With its labyrinthine alleyways and plazas that magically unfold at the turn of a corner, Venice has captured the imagination of artists and romantics throughout the centuries. It is perhaps one of the most photographed, painted, and written about cities in the world — which makes pursuing an artistic project in Venice quite the tall order. But photographer Alejandro Merizalde has been working in Venice since 2008, visiting the city every winter and constantly looking for a creative excuse to go back.
Merizalde’s photo book 100 Churches of Venice and the Lagoon, published in November, is the product of such an effort, documenting the city’s many places of religious worship — most of them Catholic churches, but also two synagogues and one Anglican church. The book represents the vast architectural diversity of churches in Venice: some imposingly classical, with Corinthian columns topped by saintly sculptures; others sporting the rounded tops and arched windows of the Venetian Renaissance; and still others modest in their external similarity to armories or residential apartments. Many churches wear the “Eye of Providence” symbol at the top of their facades as well as rosettes, circles, and round windows.
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The Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, the largest church in Venice, is one of three remaining Venetian Gothic churches in the city, displaying an entirely brick-built facade. Visible stains, evocative of coffee dribbling down the windows’ chins, were left behind on the walls after parts of the church were covered with a material known as frieze, which allowed water to filter and produced the patterns visible today. Just as splendid as the church’s exterior are the artistic treasures sheltered inside: two altarpieces by Titian, “Pesaro Madonna” (1519-1526) and “Assumption of the Virgin” (1516-1518).
The Church of San Marcuola is one of the more minimalistic churches rendered in the collection of photographs, and its history reveals why. Along with two other churches included in the book — the Churches of San Lorenzo and San Pantalon — architects were commissioned to design maschere (Italian for “masks”), Istrian stone coverings that we can only assume would have been grandiose. But due to lack of funding, they were never properly outfitted. San Marcuola, too, is endowed with its own store of art, including statues by Gaetano Susali, paintings by Francesco Migliori, and a “Last Supper” (1547) by Tintoretto.
The book includes churches that may be familiar even to those who have never visited Venice. The iconic Basilica di San Marco, which represents a central meeting spot, was photographed at night by Merizalde. Il Redentore, designed by Andrea Palladio (known for his work across the Venetian Republic and his villas in Veneto) as an appreciative gesture to God for saving the city from an outbreak of the bubonic plague, appears as stately as ever, framed by calm waters and cloudy skies.
Most of the photographs, with a few exceptions, are taken head-on. “They’re photographed in this very technical way, with very straight lines and almost mathematically,” Merizalde told Hyperallergic, referencing the water towers of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Photographs taken from a side view were captured from that angle because it was physically impossible to shoot them in their entirety otherwise; many of the canals and alleys are simply too narrow and unnavigable.
Another feature of the photographs that will strike any traveler as remarkable is their improbable lack of human presence — many of the sites, least of all Piazza San Marco at night, can easily be found without a soul in sight. A technical sleight of hand is at play here: Merizalde removed people from his photos through a process of long exposure.
Merizalde’s favorite photo in the book is an unassuming one: that of a church on the island of San Francesco del Deserto, which houses a monastery with “five or six rather old Franciscan monks that live alone there.”
In the winter, when few visit the island, Merizalde had to coordinate with a fisherman to take him there. Upon being granted permission to photograph the church, he developed a friendship with one of the monks and learned that Saint Francis performed his famed “miracle of the birds” there. When Francis visited the island, he needed a quiet place to pray, but was assailed with the chirping sounds of birds. After asking the birds to quiet down, they remained silent for the duration of his prayer.
“Because of this connection, that particular church has to be the most significant [to me],” Merizalde said.
As for the density of churches in Venice, Merizalde was told that because the islands remained unconnected for a long time, each individual community required a worshiping space of its own.
“When they started building bridges and uniting them, they ended up having a church every two blocks,” he said.