Between 1099 (year of the conquest of Jerusalem by Christian armies) and 1291 (year of the final defeat of the Crusaders at St. John of Acre), several military orders dedicated to both the protection of pilgrims and their hospitality originated in Europe. The most important were the Order of the Hospital of St. John to became later the Order of the Knights of Malta (founded in 1113), the Order of the Temple of Solomon better known as the Templars (founded in 1120) and the Order of the Hospital of St. Mary of Teutonics (founded 1198). To support their military and hospitality effort in the Holy Land, these orders needed bases and sources of revenue in continental Europe.
In 1187 during the preparation of the third crusade the Templars looked for land to buy in Venice where to settle as the city was the best starting point for travelers and pilgrims to reach Palestine. In November of that year the archbishop of Ravenna donated to the Templars a piece of land where they could build their convent and hospice and so the Templars had an ongoing seat in Venice.
As a result of the final victory of the Muslims over the Christians in 1291, all military orders were forced to abandon Palestine including the Order of the Hospital of St. John. It appeared that usddendly there was no furhter reason of existence for them but just the hope that one day in the future they could get back to the Holy Land. Pursuing such a dream the Hospitallers looked for a place to resettle that wasn’t that far away from Palestine. Their choice was the island of Rhodes which was conquered by the allied forces of the Hospital and Genoa in 1310
Also the Templars realized it was impossible for them to resettle in any of the former Crusade states in Palestina, decided to further improve their existing banking and lending activities throughout Europe and to rely on them as their main source for a living.
In 1312 the king Philip IV of France, not willing to repay the huge sums borrowed from the Templars ordered their closure and seizing of their properties and all their income sources. On May of the same year Pope Clement IV ratified the king’s order assigning all the remaining properties to the Order of the Hospital. And this how the future Knights of Malta settled in Venice in the same place where they still are. The basic building structures were a hospitality house, a church, the seat of the Knights and a garden.
(From 1310 until its defeat and expulsion by the Turks in 1522, Rhodes became the seat of the Order of the Hospital. In 1530 after a donation by the king of Charles V of Spain the Order resettled in the island of Malta to be their seat until 1798 when it had to leave after being defeated by the French troops lead by Napoleon. The present full name of the order is now ‘Sovereign Military Hospital Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta’ known in short as ‘Order of Malta’ or ‘Knights of Malta’)
A time of trouble hit the Order in Venice was during the Napoleonic rule of the city starting in 1805 when the seat was abolished and the land and building became state property to be used as rental homes and a warehouse. After Napoleon’s defeat of 1815 the Order of Malta was reestablished and a few decades later in 1841 the emperor Ferdinand of Austria returned their land, church and buildings to them. Starting from 1848 the many documents being dispersed until then were brought back to the Order archive which has now one million documents some going back to the 13th century including 24 papal bulls.
The present buildings and church in Venice belonging to the order go back to the 15th century, several times refurbished in 16th, 17th and 18th centuries and totally restored after the French dispossession of 1805. The church was completely stripped of the original altars and works of art partly sent to France except for the greatest art work, the ‘Baptism of Christ’ by Giovanni Bellini temporarily housed in the Accademia to be sent later to the Imperial museum of Vienna. The present church is the result of a major restauration led between 19th and 20th centuries, when three of the six original altars were reset and the main one was taken from a demolished church while the original Bellini’s work was brought back being now the most important art feature in the building.
The entire complex underwent a final restauration in recent times finished in 2014.
The present seat of the Knights also includes a green area, one of the largest in Venice to be redesigned in a garden.
Contact us for a guided visit of the Venetian seat of the Knights of Malta at firstname.lastname@example.org