The oldest piece of evidence confirming the presence of the Hospitaller Knights of St. John in Venice is a will, which was written in Rialto in August 1144. In it, “Menelda quondam uxor Otonis Faletri” (Menelda widow of Otto Falier), residing in the district of San Pantalon, left a series of bequests to institutions, monasteries, and congregations in Venice, including five pound of gold to the Hospital of Jerusalem and eight pounds of gold to the Temple of The Lord. We can evince from it that, at the time, both the Templars and the Hospitallers had already settled in the city.
In a document of 1180, the Hospitaller Prior Fra’ Arcibaldo declared himself “Brother of the Hospital of Jerusalem and Prior of St. Giles of Venice”. This letter was significant because it proved there already was an actual priory, which was named after St. Giles. After extensive research, it appears that there were no other churches or oratories in Venice with that name at the time.
Further confirmation of the importance of the Venetian priory came from the Statutes compiled by Grand Master Fra’ Roger des Mouilins in 1181. They explicitly referred to the Prior of Venice as holder of one of the nine Offices that had to pay a fee (in raw materials) to support the Hospital of Jerusalem, thereby including him amongst the most influential holders of Office.
In an act of 1273, Fra’ Engheramo declared himself “Lord Engheramo da Gragnana Prior of the Houses and Hospitals of St. John of Jerusalem of the Priory of Venice and Lombardy”.
In the past, historians have asserted that the Order’s current seat was originally one of the assets that belonged to the Templars which was then inherited by the Hospitallers after the former were disbanded. This thesis was mostly based on the fact that, in some ancient documents, the place where the priory stands was called “San Giovanni del Tempio” (St. John of the Temple).
That theory, however, has been set aside in modern times. On the one hand, it was determined that the designation “of the Temple” was often associated with the Hospitallers, even when it involved assets that had nothing to do with the Templars. On the other hand, there is an edict of November 9th, 1187 issued by Gerardo Archbishop of Ravenna; after a closer inspection, the document reveals that he donated plots of land in the area called “Fossaputrida” to the Hospitallers in Venice “in honour of the Lord, St. Apollinaris, the Church of Ravenna and St. John of Jerusalem” so that they could build a hospital and a church.
There are also other elements confirming the Hospitaller origins of the current Grand Priory complex in Venice. One piece of evidence that is particularly important is a document of 1312; in it, the Hospitallers asked the Serenissima Republic of Venice to grant them the property that used to belong to the Templars in Venice, without any mention being made of San Giovanni del Tempio.
Furthermore, there is an etymological aspect to be considered as well. Most of the Templars’ preceptories in Europe were named after the Blessed Virgin, including the Templars’ most important complex in Venice, the Church of Santa Maria in Broglio (from «Brolo», which means vegetable garden). On the other hand, there are no Templar seats named after St. John the Baptist.
The pre-existence of the hospital of the Knights of St. John at the time of the Templars’ disbandment is also confirmed by a will, written by Maria, widow of Giacomo Gradenigo, on July 25th, 1267. Among the legatees of her estate, which included around ninety churches in Venice and throughout the Republic, it explicitly mentioned the Hospital of St. John and the Church of St. Mary of the Temple.
In addition, there is proof of the existence of a Hospitaller Priory in Venice prior to the Templars’ disbandment: a brief issued by Pope Nicholas IV (published by P.A. Pauli) on September 11th, 1292. In the brief, the Pope ordered the Prior of the Order of St. John in Venice to devolve half of the Priory’s tributes to support the galleys sent to liberate the Holy Land.
The oldest depiction of the complex is contained in the famous map of Venice drawn by Jacopo de’ Barbari in 1500. In his detailed woodcut we can still see the Church and the Convent of St. John of the Temple (later known as of Furlani and finally of Malta).
After the loss of Malta in 1798, the Order went through a very rough patch in its history. The Grand Priory of Venice was disbanded and its assets were requisitioned and became state property following the Napoleonic decree of April 30th, 1806. Commander Fra’ Fulvio Alfonso dei marchesi Rangone (the Receiver and Lieutenant at the time of Prior Fra’ Giovanni Battista dei principi Altieri) had to turn over the buildings to the state.
The palace was rented to several tenants, mostly of modest means, and part of it was converted to storage spaces and a hall for public performances. The church was completely stripped of its altars, paintings, doors, and windows; it was closed in 1810 and used by the court of the Austrian viceroy for storage. The houses were leased or sold: the dark shadow of death had fallen over a glorious past.
An Imperial Decree of January 15th, 1839 reconstituted the two ancient Grand Priories of Lombardy and of Venice into a single Grand Priory of Lombardy and Venice with headquarters in Venice. Its jurisdiction also included the duchies of Modena and Reggio, Parma and Piacenza, Lucca and, later on, the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. With letter patent issued on January 5th, 1841, Ferdinand I of Austria returned the Church of San Giovanni del Tempio, the Priory Palace, and the gardens to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem. The many nearby houses that appeared in the cadastral surveys of the eighteenth century, however, were not recovered.
The first Grand Prior elected after the restoration was Fra’ Giovanni Antonio Cappellari della Colomba, from Belluno, the nephew of Pope Gregory XVI. Once the seat of the Grand Priory of Lombardy and Venice was finally restored, it was solemnly inaugurated on June 24th, 1843.
Starting from 2012 the church, the cloister, the façade overlooking the canal and the courtyard, and the residential apartment were restored. The project was officially inaugurated on May 24th, 2014 with a Mass celebrated by then Cardinalis Patronus Paolo Sardi in the presence of the Grand Master.
For further informations see:
C. Riva di Sanseverino, The Grand Priory of Lombardy and Venice, IDEE, 2019.