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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | ITALY

Hidden Venice

Mere Steps Beyond the Piazza San Marco Lies a Magical City Most Tourists Never See

April 19, 1998|SUSAN ALLEN TOTH | Susan Allen Toth's latest travel memoir is "England for All Seasons" (Ballantine). She lives in Minnesota

But perhaps the best views of Venice were out the window. From the back of the museum, I found myself high enough to survey a panorama of red-tile rooftops that swept toward the Campanile and the Doge's Palace in one direction and all the way to the church of San Zaccaria on the other. The sun was shining brightly that morning, and all of Venice sparkled.

*

A few days later we sought out another small, beguiling museum. Tucked just behind the Basilica di San Marco, the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art restores, preserves and displays art from closed or reconsecrated churches. The building was once a Benedictine monastery, and to enter the museum itself we first passed through the restored 14th century Cloister of St. Apollonia. The cloister, a rare Romanesque survivor, is a marvelously evocative space. Since I had not been able to experience the cloister of St. Elena, I moved around this darkened passage slowly, watching the shifting play of light as it filtered through the arches from a sunny brick courtyard.

In the almost deserted upstairs galleries, we peered into cases that held elaborate reliquaries and chalices, altar cloths, lace vestments, illuminated choir books and other precious furnishings. All the descriptions were in Italian, and I fumbled to read them. But we did not need Italian to study a row of portraits of the "Primiceri," head chaplains of San Marco. James and I discussed their evident characters--one looked ascetic and saintly, another gluttonous and evil--and decided we might easily see similar faces in today's Venice.

One afternoon, we decided to cross the Lagoon to San Lazzaro degli Armeni, the site of another former Benedictine monastery. The monastery still thrives, on an island just off the Lido (a sandbank island that functions as the city's seaside resort), but it now belongs to an Armenian order that has made it into a research center for their language and culture. San Lazzaro is open to outsiders for two hours each midafternoon. Only one vaporetto, leaving San Zaccaria at precisely 2:55 p.m., would deposit us there on time.

As the boat slowly chugged across the Lagoon, we sat alone in the bow for a leisurely half hour and watched the outposts of Venice slide by: the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the luxurious Cipriani Hotel, the island of Guidecca. When we drew close to San Lazzaro, with its distinctive onion-shaped cupola on a tall campanile, I could see that the long, low monastery buildings were set among green lawns and cypresses.

An Armenian monk guided us, taking us past a neatly tended garden in a cloister and into the church. The interior was filled with radiant color: an inlaid altar floor of gold, rose and cream marble; a sky-blue ceiling sprinkled with gold stars; walls ornamented and gilded with shades of blue, rose and green.

San Lazzaro was lively and genial, still a monastic hub of activity--although, at the time of our visit, the monastery held only 10 seminarians and 10 fathers. If the soul of the monastery was its church, its library was its heart. Here the fathers had collected 4,000 Armenian manuscripts dating back to the 7th century and many other books and illuminated manuscripts. The library also held an exceptional collection of miscellany, from Armenian liturgical antiquities to a brown and leathery Egyptian mummy.

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On another day, James and I arrived at San Francisco della Vigna, a large 16th century church designed by the noted architect Jacopo Sansovino, whose majestic library faces San Marco, and given a subsequent facade by the even more famous Andrea Palladio. Despite its architectural pedigree, I remember this cavernous church mainly for two of its artworks that seemed to suggest something of the fascinating contradictions of Venice itself: In one half-lit corner, a glass case appeared to display a large doll, perhaps four feet long, with lacy stockings and lace mitts on its hands. But as I looked closer, I saw that the doll was actually the preserved body of a girl. Her face was very sweet, though the flesh seemed strangely polished to a dark sheen, and her long black hair still flowed over her shoulders as if it were eerily alive. Struggling with my imperfect Italian, I read that this young saint had been tortured to death. Enshrined human relics are common artifacts in Venetian churches, but this one, so complete and well-preserved, was both disturbing and mesmerizing.

Near another wall, I was captivated by a different religious vision. In a painting by Fra Antonio da Negroponte, from about 1450, a rosy-faced Madonna sits on a sculptured throne holding a very composed little Jesus. This is not unusual iconography, except that Negroponte's Madonna is surrounded by an explosion of fruit trees, vines and roses. The joyous painting is a celebration of life itself.

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