San Simeone Piccolo: A dome without a church

If you arrive in Venice by train, the odd little church with an oversized green eggcup dome is the first thing you see from the steps of the Santa Lucia railway station across the Grand Canal. “I have seen churches without domes before,” Napoleon said of the church of San Simeone Piccolo, “but I’ve never, until now, seen a dome without a church.” Completed in 1738, it was one of the last churches built in Venice. And, unusually for Venice, it has an underground crypt and is the only church in town to hold the Latin mass.

A curious mix of different architectural styles, above all just emerging eclecticism, the church was built by Neoclassical Venetian architect Giovanni Antonio Scalfarotto. Much like the contemporaneous Karlskirche in Vienna, it’s an accumulation of academic quotations from elsewhere. The porch is modelled on the Pantheon in Rome while the peaked dome recalls Longhena’s La Salute. The circular nave is Byzantine as in the San Marco Basilica, though the divergent chapels are typical of Post-Tridentine churches.

Scalfarotto, who also designed the façade of the church of San Rocco, made this church stand out by taking its constituent parts out of mutual proportion. For starters, the classical temple-front is too large for the church’s miniature round plan as is the oversized metal dome perched on top of it. The number of chapels that branch out on the inside of the circular nave are also too many for the church’s size. As one of the last religious edifices built in the city, this is a charming farewell note to Venetian architecture.

The pediment above the porch has a marble bas-relief with The Martyrdom of the Saints by Francesco Penso. St Simon, the church’s patron, was a cousin of Christ, martyred as a Jew by the Romans. The church’s signature green dome spills into a smaller lantern dome on top with the statue of The Redeemer by Michele Fanolli. The interior features columns that match the outside entrance design. At the altar, there are statues of St Simon and St Jude, the two patron saints of an earlier incarnation of this church.

The church also hides a fully-fledged underground crypt, full of ancient parishioners’ bones – a rare occurrence in Venice. If you wish to see it as I did, ask the keeper who will put a candle in your hand and lead you to the entrance. Also unusual for Venice, the church is only open for mass, or just before it. And since the church is the home of the Fraternità Sacerdotale San Pietro, an order founded in Switzerland in 1988 and dedicated to maintaining the traditional rites, it’s always a good old-fashioned Latin mass.