Sant’Elena has definitely changed since the 18th century. The most obvious change is that you can now walk to it. In the novel Alvise has to hire a boat to get there. The map at the back of the book shows Sant’Elena as a small island some distance from the easternmost tip of the city. It contained a gothic church and an adjoining monastery. These buildings are still there but they don’t look onto the water as they did in Alvise’s day. During the 19th century the marshy area between the island and the city itself was gradually consolidated and then during the Fascist period it became a rather desirable residential area, with apartment-blocks and broad streets (broad for Venice, that is) and a park looking onto the lagoon, planted mainly with maritime pine-trees. You still get the best crepuscular views in the world from this park, as the sun sets behind the churches of San Giorgio, the Salute and San Marco in the distance.
To get to the church from the residential area you have to walk down a long avenue, flanked on the one side by the city’s football stadium and on the other by the wall of the Morosini Naval Academy. The stadium was built in 1913, making it the second oldest working city-stadium in Italy, beaten only by Genoa’s (two years older). When Venice went briefly into serie A, during the 1990s, extra seating area had to be created with precarious-looking scaffolding structures, raising the overall capacity to 16,500. With the team’s demotion the scaffolding came down, probably to everyone’s relief, even perhaps the disappointed fans’. For decades there has been talk of building a “proper stadium” (un vero stadio) on the mainland, with all the necessary services and facilities. But for many Venetians this would be one further example of their growing marginalisation; and I suspect that for many mainland fans of the team the trip to this remote part of the old city is a Sunday ritual they too would be sad to lose.
The church that Alvise visits was certainly rather different from the severe but melancholy building we see today. It was one of the many churches and monasteries that were closed down during the Napoleonic period; the church itself was used as a warehouse for much of the 19th century, while the monastery was used as a barracks. The church was re-opened for worship in 1928, under the custodianship of the Servants of Mary; it became the parish-church for the new residential area of S. Elena.
For this reason the description in the novel is to a certain extent an imaginative one, since most of the church’s artistic treasures were removed and dispersed during the 19th century, including a grand altar-piece by Palma il Vecchio of “The Adoration of the Magi in the Presence of St Helena”, now in the Brera Museum in Milan. The gothic interior is decidedly stark in appearance, but impressive. It dates mainly from the 15th century, although there had been a small monastery on the island since at least the eleventh century.
When the church was re-opened for worship the body of the Empress Helena (one of her bodies, if we are to believe the claims of other churches, such as Aracoeli in Rome) was returned to the side-chapel dedicated to her; however, the splendid triptych by Michele di Matteo, with scenes of the Invention of the Cross, which Alvise describes, is now in the Accademia Gallery. This year the Servants of Mary, with the accord of the Patriarch of Venice, agreed to a request from the Orthodox Community, allowing the body to be taken briefly to Greece, where it was received with great jubilation and ceremony (a photographic display of the ceremonious welcome afforded the Empress is currently on display in the church). Following upon this unusual event (uncannily hinted at as a possibility in The Four Horsemen, though I had no inkling of it when writing), a number of Orthodox worshippers have begun to come regularly to the chapel; this has rather surprised the local community, but they have had to agree that it has given a new and rather exotic life to the chapel – and to the church as a whole, which has always felt slightly remote from the rest of the city, receiving very few outside visitors.
The adjoining monastery (which has a very picturesque cloister) has now lost its last remaining monks, after the Servants of Mary gave up the church this year. The monastery-buildings themselves are given over in part to a number of different societies and organisations, but much of it remains empty, awaiting a new purpose. The windows of the monastery used to look out onto a bare stretch of water between the island and the Lido. In the last few years a new pleasure-port has opened up in this area, where a great many luxury yachts dock. This is still under development and is certainly going to be another factor of change.
The residential quarter has always been rather bourgeois in its make-up. The roads are wider and straighter than in the rest of the city, and they have a conventional numbering system, quite unlike the crazy one adopted throughout Venice proper, which only the postmen understand. Most of the streets in Sant’Elena bear the names of First World War battles, and the park itself, looking onto the lagoon, is officially called Il Parco della Rimembranza, although it’s usually referred to by the residents simply as la pineta (the pine-wood). Today, however, other more recent events are remembered with greater clarity, including Venice’s own 9/11 disaster.
One of the first things visitors see as they step off the boat at the Sant’Elena vaporetto stop is the monument to the victims of the tornado, 11th September 1970. On this fateful day a tornado struck the island, uprooting trees, un-roofing many of the houses and, more tragically, overturning a vaporetto and killing 21 people. Another tornado hit the island in 2012, uprooting a number of trees, but fortunately not killing anyone this time. The area affected can be clearly seen to the east of the vaporetto-stop, where they have just replanted a few trees.
I can remember this one quite clearly myself; I was working at home and my main impression was just of the sudden unexpected noise, with the roaring of the wind and the clattering of the overturned tables of the nearby restaurant. I had no idea what was happening; it was certainly not what one expected on a Tuesday morning in June at Sant’Elena. With the exception of an occasional minor brawl on a Sunday afternoon after a football match, unruly displays of turbulence are very much against the spirit of this most sedate and decorous of neighbourhoods.
It’s perhaps no wonder that Alvise was not welcome for long on the island…