The Centuries-Old History of Venice’s Greek community

A Greek community has long existed in Venice, but after the fall of Constantinople, in 1453, the Greeks grew considerably and by the end of the XV century they were about four thousand, and constituted the most important foreign component in the Serenissima. With the permission of the Venetian authorities, the Greeks gathered in a secular brotherhood: it was the 28th November 1498 when the Consiglio dei Dieci authorized them to establish the Confraternity of the Greek Orthodox or Scuola Greca, whose purpose consisted in charity and mutual assistance. This year the confraternity celebrates 521 years from its foundation.

Between 1539 and 1573 the Scuola Greca built the splendid Church of Saint George (San Giorgio dei Greci), the oldest and most important church of the Orthodox Diaspora. The church now hosts the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Italy and Malta. Gradually a whole Greek neighborhood took shape around the Church, within the Castello district. From the Riva degli Schiavoni, the Church of San Giorgio dei Greci can be easily recognized for its leaning bell tower. As in other Eastern Christian churches of Byzantine tradition, the interior space is divided by the iconostasis, a solid screen of stone, wood, or metal, separating the sanctuary from the nave. That of the Church of San Giorgio dei Greci, in marble, is covered with icons of the post-Byzantine Cretan painter Michael Damaskinos. The most important work in the Cathedral is the inspiring icon of Christ Pantokrator (brought to Venice from Constantinople just before the Turkish conquest), considered one of the most beautiful Byzantine works ever, according to the French writer André Malraux.

In 1949, the immense patrimony of the Scuola Greca was entirely donated to the Greek State, founding the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice, the only Greek centre abroad dedicated to research and studies. It is located in the monumental complex of the Campo dei Greci, and has a rich library, with about two thousand ancient volumes printed by the Greek publishers in Venice from the 16th to the 18th century, a precious archive and a museum of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons. Housed on the first floor of the Scoletta of San Nicolò dei Greci, erected by Baldassarre Longhena in 1678, this museum – unique in Europe – contains one of the most important collections of Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons, 80 works of art, ranging from the 14th to the 18th century.