Chiesa di San Nicolò dei Mendicoli

Church in Dorsoduro

Other churches in town might be grander, but none is more quintessentially Venetian. This striking brick Veneto-Gothic church dedicated to serving the poor hasn’t changed much since the 12th century, when its cloisters functioned as a women’s refuge and its portico sheltered mendicoli (beggars). The tiny, picturesque campo (square) out front is Venice in miniature, surrounded on three sides by canals and featuring a pylon bearing the winged lion of St Mark – one of the few in Venice to escape target practice by Napoleon’s troops.

Dim interiors are illuminated by an 18th-century golden arcade and a profusion of clerestory paintings, including Palma Il Giovane's masterpiece Resurrection. In the painting, onlookers cower in terror and awe as Jesus leaps from his tomb in a blaze of golden light. The right-hand chapel is a typically Venetian response to persistent orders from Rome to limit music in Venetian churches: Madonna in glory, thoroughly enjoying a concert by angels on flutes, lutes and violins. The parish’s seafaring livelihood is honoured in Leonardo Corona’s 16th-century ceiling panel San Nicolo Guiding Sailors Through a Storm, which shows the saint as a beacon guiding sailors rowing furiously through a storm.

Film buffs might recognise church interiors from the 1973 Julie Christie thriller Don’t Look Now as the church Donald Sutherland was assigned to restore. Although the movie cast Venice in a spooky light, the publicity apparently helped San Nicolò: the British Venice in Peril Fund underwrote extensive church renovations, completed in 1977.


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