Unexplored Venice: San Francesco del Deserto Monastery

Approaching the San Francesco del Deserto island. The monastery itself is hidden among the tall trees.

Approaching the San Francesco del Deserto island. The monastery itself is hidden among the tall trees.

Arriving at the San Francesco del Deserto monastery island

Arriving at the San Francesco del Deserto monastery island

Venice is, of course, one of the world’s great cities and I’ve visited it several times. It can be attractive at all times of the year. Between spring and autumn is probably the best time to visit, although it can get oppressively hot in August. However, one of my most memorable trips was in early January 2009. I arrived on New Year’s Day, when the city was fairly quiet and most of the restaurants were closed. The city was covered in a blanket of fog. Walking across the Accademia Bridge in the dark, I could just make out the lights of the vaporetti on the Grand Canal. Reaching St Mark’s Square, the campanile loomed out of the mist and was barely visible. The next morning, I had breakfast in the guesthouse where I was staying, with a view over the Giudecca Canal. This is the big wide one, which large ships pass down on their way to Venice’s port. On that particular morning, thick fog obscured the view. Then it suddenly lifted, and I had a wonderful view over to the other side of the canal.

The Accademia Bridge in fog, 1 January 2009

The Accademia Bridge in fog, 1 January 2009

The Grand Canal in fog, viewed from the Academia Bridge, 1 January 2009

The Grand Canal in fog, viewed from the Academia Bridge, 1 January 2009

St Mark's Square in fog, 1 January 2009

St Mark’s Square in fog, 1 January 2009

The Campanile in St Mark's Square, looming out of the mist, 1 January 2009

The Campanile in St Mark’s Square, looming out of the mist, 1 January 2009

Looking across the Giudecca Canal in the fog, towards the San Giorgio Maggiore church, 2 January 2009.

Looking across the Giudecca Canal in the fog, towards the San Giorgio Maggiore church, 2 January 2009.

On another visit, the following June, I caught the aqua alta (high water), when Venice floods. This normally happens in winter, so it was quite unusual in June. I was eating dinner at a little restaurant on the main waterfront just up from St Mark’s Square. Then a siren sounded, and the waiters put duckboards down over a lower lying bit of ground near the entrance. After I’d finished eating, I walked to St Mark’s Square. A puddle had started to form, which gradually got bigger and bigger until eventually most of the square was submerged. So I took my shoes and socks off and paddled around, along with several other tourists. The flood was mild by aqua alta standards- about 10-15 centimetres. In winter it can be much worse.

St Mark's Square flooded

St Mark’s Square flooded

St Mark's Square flooded

St Mark’s Square flooded

Venice’s top attractions of the Grand Canal, St Mark’s Square, St Mark’s Basilica, the Accademia art gallery and the Doge’s Palace are naturally swarming with tourists all year round. But one of the most pleasant aspects of this city is that it’s very easy to escape the tourist hoards, just by walking a few hundred metres either side of the Grand Canal. Here you can find areas where ordinary Venetians live, in quiet streets, with the washing hung out to dry. If you go to the islands- Murano, Burano and Torcello, you see a very different side to Venice.

You can get away from the tourist hoards in Venice just by walking a short distance from the Grand Canal, and you will find quiet streets like this one.

You can get away from the tourist hoards in Venice just by walking a short distance from the Grand Canal, and you will find quiet streets like this one.

On this, my fifth trip to Venice, I sought out one of the city’s least visited and most inaccessible attractions, the island monastery of San Francesco del Deserto. St Francis landed on the island in 1220, while on his way back from Egypt, and the monastery was established soon after. It is here that he preached to the birds, an incident recorded by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova. The monastery was briefly abandoned during the fifteenth century due to an outbreak of malaria, hence the name del Deserto. The monks were also evicted by Napoleon for a short period in the early nineteenth century, after the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. Apart from these interludes, the monastery has functioned continuously since the thirteenth century.

The path leading to the monastery, from the landing stage.

The path leading to the monastery, from the landing stage.

Full details of the monastery’s history can be found at:

http://www.churchesofvenice.co.uk/islands.htm#sanfrandeldes

San Francesco del Deserto is a very peaceful spot, and the monastery is surrounded by gardens. It is not connected to the vaporetto (water bus) system, and so the only way to get there is by a private boat, which runs daily to coincide with the monastery’s limited opening hours for tourist visits. You really do feel a long way from the crowds in St Mark’s Square. In my group there were 3 or 4 other people, all Italians. We all took the little boat from Burano, arrived on the island, waited at the entrance to the monastery, and were met by a kindly Franciscan monk. He only spoke Italian, but. handed me a leaflet in English explaining the main points of interest. There is a little shop, which is a good place to pick up some good souvenirs and support the monastery. I bought a tile with Pace e bene written on it, which is now on my mantlepiece.

St Francis preaching to the birds

St Francis preaching to the birds

Plaque commemorating St Francis's visit to the island in 1220

Plaque commemorating St Francis’s visit to the island in 1220

View of the monastery

View of the monastery

The cloister

The cloister

2 thoughts on “Unexplored Venice: San Francesco del Deserto Monastery

  1. Carmen Sbarna

    You are getting better by the day. It is a most interesting narrative. And the pictures make the difference. Great! A lot of historical details , too.

    Reply

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