Around  Santa Croce

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Among the sestieri of Venice, Santa Croce can be considered, and for good reasons, the wronged sister. Within its limits, the districts of Santa Chiara, Sant'Andrea and even the church of the Santa Croce, which gave its name to the whole sestiere, were demolished to make way for Piazzale Roma, the only place in the historic center that can be reached by cars. The docks, or stazione maritima, were built on reclaimed land at the northwestern end of the city and have changed its landscape for ever. Despite these transformations, Santa Croce still retains its untainted character in its many hidden corners, solitary rii and shady campi. Some of my favorite spots are here.

Map of Venice

We start our tour at Campo San Pantalon in Dorsoduro. We take Calle San Pantalon on the right-hand side of the church and make a left turn on Calle dei Preti. Ponte Vinanti is right ahead of us. From the middle of the bridge, if we turn our head to the right to face the water, we could see three sestieri at once: to our right, Dorsoduro, in front of us, San Polo and to our left, Santa Croce. Ponte Vinanti is known in the vernacular as Ponte delle Gomme, a reference to the thousands of chewing gum pieces (already chewed!) that Venetians have stuck to the plaster above the sotoportego. It has been cleaned but old habits die hard.

We walk along Salizada San Pantalon. Near number 111 there is an old board game, called tria, chiseled on one of the paving stones. This is a variation of the game known in English as Nine Men's Morris. From the nearby Ramo de Ca' Arnaldi there is a beautiful view of Rio del Malcanton. Contrary to what the name malcanton may suggest (malcanton means "bad corner" in Venetian), this is in fact one of the most charming areas of Venice. Salizada San Pantalon soon becomes Fondamenta Minotto. The red house where the canal bends, sometimes called the Ca' Rossa, used to be a fritolin (seller of fried fish) in the 18th century.

Ca' Rossa before (1988)

and after (2004).


On Fondamenta del Gaffaro, on the other side of the canal (in Dorsoduro), the architect Giuseppe Torres found inspiration in some old Venetian themes: the chimneys, the Catherine wheels (as seen in Desdemona's house on the Grand Canal) and the protruding perforated stones on the walls, probably used to hang shades, banners or dry laundry (also seen in Carpaccio's Miracle of the True Cross at the Rialto) to build a modern palazzetto which he made his home at the beginning of the 20th century.

Desdemona's house



As the canal bends to the right and becomes Rio dei Tolentini there is a nice view of Rio del Gaffaro behind us and, in front of us, the not-so-nicely named Ponte dei Squartai, a name of obscure origin but clear meaning: Bridge of the Dismembered.

We continue on Fondamenta dei Tolentini. The church of San Nicolò da Tolentino will be soon on our right. The neoclassical façade dates from the early 18th century and the church's interior from the late 16th. The school of architecture of the Università di Venezia is housed in the adjacent former monastery. A cannon ball from the Austrian siege of the city in 1849 can still be seen in the façade. It is worth mentioning that during the siege, Venice was attacked from the air by Austrian balloons filled with ammunition. The balloons did little damage, the whole project literally backfired and the balloons fell over the Austrians, but they caused enough panic to prompt Venice's surrender.

Arnaldo Fusinato's poem "Addio Venezia" describes the feelings of the population upon surrender. An excerpt from it, one of Venice's most beloved odes, follows.
"Venezia, l'ultima
Ora è venuta,
Illustre martire
Tu sei perduta;
Il morbo infuria,
Il pan ci manca,
Sul ponte sventola
Bandiera bianca."

"Ma non le ignivome
Palle roventi,
Nè i mille fulmini
Su te stridenti,
Troncaro ai liberi
Tuoi dì lo stame:
Viva Venezia:
Muor della fame!"

Venezia, the last / Hour has come, / Illustrious martyr / You are lost;/ The disease is raging, / There is no bread to eat, /And the white flag / Waves from the bridge. / But you will not be consumed / By scorching cannonballs, / And a thousand lightnings / Grinding on you, / Will not cut the stem / Of your days of liberty: / Long live Venezia: / Starving to death!

Fondamenta dei Tolentini ends at the Grand Canal. We cross Ponte de la Croce, from where we can see the whole length of Rio de la Croce. The church of Santa Croce used to be in the space today occupied by the Papadopoli Gardens. At the corner, near the bridge, only a column remains. It has an interesting Greek capital that reminds me of the reliefs on the Pillars of Acre in the Piazzetta. I wonder what it all means.

Same view, 20 years earlier.


We cross Ponte del Monastero and reach Piazzale Roma. To the right of the open space is the worst eyesore in the city, the parking garage. Fortunately, its view is partially eclipsed by the sleek Calatrava bridge. Behind Piazzale Roma, by the Rio de le Burchiele, Venice and the rest of the world are separated by a simple gate on Fondamenta dei Tabacchi.


