Most Serene Places

From the magnificent palaces of the Grand Canal to the housing projects of Dorsoduro and Cannaregio, from the expansiveness of the lagoon to the intimacy of a corte, Venice is a city of big contrasts. Although we may have first fallen in love with her because of her open and unconcealed beauty, it's her grace and reserve, revealed to us only as we tread along her most quiet and unpretentious corners, that keep us coming back.

Architects and historians call these unassuming corners Venezia minore, a demeaning term, a misnomer. There is nothing minor about these places except, perhaps, a shortness of affluence. But what they may lack in wealth and prestige they make up in charm, tranquility and whimsy. I prefer to call them Most Serene Places. They are all over town in the six sestieri and beyond. Some are as small as a courtyard, still others encompass larger areas of the city. Here you will find some of my favorites. We start with three of them: Saffa, Chiovere di San Giobbe and Chiovere di San Rocco, but over time I would be adding a few more.

Saffa Chiovere di San Giobbe Chiovere di San Rocco

Corte del Volto Santo


The district known as Saffa extends over a large area of Cannaregio between the Ferrovia, the Canal de Cannaregio and the Rio de la Crea. Saffa (Società Anonima Fabbriche Fiammiferi e Affini) was a factory of matches (fiammiferi) and related products that operated in Venice until the 1950s. Originally from Moncalieri, near Torino, this conglomerate of companies reached its peak during Mussolini's regime with factories in several Italian cities; but little by little the colossus was dismantled in the years following the Second World War.

After being abandoned for many years, the area was recovered for residential use. Under the direction of architect Vittorio Gregotti some 200 units were built in two phases, 1981-85 and 1998-2001. They maintain the general structure of the old city with campi and corti radiating into calli. To reach this area take either Calle Priuli dei Cavaletti or Calle de la Misericordia, off Lista di Spagna.

Corte Saffa

Corte del Bagolaro. Bagolaro is a common tree of the Mediterranean region with a light-gray trunk and small black drupes  relished by birds. It is known in English as nettle tree or hackberry.

One of the most original "vere da pozzo" in Venice

A true "campo" with grass, loved by the pigeons

A touch of whimsy

Ponte Priuli on Rio de la Crea. Crea (Venetian for "creta," clay) was used to make bricks in a nearby kiln. There is also a Calle de La Crea near Spirito Santo in Dorsoduro.

Fondamenta Priuli dei Cavaletti

The residents of Saffa have water access through this boathouse on Rio de la Crea

We can't deny that we are in Venice

Chiovere di San Giobbe

Authors do not agree on the origin of the word chiovere. Some think
that chiovere derives from clauderiae (Latin for enclosure), an old term  applied to describe grassy and enclosed areas of Venice used for pasture. The best-accepted explanation is, however, that chiovere derives from chiodi or chiovi (nails) because of the nails used to hang fabrics after dyeing and washing. Regardless of the origin of the word, the truth is that these places were used for the dyeing of fibers, fabrics and leather. Their location was strictly regulated by the city of Venice. Three areas still carry the name chiovere: San Giobbe, San Rocco and San Girolamo, but the grassy land plots have been transformed into modern housing. Many of the houses in the Chiovere di San Giobbe were built at the turn of the 20th century as part of a long-term housing project that would bring "healthy and economical" houses to the people of Venice. These areas have a distinct characteristic, their houses are among the very few in Venice that have a front yard. The street names in the Chiovere di San Giobbe in Cannaregio still recall the activity that once took place here: Calle dei Colori, Calle del Scarlatto, Calle de la Corda, Calle del Saon. To reach this area walk on Fondamenta San Giobbe along the Canal de Cannaregio, past Ponte dei Tre Archi and the Rio de San Giobbe and make a left on the first street, Calle de le Canne.

De' Barbari's view (1500). The chiovere di San Giobbe can be seen on the upper left corner by the banks of the Rio de San Giobbe. The church of San Giobbe with its gardens and the forerunner of the Ponte dei Tre Archi are in the center.

