The awe-inspiring Basilica of St Mark’s is one of the most iconic churches in the world, and for many visitors to Venice, it is top of their list of “must see” destinations. Our advice, however, would be to save St Mark’s for an evening visit (why not consider organising a private guided tour through www.veniceevents.com, or attending one of the Basilica’s peaceful ‘out of hours’ services) – and head off the beaten track to discover the beauty of some of Venice’s lesser-visited churches that lie on the fringes of the lagoon city.
Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta: Take a boat to the island of Torcello and explore one of the most ancient buildings in the Venetian lagoon – the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in AD 639. Adorned with glittering 12th century mosaics, the cathedral also boasts an exquisite Byzantine screen teeming with peacocks, rabbits and other medieval beasts, as well as a remarkable polychrome marble floor. While you’re there, be sure to call into the serene 11th century Greek cross church next door, dedicated to Santa Fosca.
Madonna dell’Orto: Located on the northern edge of Venice in a quiet corner of Cannaregio, this elegant Gothic church remains one of the city’s best kept secrets. Deriving its name from a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary that was discovered in a nearby orchard, the Madonna dell’Orto was the parish church of Renaissance artist Tintoretto, who is buried in the chapel to the right of the altar. The church is full of his paintings, including two of his greatest works – Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, and Last Judgement. Note the empty frame in the side chapel to the left of the front door – a poignant memory of the masterpiece by Giovanni Bellini that used to hang there, before it was stolen in 1993.
San Francesco della Vigna: Designed by Sansovino, with a facade by Palladio, San Francesca della Vigna is one of the most striking Renaissance churches in Venice – yet situated on the outskirts of Castello, it receives relatively few visitors. Named after the vineyards that were originally cultivated in the area, the church contains a number of fine works of art, such as Veronese’s Virgin and Child Enthroned with Young St John the Baptist and Saints. Don’t forget to wander through the serene cloisters too, which are amongst the oldest in the city.