Sartori, Rita, The Making of “Chorus”, a Self-Help Network in a World Heritage Site

Venice, 1st March 1993. A 15th-century oil painting, a masterpiece by Giovanni Bellini featuring a Madonna and Child, gets stolen overnight from the Church of Madonna dell’Orto. The umpteenth theft of a precious artifact in a Venetian Church. Corriere della Sera, one of the leading Italian national newspapers, reports the crime and reminds its readers of the lack of care, custodians and alarm systems affecting the over one hundred historic Churches of Venice, referred to as being both ‘museum-like‘ and ‘a cultural hazard‘.

Only one year before, in February 1992, Don Aldo Marangoni (the president of the Venice Parish Priests’ Board and director of the Churches’ Office, and a parish priest himself) had made a shocking announcement: public access into most Venetian churches was no longer possible but for “Holy Service times, only”. The non-stopping depopulation of the city, along with the dwindling community of faithful (and, consequently, the lack of volunteers), and last but not least, a series of deep funding cuts carried out by both the Italian State (liable for the heritage of the whole country) and the City Council (since 1990 no longer liable for granting contributions to places of cult) had made the keeping of historic religious buildings and their artworks unsustainable. The menace of a churches’ “shut down” alarmed institutions, scholars, city lovers and the tourism industry. The total and/or partial closing of most Venetian churches would almost certainly carry with it increasing acts of vandalism and thefts, a general decay and the strong disappointment of visitors and tour operators. The religious heritage of the city was being put at risk more than ever before.

The Italian State granted, then, a new flow of fundings. As it was expected, the amount (ca. 2,000,000 euros) could only cover the expenditures for the installation of alarm devices in some twelve of the many city churches and the costs of a team of custodians who ensured the churches’ opening for a couple of hours a day until the beginning of 1997. The 2000 Jubilee was only 36 months away. Don Aldo Marangoni and a group of other concerned parish priests decided to look at the big picture and act accordingly.

Venice, a World Heritage site since 1987, is now a city of barely 57,000 residents hosting around 130 religious buildings of outstanding universal value, of which 113 are still ‘working’ (the maintenance of an historic church may cost around 30,000-50,000 euros/year). The depopulation of the city began long before the famous 1966 flood (called ‘Acqua Granda’), and precisely in the early 50s (when the number of residents dropped from 174.808 to 174.448). When Don Aldo and his priest-friends started brainstorming, Venice counted around 69,000 residents and was experiencing a remakable increase of tourist flows every year. Many visitors were also demanding increasing access into sacred places of cultural interest during the day. It was clear by then that these “new stakeholders” would soon outnumber the faithful and that the Venetian churches were easily running the risk of becoming spaces of conflict between the few pious and the many visitors.

In 1997, Don Aldo and his religious companions tried an action of conciliation to the advantage of their own buildings. They agreed to set up a “network” of churches (the chuches at risk involved in the project were initially 13, the network now counts 16) within the framework of a lay not-for-profit organization, which they named Chorus and for which they coined the slogan ‘Fruire per conservare’ (‘Enjoy & Preserve’) – see

Chorus was designed to create a virtuous self-financing system, apt to allow the opening and the maintenance of the buildings of the whole network (all of them being ‘working’ churches and some of them even parish churches), on the basis of a series of criteria, that can be briefly synthesized as follows:

1. The involvement of the visitors in the project of safeguarding and promotion of the Venice religious heritage in general and of that of the ‘Chorus-network’ in particular, by means of a fixed contribution, 3 euros for the visit of a single church and 10 euros for 16 churches (Chorus Pass, validity: one year)

2. Above contribution is to be imposed only on the “extended use” of each sacred site of the network, away from Holy Service times. It applies therefore exclusively on lay visitors (both foreign and italian) and not on faithful (from whichever country) or locals (both lay and faithful). Everyone is granted reliable and longer opening times, an adequate lighting system, museum-like labels on artworks, a clean environment, staff assistance. Ad-hoc contributions are required by Chorus from those asking to make use of one or more religious buildings – where and if applicable – for the organization of non-invasive, unintrusive, church-friendly events, like selected temporary art exhibitions and/or concerts.

3) The activation of a mechanism of “solidarity” amongst churches: all contributions given to access/use the well-known (and most visited) churches of the network are also intended to finance the management of the less known (and less visited) ones. Every church plays a distinctive role in the network, each one serving the purpose of the network.

4) The idea of providing an effective contribution to the spatial distribution of the tourist flows – one of the main issues of the city – by supplying the city guests a map showing the location of all the ‘Chorus-churches’ (which are scattered all over Venice), implicitly suggesting new routes across the maze of streets and canals, and so inviting the curious travellers to explore and experience the beauty of less crowded surroundings, away from the so called ‘must-see’ destinations (Piazza San Marco, Rialto).

The Chorus’s model has proved to be flexible and adaptive enough so as to be borrowed by another Italian city whose churches are also at risk, Erice in Sicily (see: Erice’s religious authorities admit they owe Chorus and its innovative proposal of “conciliation” a lot, in all respects.

Lastly, only recently did Unesco recognize the distinctive nature of religious World Heritage properties within the framework of the World Heritage Convention and encourage new forms of action on the purpose of safeguarding religious heritage of outstanding universal value for future generations (Kyiv Statement, 5th November 2010). In this sense, Chorus appears to have been all the more innovative and far-sighted already from the very start (1997), when, showing uncommon pragmatism and excellent problem-solving qualities, a group of citizen-priests decided to conciliate lay and religious needs – meanwhile rescuing 16 churches – by exploiting the potential and the power of a virtuous network, which other Venetian churches might need to join.

