La Maddalena: Venice’s mysterious masonic church

Modelled on the Roman Pantheon, the tiny church of Santa Maria della Maddalena, or simply La Maddalena, is a Venetian mystery. Perhaps its most notable feature are the masonic symbols above the door. The all-seeing eye inside an interlocking circle and triangle is one of the symbols of freemasonry and both the church’s architect and patron were freemasons. The mystery is amplified by the fact that the church is almost always closed to visitors – so much so that I’ve never seen the inside.

The 18th-century neoclassical edifice we see today is the work of Venetian architect Tommaso Temanza who entirely rebuilt an earlier church using a circular plan inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. The Roman Pantheon itself, one of the best preserved buildings of the antiquity, is a special design echoed by the much later symbols of freemasonry. It incorporates a circular wall plan and a rectangular portico while its circular dome has an eye-like opening in the centre of the roof called an oculus.

La Maddalena’s site, owned by the patrician Balbo (or Baffo) family, had a church as early as the 13th century. There is some evidence of the family’s association with the Knights Templar. In the 18th century, Venice had an influential fraternity of freemasons whose members also included the famous adventurer Giacomo Casanova. The owners of the old religious site who were also affiliated to the freemasonry contracted Temanza, also a member of the fraternity, to build a masonic church in Venice.

Judging by the symbol of the all-seeing eye above La Maddalena’s entrance and its Latin inscription attributed to Solomon: Sapientia edificavit sibi domum (“Wisdom has built a home for itself”), Temanza was also a dabbler in the same undercurrent of esoteric freemasonry as Mozart. The architect is buried inside the church and his headstone is apparently decorated with a line and set of compasses, the most common symbol of the freemasons whose members would see themselves as ‘builders’.

It is also no surprise that this peculiar small masonic church is dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Despite being the first witness to Christ’s resurrection, she is more commonly remembered as a reformed prostitute. This mysterious figure, sometimes rejected by the church, was instead beloved by the freemasonry whose members considered her a symbol of wisdom and the struggle against the obscurantism of the church. With her church in Venice almost never open to visitors, this struggle is apparently real.