Venice and our unusual tour: the crypts of San Simeon Piccolo and San Zaccaria

Are you ready for this adventure? It could be quite surprising to find crypts in Venice, since this city is entirely surrounded by water… however, several churches have some sort of basements that were originally used as burial places. Unfortunately, most of them are today unusable.

Venice from above 

Nonetheless, there are some crypts that can be visited in Venice (on the most famous among them, the crypt of Saint Mark’s Basilica, will write a separate post).

The Crypt of San Simeon Piccolo

The church of the Saints Simon and Judas (commonly referred to as San Simeon Piccolo) is located opposite the railway station “Venezia Santa Lucia”, on the other side of the Grand Canal. It is quite striking especially because of the green copper dome and the high stairway that leads to the entrance.

The Church of San Simeon Piccolo

Right underneath the area used for the holy functions we can find a crypt that is a artistically unique in our city.
It is a totally dark place: in order to explore it you need to turn on the torch of your mobile phones. Otherwise, you can ask the guardian for a candle, which is much more suggestive!

Visiting the crypt by candle light

The ceilings and the walls were decorated roughly in between 1750 and 1850. On the walls we can admire scenes of the Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross): the colors are light and delicate, the skin of the figures is light pink, the yellows are very soft.

Scenes from the Via Crucis

These paintings date back to the 1700’s, the painter probably was well acquainted with Scalfarotto, the architect that projected the church.

Scenes from the Via Crucis

The paintings on the ceilings date back to the 1800’s, and their colors are totally different: gold and bloody red dominate the scene, along with black. In certain areas the paintings become monochromatic.

The ceilings

The themes are different as well: we can mainly see bones, skulls, episodes of the Old Testament, and a really impressive full size skeleton!

Detail of the ceiling

The Skeleton

In 1806 the crypt was dismissed as a burial place (but some tombs are still evident). It became then a meeting place for those who professed the cult of the dead, and later even for Freemasons.

The Crypt of San Zaccaria

In the church of San Zaccaria (St. Zachary) the crypt is quite simple, bare; nonetheless it is really fascinating.
The legend has it that this is one of the eight churches that were founded in Venice by St. Magnus, Bishop of Oderzo, who moved to these islands in the VII century.

The Church of Saint Zaccaria

However, there is no evidence of such early buildings in this area. We know that a church was built here under Doge Giustiniano Partecipazio in the IX century and that it was eventually modified in the X and XI centuries.
The crypt then might date back to the X or XI century. It is located under Saint Tarasio’s chapel, which used to be the apse of the previous gothic church (entering this chapel do not miss the beautiful frescos by Andrea del Castagno and the polyptychs by Vivarini).

Frescoes by Andrea del Castagno and Polyptych by Antonio Vivarini

In the crypt, unfortunately, no element of early decoration has been preserved, except for a marble altar with a sculpture of the Holy Mary on top.

The Holy Mary

We know that it used to host the tombs of eight among the Doges of the early centuries of the Venetian Republic. The three nave structure is very elegant, with cross vaults supported by short columns with simple capitals.

The Crypt of the Church of San Zaccaria

This crypt is located below the average sea level, which means that some water is present in there for most of the time, as you can see in the picture. During exceptional acqua alta (floods) the crypt is entirely flooded, and the consequences, as far as its preservation is concerned, are quite dramatic.

The Flooded Crypt

If you think this underground Venice is fascinating, book a guided tour with us!

Related articles and itineraries: 

Unusual guided tours in Venice: the Santa Croce District

Unusual tours: Frescoes in Venice from darkness into light