P.S.: Giovanni Bellini’s painting is still missing.

Rita Sartori
Qualified Guide of Venice and its Heritage
Laurea Magistrale in Economia e Gestione delle Arti e delle Attività Culturali
(Master’s Degree in Economics and Management of Arts and Cultural Activities)
Università Ca’ Foscari, Venice, Italy


SWEDEN – National inventory of Church owned buildings

The Church of Sweden manages a great number of buildings, and there is a lack of knowledge of their precise numbers. This is now the topic of a nation-wide study.

- We have great Knowledge of our 3400 churches, but the congregations also own other venues for other activites and administration, says Lars Johnsson who leads the study.

More in Swedish: Stor kartläggning av kyrkans fastigheter – Svenska kyrkan.

Netherlands – Publication: “The Interior of the Medieval Village Church”

Second revised and expanded edition
Authors:  Steensma R., Kroesen J.E.A.
Year: 2012

The thousands of medieval village churches that lie scattered across Europe provide us with unique insights into society and religion during the Middle Ages. Although many original furnishings fell victim to iconoclasm, war, neglect or refurbishment, some church interiors have remained surprisingly intact. Since 1998, Justin Kroesen and Regnerus Steensma traced, visited, photographed and recorded descriptions of hundreds of village churches throughout Western Europe. In this book the reader is invited to take an imaginary walk through a random medieval country church and admire fifteen pieces of furniture that are discussed in richly illustrated chapters. A description of the form and function of the object in question is followed by a survey of surviving characteristic examples in different countries. The volume concludes with an outline of the vicissitudes of church furnishings since the Middle Ages.

via The Interior of the Medieval Village Church.

UK – Historic Church Tours programme for 2014

Both Somerset and Wiltshire feature in the list of counties included in this year’s stunning programme of Historic Church Tours hosted by the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a national charity protecting historic churches at risk.

Each of the nine Historic Church Tours will cover a thought-provoking theme including, World War One, Lords and Gentry, and From Romans to the Industrial Age, guaranteed to beguile and intrigue visitors with unknown facts from Britain’s turbulent, religious, and at times, controversial, past.

Ancient churches in Worcestershire, Lincolnshire, Surrey, Shropshire, South Yorkshire, Suffolk, Wiltshire, West Sussex, and Somerset, will be featured.

via Historic Church Tours – stunning programme for 2014 | Blackmore Vale Magazine.


UK – Event: “Always Welcome: Improving the Church Visitor Experience”

1 April 2014, St Martin-in-the-Fields, London

An open church that extends the invitation of the Gospel is a constant and positive way that the church can be there for the community. This event will help you to improve the experience of visitors to your church – be they local residents, pilgrims or tourists. It will inspire you to try new initiatives and hopefully encourage you to keep up the good work that is already in place.

via Always Welcome.

UK – Conference on Lighting in Churches and Cathedrals

7 May 2014 – Manchester Cathedral

Good lighting will assist you in the use of your building and to control costs. This event brings together up to date knowledge and experience of lighting design and installation, energy efficient lighting solutions and effective controls. Examples from church and cathedral buildings will be used and light fittings especially adapted for sensitive historic interiors will be explored.

via Lighting Conference.

BELARUS – Religious organizations might contribute to tourism promotion in 2014

Religious organizations of Belarus might make a considerable contribution to the promotion of tourism in the Year of Hospitality, Belarus’ Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities Leonid Gulyako said at a session of the Office of the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities on 22 January, BelTA has learnt.

Leonid Gulyako drew attention to the fact that the government has never failed to provide assistance with restoring religious buildings that are part of the country’s historical and cultural heritage. The work to construct the religious and educational center in Minsk is nearing completion. The funds for the project were allocated from the national budget. Resources were also provided to conduct restoration works at St. Resurrection Cathedral Church in Borisov, the Assumption Monastery in the village of Pustynki, Mstislavl District, a monastery in the village of Yurovichi, Kalinkovichi District, a catholic church in Nesvizh and a number of other cultural specimens. Top on the agenda is the renovation of the St Assumption Monastery Complex in Zhirovichi, as well as the seminary and the ecclesiastical academy in Minsk.

Belarus’ religious organizations might contribute to tourism promotion in 2014 – Society / News headlines / Belarus News 

POLAND / BELARUS / UKRAINE – “Shtetl routes” under development in borderland

An ambitious, international “Shtetl Routes” tourism itinerary through a score or more of towns in the Poland-Belarus-Ukraine border region is under development with a more than €400,000 grant from the European Union’s Cross-border Cooperation Programme Poland-Belarus-Ukraine 2007-2013.

Formally called Shtetl routes: Vestiges of Jewish cultural heritage in transborder tourism, the complex project involves both on-site and archival research in all three countries; the development of three tourist trails; an internet portal that will describe towns and feature images, anecdotes and history; a guidebook to Jewish heritage in the region; guided tours and the training of tour guides; and the preparation of 3-d virtual models of 15 shtetls, five in each country.

via “Shtetl routes” under development in Poland-Belarus-Ukraine borderland | Jewish Heritage Europe.