Behind the parking garage we can find the remains of old Venice, the Gothic church of Sant'Andrea della Zirada, deconsecrated today. Zirada means "bend" in Venetian and makes reference to the bend in the canal in front of the church, which can be appreciated in de' Barbari's engraving. A few steps away on Fondamenta Santa Chiara is the church of the Nome di Gesù, the only church in Venice built in the 19th century. The church of Santa Chiara used to be on the other side of the canal on an island now connected by a metal bridge. A monorail system above the bridge, called the People Mover, connects the island of Tronchetto and the cruise terminal with Piazzale Roma.

Sant' Andrea della Zirada

People Mover station

Nome di Gesù

From the bridge on Canal Santa Chiara one has a peek of the docks and the cruise ships that dwarf any building in the city. I remember being absolutely surprised by the view of Venice somewhere between Punta Sabbioni and Burano on a rainy summer day. The city was barely distinguishable by its slender campanili lost in the mist but the ships moored by the docks were an unmistakable towering presence.

view from a ship in the docks

We leave the area by the arcade under the car overpass, where a cartoonish lion guards the entrance, and soon reach again Piazzale Roma. An old vera da pozzo (around 1470), originally from the monastery of the Santa Croce, with a relief of Sant' Elena, who patronized the unearthing of the Holy Cross, is almost lost in the hustle and bustle of the bus terminal.

We cross the Calatrava bridge and leave momentarily Santa Croce to take a short detour in Cannaregio. From the Fondamenta Santa Lucia there is one of the most endearing images of Venice. The one that remains for ever in the minds of millions (me included) who reached Venice, for the first time, by train. I do not agree with Thomas Mann who said that reaching Venice by train is like entering a palace by the back door. To me, seeing Venice through the glass doors of the ferrovia and taking that first step down the stairs is the closest I can come to transposing, at once, the order of the Universe.

The dome of the church of San Simeon Piccolo dominates the scene. Legend has it that Napoleon on seeing the church said "I have seen many churches without a dome but never a dome without a church". We cross back to Santa Croce by Ponte dei Scalzi.

We take Calle Longa Bergama which soon bends to the left and after crossing the bridge on Rio Marin we are in front of the church of San Simeone Profeta, also called by the Venetians San Simeon Grando (despite the fact that it is now smaller than San Simeon Piccolo). The Last Supper by Tintoretto can be admired inside. Nearby is Sotoportego dei Squelini one of the lowest in the whole city.

Across the canal is Palazzo Soranzo-Cappello which was the inspiration for the dilapidated palazzo where the fictional characters in Henry James's 'The Aspern Papers,'  Miss Bordereau and her niece, did "live on nothing for they've nothing to live on". The garden of the palazzo, so central in James's novella, can be seen on the right of the building and beyond. The palazzo "overlooked a clean, melancholy, unfrequented canal, which had a narrow riva or convenient footway on either side".

View of the Palazzo Soranzo-Cappello according to Vincenzo Coronelli in his Singolarità di Venezia, ca 1710.

We leave the area by crawling under the Sotoportego dei Squelini and reach Calle Larga dei Bari and turn right on Lista Vechia dei Bari. To our left is the entrance of Corte Pisani with two charming zoomorphical reliefs from the 10-11th century. 

We continue on the same street until the end at Campiello Rielo and turn left on the Rio Terà that leads us to Riva di Biasio on the Grand Canal. The view from here is superb. Biasio was an interesting Venetian character. He was an innkeeper famous all over town and beyond for his delicious sausages and stews but his fortune turned when a patron found a child's finger in his stew. When the authorities searched his inn they discovered the dismembered bodies of children. How many he killed over the years is anybody's guess. Biasio was sentenced to death, Venetian style. His hands were chopped off and hung around his neck. He was dragged to Piazza San Marco and beheaded between the two columns in the Molo. He was quartered and his remains exhibited in the four corners of the city. His house was demolished, but his legend lives on.
We return to Campiello Rielo where there is a beautiful Gothic building (Ca' Zusto) restored only a few years ago. The restoration may have been badly needed and perhaps perfectly executed, but the building seems to have lost some of its character.

We take Calle de Ca' Bembo that takes us to Campo San Zan Degolà (Venetian for Saint John the Beheaded). The church dates back to the 11th century and houses some of the oldest Venetian frescoes from the 13th century. Services for the Russian Orthodox Church are offered every Sunday at 9:30 am.

