Finding art and peace in the secret corners of Venice

Ca Rezzonico, Venice, Italy
On the top floor of the Ca' Rezzonico you can see the frescoes from the private villa of Giandomenico Tiepolo - Alamy

Venice has always been a crowded city. Even centuries ago, there were complaints about the noise and the bustle. Today, much though I love the place, the sheer number of other visitors can be troublesome. Unless, that is, you know how to get away from your fellow tourists.

Fortunately, even when the queue to enter San Marco snakes away into the distance, and there is barely space to move on the main routes from the station to the Rialto and the Piazza, that isn’t hard to do. This is partly because Venice is not only beautiful, but also larger than you might think. The dense maze of its streets and canals has an extraordinary capacity to absorb people, which isn’t surprising given that this was one of the largest towns in medieval Europe.

And if you plan your escape carefully, you can, at the same time, unearth some of Venice’s most profoundly beautiful works of art. Here are 10 lesser-visited sights which are home to magnificent masterpieces you can enjoy in tranquillity.


If you want to get an idea of what Venice was like when it was just starting out, go on a vaporetto trip across the lagoon to Torcello. A millennium ago, this island was the site of a thriving community. Nowadays, it’s notable for a celebrated restaurant and two ancient churches. In one of these, Santa Maria Assunta, there is a fabulous 11th-century mosaic of a tall, slender Virgin Mary holding her child in a golden half-dome. It is one of the earliest and most memorable Venetian Madonnas. The number 12 water bus serves Torcello from Venice. The cathedral is open daily.

Byzantine Mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Child above the altar, 11th century, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice
Inside Torcello's Santa Maria Assunta is the 11th-century mosaic of the Virgin Mary holding her child in a golden half-dome - Alamy

Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni

Venice’s ancient confraternities, or scuole, were part club, part mutual-help association, part religious association. The Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni was one of the smaller ones and in the early 16th century it commissioned a wonderfully Harry-Potterish series of paintings from Vittore Carpaccio, full of dragons, sundry miracles and a basilisk. Five centuries later, they are still there.

San Giovanni in Bragora

One of the pleasures of Venice is to find a great picture in exactly the position for which the artist painted it. The church of San Giovanni in Bragora, 10 minutes’ walk from San Marco but a world away from the crowds, is just such a time capsule. On the high altar is the Baptism of Christ (1492-94) by Cima da Conegliano, with a peaceful river and distant landscape, that looks very much the way it did when Cima finished it.

San Giovanni in Bragora Church, Venice
The church of San Giovanni in Bragora is a time capsule of art history - Alamy

San Sebastiano

As his nickname suggests, Paolo Caliari – or Veronese – came from Verona. But he made his home and career in Venice. And in the church of San Sebastiano – intentionally or unintentionally – he made a shrine to his own opulent talent. Almost every surface in the building was painted by him – altarpieces, side panels, frescoes on the walls and two spectacular ceilings. It’s religious art but also a cornucopia of the good things of this world, including rich textiles, ornate architecture and beautiful people.

San Zaccaria

John Ruskin once described Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child with Saints and another slightly earlier Bellini in the church of the Frari as “the two best pictures in the world”. It’s a type of painting known as a sacred conversation, but contemplation would be a better word. Each figure seems lost in his or her own thoughts, surrounded by Bellini’s personal vision of heaven. At the bottom an angel is pensively playing a viol. You can almost hear it.

Interior of Chiesa di San Zaccaria church, Venice
San Zaccaria is home to Giovanni Bellini's Madonna and Child with Saints - Alamy

Santa Maria Formosa

The central figure of St Barbara in Palma Vecchio’s 1520 altarpiece herein was one of the pictures the novelist George Eliot picked out when visiting in 1860. Eliot saw her as a feminist role model, a “hero-woman”, of “calm, grand beauty” and “a mind filled with serious conviction”.

The Frari

Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin has been one of the artistic star turns of Venice ever since it was first unveiled in 1518. This was Titian’s breakthrough work. It’s on the high altar of one of the major churches of the city and manages to dominate its huge space from the moment you walk through the west door. Wagner was among its numerous fans, claiming – surprisingly – that the picture inspired him to write the prelude to Die Meistersinger.

Assumption of the Virgin or Frari Assumtion by Titian in 1518 and the Altar in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Church
Titian's Assumption of the Virgin has been one of the artistic star turns of Venice ever since it was first unveiled in 1518 - Alamy

Ca’ Rezzonico

Few make their way to the top floor of the Ca’ Rezzonico (the Museum of 18th-century Venice), where you can see the frescoes from the private villa of Giandomenico Tiepolo. In many of these the scene is filled by clones of the commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella, wearing masks and high conical hats. It feels like a playful parody of the paintings in which gods, angels and virtues float among the clouds that Giandomenico’s father, Giambattista, so often painted. But here these have been replaced by clowns having a bit of fun.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Beginning in 1564 and continuing for two decades, Tintoretto filled two floors of this building with more than 60 canvases. The result is one of the greatest one-person exhibitions by anyone in the world – every picture still in the place for which it was intended. Rubens paid a visit and when Velázquez was in town, he also made a beeline for the Scuola. You should as well.

Scuola Grande dei Carmini

This is a perfect combination of architecture, 18th-century interiors and art. In the main room there is a sensational ceiling painted by Giambattista Tiepolo. The central scene is a vision of the Virgin Mary appearing to St Simon Stock: the supplicant saint kneels as the Madonna swoops down like a low-flying jet, surrounded, as the art historian Michael Levey wrote, by “a cloudburst of flying angels”. It’s aerial baroque drama above your head.


Palazzo Morosini degli Spezieri Hotel (00 39 375 504 9734) has rooms from £140 per night.

Ryanair (, easyJet (, British Airways ( and Wizz ( fly from regional UK airports to Venice from £34 return.

Martin Gayford’s new book, Venice: City of Pictures, is published by Thames & Hudson (RRP £30). Buy now for £25 at or call 0844 871 1514.


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