Chiesa di San Francesco della Vigna


Designed and built by Jacopo Sansovino, with a facade by Palladio, this enchanting Franciscan church is one of Venice’s most underappreciated attractions. The Madonna positively glows in Bellini’s Madonna and Saints (1507) in the Cappella Santa, just off the flower-carpeted cloister, while swimming angels and strutting birds steal the scene in the delightful Virgin and Child Enthroned (c 1455) by Antonio da Negroponte, near the door to the right of the sanctuary. Bring €0.20 to illuminate them.

Palladio and the Madonna are tough acts to follow, but father-son sculptors Pietro and Tullio Lombardo make their own mark with their 15th-century marble reliefs that recount the lives of Christ and an assortment of saints. Housed in the Cappella di San Girolamo, just left of the altar, they are storytelling triumphs. Breezes seem to ripple through carved-marble trees, and lifelike lions seem prepared to pounce right off the wall.

Outside, the free-standing campanile (bell tower) looks like the twin of the more famous one in Piazza San Marco. A portico of classical columns makes the surrounding campo (square) look like a proper ancient Roman agora (marketplace). This makes a sociable setting for Venice’s best annual block party, the Festa di Francesco della Vigna, when wine and rustic fare are served up in the church's stately shadow; it's usually held the third week in June.