An Island Lost in Time
The island of Valverde in north-central Sestiere Cannaregio, Venice, was apparently a relatively stable velme and barene combination (higher mudbanks with arable soil) one of the earliest habitable islands in the archipelago, known for its copse of trees and greenery projecting into the Northern Lagoon from the surrounding marshes. Around 936, an abbey was founded on this notable island, the Priory of Santa Maria della Valverde Madre di Misericordia, and the land was further stabilized.
At first, the abbey may have been established by the Regular Order of St. Augustine. Later in its history, other orders held sway – the Dominicans and, at the end, the Servites. The abbey and its convent may have accounted for the island’s only occupants for centuries, along with expansive food gardens to support them.
Another Mystery of Venice
Curiously, as the adjacent areas were reclaimed and developed over hundreds of years, Valverde‘s frontage on the Lagoon was maintained, a basin now known as Sacca di Misericordia, primarily a yacht harbor. Even those who planned to complete the hard, final edge of the City’s north side, the Fondamente Nova, apparently intentionally left the Sacca as open water – an extraordinary statement of the wealth and power of the Abbey and its patrons, or perhaps also of those whose palazzi eventually lined the east and west sides of the sacca and remainder of Isola di Valverde.
The broad Canale de la Misericordia runs past the Abbey from the southeast corner of the Sacca, then splits into two strands, Rii de Noal and de Santa Felice, to reach the Grand Canal. They constitute the busiest waterway from mid-Grand Canal to the North Lagoon.
Tragedy and Persistence
The old abbey church was rebuilt several times, and enlarged in the 13th Century. All of the monks died in the mid 14th-Century plague, after which the patronage of the abbey and its lands passed to the Moro family who invested in restoration to make the place habitable for a new Order. Periods of occupancy and semi-abandonment spanned the centuries until just over a century ago, when the shuttered facilities passed into secular hands.
The church of Santa Maria di Valverde Madre di Misericordia was rebuilt once again in the 1650’s, and a new main facade designed by Clemente Moli was finished facing the relatively small and private Campo dell’Abbazia to the south. Bounded by the Canale on the east and Rio de la Madonna Dell’Orto on the south, this small campo was eventually accessed from the Fondamente Misericordia Abbazia along the Canale, a dead-end that offered pedestrian access to the Sacca, and from the west on the Fondamente dell’Abbazia from Madonna Dell’Orto after that area of Cannaregio was reclaimed and developed.
The third access is across one bridge to the south that connects the Fondamente and Campo to the heart of the City. Even with these relatively “modern” links, the place seems lonely, forlorn and disconnected to this day.
For the Public Good
Around 1308, the Confraternity Scuola della Santa Maria di Valverde Madre di Misericordia was established in support of the Abbey and for public welfare. Its first known building was built by the Bon family on the west side of Campo dell’Abbazia. That structure still exists today, now known as the Scuola Vecchia (old school), bridging over the Fondamente dell’Abbazia on the south with a gracefully colonnaded sottoportego that has an unidentical twin on the north side facing into the old cloister garden. The Scuola founded and supported a hospital for indigent females, and an adjacent cemetery, on the grounds of the Abbey.
After the Scuola Grande de la Misericordia (thank you for shortening the name!) moved into new, grander, quarters to the south, the old building was used as a hospice for about fifty years and then became a Piccolo Scuola for the silk cloth weaver’s guild.
A Return to Solitude
Today, the deconsecrated church is in great disrepair and of uncertain ownership or usage. The Scuola Vecchia is owned by the Municipal Museum of Venice and used intermittently as an art restoration workshop. Much of the rickety convent was demolished in the early 19th-Century. Some structures may have been adapted for other private uses along the waterfronts.
A large swath of the gardens remain, the part owned by the Municipality quite lovingly restored, and includes a nursery favored by residents of the City. The best opportunity for access occurs when that nursery is open for business, at 3353 Cannaregio on Fondamente dell’Abbazia.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit the nursery and gardens, try to imagine how this isolated island monastic community may have seemed over 1,000 years ago, when its occupants truly knew the meaning of…
The Solace of Open Spaces