On the side wall of the church is a relief of Saint John's head. Venetian lore also associates the relief to the memory of the rolling head of Biasio. We exit the campo by the right-hand side calle that takes us to Salizada del Fontego dei Turchi at the end of which, and on the Grand Canal, is the Museum of Natural History in what used to be, in the 17th century, the Fontego dei Turchi (the headquarters of the Turkish merchants). The building, originally from the 13th century, has been substantially remodeled and rebuilt. The ornate Veneto-Byzantine vera da pozzo, from the 12th century, was originally in a house in Murano and placed in the courtyard only at the end of the 19th century.

We leave the area by the meandering Calle del Spezier that takes us to Fondamenta del Megio. The diarist Marin Sanudo, who chronicled the daily affairs of the city between 1496 and 1533, lived in the family palazzo by the fondamenta. Selections from his diaries, which fill 58 volumes, can be read in English in "Venice. Cità Excelentissima."

On the other side of Ponte del Megio is one of the best restaurants in Venice, La Zucca (pumpkin). I could travel to Venice just to have their Flan di Zucca sprinkled with aged ricotta cheese, pumpkin seeds and sage and butter sauce, but the rest of the menu with many vegetarian choices is delicious too.

We take Calle Larga, on the same side of the fondamenta and soon reach one of the most beautiful and peaceful corners of Venice, Campo San Giacomo da l'Orio. Do not be surprised if you have a sudden urge to sit down under the trees and let life unfold around you. The name of the church, dedicated to Saint James, is of unclear origin. It probably makes reference to a laurel tree (lauro) that stood in the campo or perhaps to the old name of the island where the church stands, Lupao, Lupriolo, Lorio or Lauro. The church has an amazing wooden ship's keel ceiling. For an engaging description of the churches in Santa Croce read Annie's account in Churches in Venice.

Some years ago as I wandered into the campo on a warm summer evening I saw a group of elegant women getting ready for a milonga. Some brought their high heels in plastic bags and quickly changed their shoes on the wooden benches. Soon a dozen couples were dancing the tango to the music of Gardel. This year I found a group of milongueros (tango dancers) dancing in Campo Santa Margarita. There are always surprises awaiting you in these hidden corners of Venice.

We momentarily leave the campo by Calle del Tentor to take a look at one of the most picturesque courtyards, Corte del Tagiapiera. The vera da pozzo, made of Istrian stone, dates from the 14th century.

We retrace our steps to Ponte del Megio and leave the area by Ramo del Tentor that soon becomes Calle del Tentor that takes us to Salizada San Stae. The church of San Stae (S. Eustachio) rebuilt in the 17-18th centuries in a Baroque style is used for art exhibits. One of the times I visited, there was an interesting display of Leonardo's machines.

Next to the church is the former Scuola dei Battiloro and Tiraoro (the guild of the gold beaters and drawers). From the campo in front of the church we have a view of the Madonna della Misericordia on the façade of Palazzo Barbarigo on the other side of the Grand Canal. 

We exit the campo by the bridge on the left-hand side. If you are up for some modern art you can take Calle de Ca' Pesaro at the end of the sotoportego. This will take you to Ca' Pesaro, the Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna; it also houses in the upper floors a collection of oriental art, especially from Japan. There are paintings by Ernst, Klimt, Klee, Matisse, Chagall among many others. One of my favorites is the humorous "Le Signorine" (The Young Ladies) by Felice Casorati, a rather mysterious rendering of four ladies of known names; from left to right: Dolores F., Violante, Bianca and Gioconda.


We go back to the canal on the side of the church of San Stae and walk along the fondamenta. At the end, now called Fondamenta de le Grue, there is a beautiful zoomorphical relief from the 13th century. It depicts two kissing birds (peacocks?), one with a foot in midair, on top of a third pecking the head of a walking lion. 

In the middle of the fondamenta is one of the most charming corners of Venice, Sotoportego del Filatoio (named after a spinner's workshop, a filatoio). The view of Rio de la Pergola is bewitching.

We leave the area by Campiello del Spezier. Restaurant Muro is located at number 2048. It has excellent pizzas and typical Venetian dishes. The atmosphere is young and mainly local. We cross Ponte del Cristo and soon we are in Campo Santa Maria Mater Domini surrounded by Gothic palazzi. Next to the church, on the second floor of a palazzo, we can observe the relief of a winged lion, symbol of La Serenissima, chiseled away in times of Napoleon. It is believed that the lion was placed there to indicate the confiscated residence of people who participated in Bajamonte Tiepolo's conspiracy. We cross the bridge and soon on our right we'll find a bakery, an ideal place to have a mid-afternoon snack. 

We make a left turn in Calle de la Regina, a name that makes reference to the birthplace of Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus. The Osteria Vecio Fritolin is located at number 2262. It offers traditional Venetian dishes, such as fried fish, with a light and fresh spin. We turn right at Sotoportego de Siora Bettina that takes us to the last number of the sestiere of Santa Croce and the end of our tour.