By the 15th century the art of dyeing was already very well developed in Venice. The Plictho, the first comprehensive treatise on the art of dyeing, was published in Venice in 1548. Very little is known about the author
Gioanventura Rosetti, except that he was born in Venice and by the year 1530 was already working at the Arsenal where he continued to work until at least 1548. The city records show his name as Zuan Ventura Roxeti. In addition to The Plictho he also wrote a treatise on perfumes published in 1555. According to his own account he spent sixteen years working with all his forces, devoting days and nights, months and years, with his "blood and poor substance," to compiling the formulas and recipes for dyeing all sorts of fabric as well as leather. He adds: "...these works of mine have been published for the benefit of the people of this illustrious City of Venice, my Fatherland, my nest, and my heritage. So that my remarkable Senators can obtain benefit in their houses and workshops, increasing the number of masters who will wish to exercise these three arts, so that there be decorous and suitable rooms to carry out such workmanship, thus one can only expect great, useful benefit and honor to this illustrious City." It seems that his book wasn't just about dyeing, it was also about capitalism, and above all about Venice.

The book begins with the following poem as an epigraph:

"O might it be, that Readers find delight
In this work that to the living is so opportune.
Set apart are Purple, Yellow, and how to brown,
To color in Wine, and faded shades,
The green, the blues, and scarlets
And those that carry the emblem of fortune."

The Plictho of Gioanventura Rosetti

Instructions in the Art
of Dyers Which Teaches the Dyeing of
Woolen Cloths, Linens, Cottons,
And Silk by the Great Art
As Well as by the Common

Poem translated by S. M. Edelstein and H. C. Borghetty

Illustration from "The Plictho" by Gioanventura Rosetti

Calle de la Corda (corda: line, string, rope)

"Saon" in Venetian, "sapone" in Italian, means soap.

Calle del Verde. It probably makes reference to a manufacturer of green soap.
Soap used to come in just two colors: white and green.

Cereria makes reference to a famous candle factory that originally belonged to Andrea Bortolotti.
The raw wax was imported from the Balkans, whitened and transformed into high-quality
candles that were sold all over Europe.

Campiello Ca' Pesaro. This charming campiello is also called "de le Cane" in some documents.
Today the name "de le Cane" is reserved for an adjacent court and a calle.
"Cane" or "canne" makes reference to the reeds that grew along the Canal de Cannaregio
and that were incinerated to make pitch for caulking the ships at the Arsenal.
These reeds, or "canne," gave name to the whole district of Cannaregio.

The "vera da pozzo" in Istrian stone is from the 15-16th century.
It has reliefs of amphoras and the coat of arms of the Farsetti family.

A beautiful capitelo dedicated to Saint Anthony also graces Campiello Ca' Pesaro.
I love the description of this capitelo in the book "I Capiteli di Venezia"
by Fiorenzo Cùman:
'Immagine tipicamente popolare per la gente umile che non mira all'arte ma solo alla pietà'
("...typical image
popular with humble people that do not look at the art, but only at the godliness.")

Chiovere di San Rocco

Chiovere di San Rocco is enclosed between the Scuola and Church of San Rocco, the state archives, Rio de le Muneghete and Rio de San Zuane Evangelista in San Polo. Some of the street names include Calle de le Chiovere, Calle de le Sechere and Calle de la Laca.

Ramo San Nicoleto. In this area once stood the church and convent of San Nicoleto de la Latuga (Saint Nicholas of the Lettuce.) The strange name (although not so strange for Venice's standards where we can find the church of Saint Mary of the Fava Bean and the island of Saint George in the Seaweed) has a very interesting origin. According to Tassini in his "Curiosità Veneziane," Nicolò Lion, procurator of Saint Mark, fell very ill, victim of a fierce disease. One evening he had a strong craving for lettuce, but being so late he couldn't find any in town, except for that in the vegetable garden of the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. He soon recovered and attributed his cure to the lettuce from the holy garden. In sign of gratitude, he erected a church and a small monastery dedicated to Saint Nicholas next to the Frari church. To distinguish it from the other churches that already carried the name of the saint (San Nicolò al Lido and San Nicolò dei Mendicoli), this church became known as San Nicoleto dei Frari or San Nicoleto de la Latuga. The church and the convent were founded in 1332 and were later remodeled and expanded. In the 16th century the church was enriched with paintings by Titian, Veronese and Palma il Giovane. The church was demolished at the beginning of the 19th century and its artwork dispersed, but the convent remains and it's today part of the state archives.

