Venice Churches – What’s in a Name?

Catedrale, Basilica, Parochiale, Chiesa, Oratorio, Capella, Baptistry…

Catedrale: (Or Cattedrale, or Cathedral) 

Catedrale Basilica San Marco   (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Catedrale Basilica San Marco (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

The title conveyed upon a church that is the seat of the Patriach or Archbishop of an Archdiocese, such as Venice. 

There have only been three cathedrals in “Venice” since it was first designated as an Archdiocese. 

  • Santa Maria Assunta de Torcello, was the earliest “Venetian” diocese seat, and currently designated a “Minor Cathedral” by the Church.


  • San Pietro di Castello (Olivolo) from its dedication as the Diocese headquarters church in the late 16th Century until 1803.  Designated as “Co-Cathedral” by the Church.
  • San Marco, since 1803, a move of the Patriarchate engineered by the Napoleonic administration and the Church, and designated as THE “Cathedral”.

Basilica: In the Roman Catholic church, a designation conveyed upon a church due to it being granted certain religious privileges that ranked it above an ordinary chiesa or church.   The term may have originated in Roman times as applied to very large and often rectangular structures used for non-religious purposes, then for temples, and for temples converted by Christians into churches. 

Basilica Ss. Maria e Donato di Murano  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Basilica Ss. Maria e Donato di Murano (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Many historic Christian churches are referred to as “basilicas” because of their shape and size without reference to their functional privileges within the church hierarchy. 

In Venice, including the “outer islands”, the official Roman Catholic Church title for these places is “Minor Basilica”. 

These “minor” Basilicas are:

  • San Pietro de Castello: The place lost the cathedral designation.  According to some commentators, it was given the consolation prize title of Basilica, but is it “official” or is it wishful thinking?  Opinions vary, so further research at the Patriarchate is necessary.
  • San Marco: The Basilica, in Sestiere San Marco.
  • Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (the Frari): Sestiere San Polo
  • Santi Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo): Sestiere Castello
  • San Giorgio Maggiore: Isola San Giorgio Maggiore (Cipressi)
  • Santa Maria della Salute: Sestiere Dorsoduro
  • Santa Maria e DonatoIsola de Murano
  • Santa Maria Assunta: Isola de Torcello

Parochiale: The parish church for a neighborhood or small town.  In Venice, with its superabundance of churches and other religious institutions, at one time there were apparantly as many as seventy parochiale or parish churches. 

San Trovaso        (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

San Trovaso (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

The other churches were a part of monasteries and monache, the catedrale and the Doge’s chapel (San Marco). 

Through attrition and suppression, today there are forty-three parishes organized into three vicarates, that include the Lagoon islands as far out as Torcello but not the Lidi, and several “parish church” designations that upon dissolution or suppression of past parishes, were appended into still-operating monastery, monache and special-function churches.



Chiesa: A church, a place where Divine Worship, dispensation of sacraments and performance of sacred rites occur, whether or not a parish church, monastery or monache church, specific religious order, hospital or retirement home church. 

San Michele     (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

San Michele (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Therefore, the title applies to “all of the above”, and more than one hundred chiesa remain in existence in the City and nearby Lagoon islands today.  Quite a few were secularized and are now publically or privately owned.

Oratorio: Originally, the designation may have been applied to a space for performance of sacred music or “orations” not regarded as appropriate for Divine Services and not for sacramental functions.  In recent centuries, the term has been applied around the world to various other religious spaces ranging in size from chapels to major churches.  Today in Venice, I have yet to find the term “Oratorio” remaining in use. 

Capella: (Or cappella or chapel) A small consecrated space, usually part of a non-parish church setting such as within a monastery, monache, ospedale, cimitario, or dedicated elsewhere in the sacred memory of a saint of the church.  Capella now most often occur as “side-chapels” within a larger Chiesa or church where smaller worship and prayer services, dispensation of sacraments and performance of sacred rites occur, sometimes simultaneously with activities elsewhere in the larger structure.  Many were gifted to the specific church by a family to honor itself or through a Will to honor a deceased patron of the community.  Many of the current (and past!) chiesa were built as replacements for earlier chapels.

Some of the few still-surviving free-standing chapels in Venice include San Gallo (1582, part of the Ospizio Orseolo, and rebuilt as seen today in 1703); Cappella dei Luccesi by the destroyed Santa Maria dei Servi; San Vio, an 1865 chapel that replaced the much larger suppressed church nearby;

Baptistry: A structure within which the sacrament of Holy Baptism occurs at Christian churches.  These were originally often detached from the church and placed in front of the main entrance in recognition of the need for a person to receive Baptism prior to entering the sacred space of the church.  In later years and in many sects of the Christian church, they were relocated into the main building as a side-chapel or as a specifically demarcated place within the sanctuary – rear, side or front.

Although free-standing baptistries are not uncommon in Italy (Firenze, Pisa and Ravenna have among the best known, Volterra’s is spectacular, and at the Siena Cathedral it is not “unattached”, but below the apse of the church), they do not exist in Venice today. 

The original cathedral/basilica of Santa Maria della Assunta on Torcello displays the ruins of its first Baptistry outside the main door of the church.  Later construction of the adjacent church, Santa Fosca, provided the baptistry function there.

What’s in a Name?

Whether the building is titled Catedrale, Basilica, Parochiale, Chiesa or Capella, as you visit and enter inside, please respect the place, art and people within it with your dress and your demeanor, for you are…

Walking on Holy Ground.


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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3 Responses to Venice Churches – What’s in a Name?

  1. ytaba36 says:

    Good morning, Sig. Randallo. Thank you for explaining all of that terminology .. now, if I could only retain it in my memory banks! 🙂

  2. Maité says:

    Merci pour cet article très intéressant, bon dimanche, a presto !

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