Venetians hold back the tides of ruin as a Renaissance church is restored

To get to the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, you have to go by foot through winding alleys, or by gondola via canals too narrow for water taxi or vaporetto. The church, built between 1481 and 1489 of shimmering Carrara, Parian, and Verona marble, is a small masterpiece hidden deep in Venice's northernmost section, the Cannaregio quarter. Since 1987, Miracoli has been closed for restoration, the victim of years of saltwater erosion. It is scheduled to reopen this fall; but recently, I got an insider's look at the church's history and future.

"Quanto costa?" I ask the most handsome of four gondoliers. I am determined to make my journey to Miracoli in the manner of the hundreds of Venetian brides who married there each year. He tells me the trip is difficult, through many back canals, and names his price. He's handsome, but not that handsome. I thank him and move on, resigned to finding my way on foot.

Gradually the bustle of San Marco gives way to stillness broken only by the sound of waves against stone foundations. On the narrow back streets I pass restaurants with neither names nor tourist menus. Shops selling handmade paper and glass are replaced by ones selling house dresses, gondoliers' uniforms, and anchors.

After 20 minutes I cross a bridge and there it is, rising out of the silence: a small church that looks like a jeweled reliquary. Its builder, Pietro Lombardo, was an artisan whose previous endeavors had been limited to monuments and tombs. The Miracoli is simply an enlarged tomb, topped with a dome and made beautiful.

I am greeted by Countess Lesa Marcello, director of the local office of Save Venice. Since 1967, the American nonprofit organization has been dedicated to restoring and preserving the city's endangered art and architecture. As we pick our way over various tools, she tells me how the church came to be. In the 1470's, a painting of the Madonna and child was displayed in an exterior alcove of a local merchant's house. Passersby would stop and pray to the Madonna, leaving offerings of flowers and votive candles. Soon, stories of wondrous healings began to circulate, and the square where the house was located became too small to accommodate the crowds of pilgrims. The painting was moved to the courtyard of another house, and donations took the form of silver. Eventually, there was enough to build an elaborate tribute to the Madonna's miracles.

As Lesa's story ends, we come to a place on the marble wall not yet restored. "Look," she says, "this is what was becoming of the church." She sticks her hand into a niche and pulls it out covered with fine dust. "This is the salt that had seeped into the walls," she explains.

Venetians have always known how to build on water: Drive pilings through the mud to reach supportive clay. Place water-resistant Istrian limestone on top, above the high-tide mark; add a core of brick to be stuccoed or faced with marble. Venetians also know that brick soaks up water like a sponge and that, when it dries, salt deposits appear. If those deposits mix with the calcium in marble, erosion results; so marble must be hung away from brick, on bronze hooks. The method worked. For 1,000 years.

Miracoli's problems started when 19th-century restorers used cement to reattach marble slabs directly to the brick. When Save Venice came to the rescue, its first job was to record the amount of moisture and salt in the walls. Supporting structures were connected by wire to a computer, and there, 24 hours a day, the encroaching death of the marble was recorded like a heartbeat on an electrocardiogram. Before the marble slabs were removed for renovation, a harmonic hammer invented by one of the restorers was tapped against the stones to test for cracks. If the computer registered that the sound traveled at less than normal speed, cracks were present.

When we reach the altar, Lesa suggests we climb the scaffolding to the top of the church and out a door, onto the roof. Suddenly, a tortured prophet stares me in the face. "Imagine," whispers Lesa, "all this beauty where no one would ever see it." I suggest that the sculptures weren't made for the appreciation of worshipers below, but for the Madonna. "Yes," she agrees. "But who could comprehend that kind of faith in this technological day and age?" Yet, as I watch a woman in a lab coat brush the face of a prophet, I see her smile into the eyes of anguish, and know that she comprehends.

Barbara Lazear Ascher's new book, a meditation on romance, will be published next year by HarperCollins.