacchus               : 650   (On the island of Olivolo, now San Pietro in Castello)
  • Santa Maria Formosa        : 640? 
  • San Giovanni dei Bragora : 670-740?…but see below!  

They added to about eleven other parish churches built before 699 A.D., for a grand total of around 19 parish churches in existence by 700 A.D.

The Proto-Churches

The proto-churches in existence prior to the arrival of St. Magnus, with approximate years of founding, appear to have been:

  • San Giacomo di Rialto          : 421 (On the island of Riva Alto)
  • San Teodoro                          : 5?? (On the island of Memmo)
  • San Geminiano                      : 522 (On Memmo or the next island west)
  • San Ermagora e Fortunata  : 589?
  • Santa Croce                            : 5??
  • San Lorenzo                           : 590-610?
  • Sant’Antonin                          : 600-620?
  • San Martino                           : 650? (On the island of Gemini o Gemelle?)

There may have been at least three more proto-churches that are not as easily identified.

That list includes some parish churches apparently founded during St. Magnus’s time, but not by him!  Could such action have occurred under his supervision without his permission?  Perhaps instead of being commissioned through his direct action, they were proposed by citizen-sponsors and then “blessed” by him. 

San Giovanni in Bragora is said to have been founded by Magnus, but others state that it was founded in the early 8th-Century, which would have been after his death.  Perhaps the “paperwork” was done, but construction was delayed, or some historians simply discounted the possibility of an earlier, modest chapel or church – even a “temporary” or a “house church”.

The “Matrix” Churches

A number of churches, San Gregorio, San Barnaba and one or more of a dozen others within the range of founding dates, were also established prior to the formation of the Council of Twelve in 810.

A total of twelve of the churches listed above were among the so-called “matrix” churches that may have anchored just ecclesiastic communities (parishes) or also secular communities that joined in that first formal Riva Alto based Venetian association.  

The number “twelve” may be confused in various histories with the “eight” Magnus churches.  St. Magnus was said to have had a vision of the Twelve Apostles from which he may have intended to found twelve churches, but perhaps his death interrupted his work! 

Someone may have identified the Real Twelve Matrix Churches, and I just have not been diligent enough to find that source and its justification…yet! 

Help Wanted!

A Community Context

This development process was not a primitive “frontier” project, although some small Lagoon village churches may have existed prior to the major migration from the mainland.  It was a sizable accomplishment that required great organization, planning, financing, resource acquisition, transportation and a major labor force while other construction, life and commerce proceeded apace around them in the 12 communities — all in parallel with continuing obligations on Terra Firma.

Some of the “new” island communities were likely to have been “pre-planned”, not all “free-form” accretions to pre-existing villages (Riva Alto is a likely candidate for “pre-existing village”).  At least, many were planned before much “permanent” construction or redevelopment to introduce key formal elements.  Some of the early, and often more densely developed, “parishes” exhibit a more forced placement of key components within a medieval street layout than others.

Subsequent waves of migration may have included entire communities moving en mass from the mainland into temporary or permanent quarters prepared by an advance team Council of Twelve communities would certainly have been involved in planning their absorption, expansion of existing communities, or direction to avoid conflict by identifying as-yet undeveloped “infill” or perimeter islands for their use. 

Selecting appropriate “church with campo and room for cloister” sites would have been a critical component of that planning, along with plotting out “main street” and fondamente. 

Think About It!

By the time the first Doge was elected, two hundred years of development, testing, redevelopment and innovation had occurred.  Large areas of the City and any then-surviving Proto- Magnus- or Matrix-Churches — or even their first or second replacement churches — were long eligible for Venetian…

 “Historical Landmark Designation”!


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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