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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Worshipers of Art Find Sanctuary in Venice

VENICE, Italy -- On a plain wooden bench, in the cool quiet of a marble-walled church surrounded by a half-dozen other souls, I sat back to consider my visit to Venice, this most mysterious and seductive of Italian cities. Maybe others wanted to spend their vacations in traffic jams of gondolas on the canals a few blocks away. But not me. Nor did I want to buy a T-shirt from the vendors, feed the pigeons in Piazza San Marco or squeeze past hundreds of people cramming the city's energetic shopping streets.

I wanted to get lost in Venice. In the midst of the summer tourist season, heat, sweat and tour groups aside, I successfully sought out-of-the-way nooks and crannies that drew me away from the hordes and offered glimpses of phenomenal beauty.

Paintings by Titian and Tintoretto hidden in otherwise unremarkable churches. Churches overflowing with art, like the Basilica dei Frari (or Friars), where a man wept in the fourth pew before a wood sculpture of St. John the Baptist by Donatello. Synagogues in Venice's Jewish ghetto that were literally hidden to avoid attention from the city's powers-that-be.

And the panoramic view of the city and surrounding islands from the bell tower of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore.

Truth be told, most of these sites are listed in any number of guidebooks, but many tourists either don't have the time, or don't take the time, to see them.

My tour guide and host for the trip, without whom I would never have known or cared much about the artworks I saw, was my good friend Frederick Ilchman. He is a PhD candidate at Columbia University and a scholar of the Venetian Renaissance painter Tintoretto.

For an introduction to the city, he took me jogging through the back streets and working-class neighborhoods of the northern section of Venice near his apartment on the Fondamenta dei Sartori (Quai of the Tailors). The natives never looked twice at the two sweaty Americans in bright T-shirts.

Frederick pointed out the architectural sights. "That's the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, with a recently restored facade," he called out. "That's a barge with sludge from the canals. That's San Michele, the Cemetery Island."

Three kilometers later, we stopped on a bridge along the Riva degli Schiavoni (Wharf of the Slavs), several hundred meters from the crowded Piazza San Marco. The sun set red and orange. The onion-shaped domes of the church of the Salute, Venice's greatest baroque church, and the golden ball of the Venetian customs house were in the distance.

Over two days, Frederick took me to some of his favorite churches, where much of the best art is. Venice, my friend explained, is one of few cities where masterpieces still occupy the churches and spaces they were created for and largely escaped the ransacking of Napoleon and damage from the two world wars. The Italian government owns all the works, and the churches can't sell or even lend them without the cultural ministry's approval.

Tintoretto's two 13-meter-high paintings (among the tallest canvas paintings in the world) still frame the altar in the church of the Madonna dell' Orto (Madonna of the Garden), a church that wasn't even on my Streetwise map of the city.

To the left of the altar is "Israelites at Mount Sinai," in which Moses receives the commandments and non-believers collect jewelry to sculpt the golden calf. To the right, also painted in the early 1560s, is the "Last Judgment," showing a swirling collection of souls damned to hell. Another Tintoretto, "Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple," originally painted as organ shutters, hangs on the church's right wall near the painter's grave.

Another find is the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli (St. Mary of the Miracles). The small, 15th-century painting of the Madonna and Child on the altar is said to be the source of miracles and healings. We wandered in before 5 p.m., when the organist was practicing. The church, with its cool interior and simple wood pews, is a favorite for weddings.

I also enjoyed the Frari, a vast brick Franciscan structure, which dates to 1330. The red Verona marble on the floor is full of fossils of ancient sea creatures. This church also holds the most important Renaissance paintings of any church in Venice.

The high altar at the front of this T-shaped church is surrounded by smaller chapels sold to individual families who commissioned works of art to fill them. The Donatello statue was purchased by Florentines to honor their patron, St. John the Baptist, who appears with his hand upraised, mouth open, gaunt from years in the wilderness.

The church also holds three depictions of Mary from different centuries. One is a wood panel of the Madonna and Jesus, painted by Paolo Veneziano in the 1330s. Another is a 1488 triptych, or three-panel painting, by Giovanni Bellini, which places the same figures, glowing with light, in a convincing 3-D space. Finally, Titian in the early 1500s painted the "Assumption of the Virgin" for the high altar, bringing a sense of motion to what used to be a plain wood panel. Mary, no longer a flat figure, appears to be blown to heaven, her rosy red and blue robes twisted by the wind.

Of course, churches are not all one finds in Venice.

In Venice's Jewish ghetto, I took a 40-minute tour that begins at the Museum Ebraico (tickets are 12,000 lire, about $7). This small section of the city was the segregated home f and the origin of the term "ghetto" f of as many as 5,000 Jews in the 1500s, when Venice was seen as more tolerant than much of Europe. Only 33 Jews, all Orthodox, live in the ghetto now. (About 200 Jews live in Venice, 35,000 in all of Italy.)

The five synagogues in the ghetto, called "scuolas," or schools, were built on the top floor of existing buildings and were hidden from prying eyes on the outside. Each of the three synagogues I saw had drapery-covered "windows" around the room; only one window, if any, was visible from the street.

I found a quiet place to write in my journal on the Fondamenta del Traghetto San Maurizio, a cobblestone resting place alongside the Grand Canal. Gondolas and water taxis carrying families who had been to the beaches on Lido Island floated by.

We took a vaporetto, one of the water buses that constantly come and go from stops on the main canals, across the Giudecca to San Giorgio Maggiore, an island with a Benedictine monastery. Each boat ride costs 6,000 lire, or about $4; the better buy was a 24-hour tourist ticket for 18,000 lire (about $10), which gave me the incentive to plan my boat rides for one day.

One day, I planned my own out-of-Venice adventure via vaporetto. I caught the No. 52 boat for the five-minute ride to San Michele, the Cemetery Island, which appears in art films such as "Wings of the Dove."

Cemeteries are fascinating expressions of a culture's reverence for the dead, and in Italy they also reflect the impact of the country's art history on everyday life and death. Grave sites often include photographs of loved ones and statues relevant to their lives. A few tombstones had mosaic images of the dead. From Cemetery Island, it was a quick boat ride to the island of Murano, where many tourists visit well-known glass factories. I skipped the factories and stopped instead at the Santi Maria e Donato church, founded in the seventh century and rebuilt in the 12th, where the floor is a rapturous mosaic of gray, orange, blue and green tiles placed in radial, flower-like patterns.

I also took the longer 45-minute boat ride from Murano to the small island of Torcello to see the golden mosaics in the church of Santa Maria dell'Assunta.

The 12th-century Byzantine-era mosaics were worth the trip. The masterpiece is a towering mosaic on the back wall depicting the Last Judgment, created centuries before Michelangelo's fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Surrounded by angels and devils, Christ sits in the center, a river of fire flowing from his seat into hell.

I didn't realize how successful I'd been at finding uncrowded places and things to see until I sat at a cafe table in what is typically the most jam-packed spot in all of Venice f the Piazza San Marco in front of the Basilica di San Marco. But I was there at 7 a.m. on a Wednesday. While I watched the pigeons and took photographs of the near-empty square, friends read aloud from the crucial guidebook for intellectuals, John Ruskin's "Stones of Venice.''

During business hours, tourists queue up to tour the church. But I had discovered a valuable secret: The doors on the left side of San Marco open for the morning Mass. The worshippers in the side chapel were mostly nuns and the elderly. As the priest intoned the daily prayers, I stood at the back of the candle-lit room, among two dozen people having a near-private audience with one of the world's greatest cathedrals.