Church of San Rocco

Almost an antiquity at the beginning of Ramo Cimesin

Ramo Cimesin. Cimesin is the name of an old Venetian family.

Modern capitelo dedicated to the Madonna and Child on Ramo Cimesin. A little Venetian gem.

Calle de le Chiovere

Calle de le Chiovere

Calle del Campazzo

Calle de la Laca. On this street, centuries ago, there was a factory of "cera laca" (lacquer or sealing wax.)

Calle de la Laca. This sotoportego takes you from Chiovere di San Rocco to San Giovanni Evangelista.

Rio de le Muneghete. Muneghete (diminutive of "muneghe," nuns) makes reference to the Augustian nuns that had a convent ("Convento d'Agostiniane del Gesù e Maria") across the canal in the sestiere of Santa Croce.

Fondamenta de le Sechere along Rio de le Muneghete. "Sechere," "sechera" and "sechi" are Venetian words to describe a place that gets flooded during high tide and dry at low tide. The mud banks along this river can be seen in de' Barbari's view of Venice.

De' Barbari's view of Venice (1500). The church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari is in the forefront; behind, the church of San Rocco. Rio de San Zuane Evangelista runs above the campanile of the Frari church and intersects Rio de le Muneghete where we can see the muddy banks, today the Fondamenta de le Sechere. Right behind the church of San Rocco and immediately to its left, there is the small belfry of the church of San Nicoleto de la Latuga. To the far left of the church of San Rocco and by the banks of the Rio de le Muneghete, is the Chiovere di San Rocco.  To the right of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari we can see the churches of San Giovanni Evangelista and San Stin with their campanili. By Campo dei Frari, next to the rio and the bridge, is the Scuola di Sant' Antonio, today part of the state archives.

Fondamenta de le Sechere and Rio de le Muneghete

Ponte Canal from Calle de Mezo. In naming these two places, the latter literally meaning Street in the Middle, Venetians (always so creative for toponyms) seem to have run out of inspiration.

Corte del Volto Santo

Next to Ponte de l'Anconeta, and tucked away at the end of a sotoportego off Rio Terà de la Madalena, is the attractive Corte del Volto Santo (Holy Face) built by silk merchants from Lucca at the end of the 14th century. As a result of the immigration waves that accompanied the Crusades, Greeks, Sicilians, Saracens and Jews settled in mainland Italy and brought with them the art of silk weaving that in a short period flourished in the city of Lucca. The beginning of the 14th century brought political instability to Lucca and many of the families involved in the silk trade decided to emigrate to Venice which by then had become one of the most important commercial hubs in the Mediterranean. In 1360 the merchants from Lucca created the confraternity of the Volto Santo, named after a crucifix much venerated in their native city. According to legend, the crucifix was carved in cedar wood by Nicodemus, who along with Joseph of Arimathea prepared the body of Jesus for burial, with the help of angels. After finishing carving the body of Jesus and unable to carve his face, Nicodemus went to sleep and when he woke up he found that the face had been sculpted by angels. The crucifix was brought to Lucca in the year 742 and is venerated today in the cathedral of San Martino.

The Lucchese community of Venice acquired in 1370 an area beyond Rio dei Servi where they built an oratory and established a cemetery next to the Servi church. In 1398 they bought a plot of land on the other side of the canal to build the headquarters of their confraternity and ten houses for poor people. This is the Corte del Volto Santo today. The wellhead and many of the sculptures that grace this beautiful corte are original from 1398 or soon thereafter.

Corte del Volto Santo was devastated by the big fire of 1789 that originated in an oil store by Campiello del Tagliapietra near the church of San Marcuola and that soon spread to other parts of the city carried by the burning oil on the surface of the waters.  The houses on this corte were reconstructed only one year after the conflagration. I wonder if the blackened rafters that we see today bear testimony to that fire.