San Francesco del Deserto is a small island in the northern part of the Venetian Lagoon, not far from Burano. It is, since 1228, home to a Franciscan monastery.
Francesco d’Assisi spent time on the island in 1220, on his way back from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Most travellers found passage on merchant ships, and Francesco returned towards Italy on a ship headed for Torcello.
Torcello was a major harbour and the seat of the oldest archbishopric in the lagoon. It is therefore not odd that his journey took him by the Venetian Lagoon.
Francesco was already venerated as a saint by many, so crowds gather where he went, and he couldn’t find peace and quiet for prayer and contemplation.
A Torcellan nobleman, Jacopo Michiel, offered him hospitality on a property on a small island in the lagoon near Burano. Francesco accepted. He stayed on the island for a month, before his return journey on foot back to Assisi in Umbria.
The following of Francesco d’Assisi didn’t diminish after his death 1226, and he was canonised less than two years later.
Jacopo Michiel donated the island where San Francesco had stayed, to the Order of Friars Minor — the Franciscan Order. Such donations were commonplace, because it is harder for rich man to enter paradise than for a camel to pass the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24).
The Franciscan monastery on the island has been there ever since, with only a few interruptions.
In the 1400s the monks left the island for health reasons, because of malaria, but they were back a few decades later. The appellative del Deserto is from this period, when the friars deserted the island.
The abandonment of Torcello and other nearby settlements happened in the same period, and for the same reason. It was therefore not a problem that was specific for San Francesco del Deserto.
Later, after the fall of the Venetian Republic, the monastery fell victim to the systematic suppression of monasteries by the French. They also stole most objects of value in the church and in the monastery.
The island then became military like so many others lagoon islands. Under the Austrians it served as a gun powder magazine. In 1858 the Austrians gave the island to the Patriarch of Venice, who allowed the Franciscan monks back.
San Francesco del Deserto today
Being a monk is no longer as popular a career choice as it once was. The monastery at San Francesco del Deserto has felt that as much as the other Venetian monasteries.
Now there are five friars living in the monastery.
It is possible to visit the island and the monastery, guided by one of the friars. The visits covers the church, the medieval part where San Francesco stayed, one of the two cloisters and parts of the monastery gardens.
The rest of the monastery and island is for the friars and their guests only.
The purpose of the monastery is prayer and contemplation, and the friars offers longer stays for just that. This offer is not, however, for tourists. They are religious and spiritual retreats, which means taking active part in monastic life, with very limited availability.
There’s no public transport to San Francesco del Deserto. Most visitors arrive either on organised boat tours in the Venetian lagoon, or with their own boats.
We can visit the island and the monastery on my lagoon boat tours.