In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio asks, “What’s new on the Rialto?” Not this church, for sure - it’s ancient. It was probably Venice’s first church - legend has that it was founded in 421, the same year that Venice herself was born. It’s dedicated to San Giacomo (Saint James the Apostle) but known affectionately as San Giacometto.
The very small church we see today is essentially the same as the one rebuilt in 1071 which was around the same time that the surrounding Rialto market was established. In medieval times, the Rialto area was the world’s most vital marketplace. Banking was invented here, merchants traveled here from all over the globe, and San Giacometto became the merchants’ church as shown by the engraving on its apse: “Round about this church may the merchant be equitable, the weights just, and may no fraudulent contract be negotiated.”
The church survived two great fires (in 1106 and 1514), though it may have been damaged in the 1514 fire that devastated the entire market area. A Senate decree of 1601 called for its renovation but no changes were made to the Veneto-Byzantine structure or to its small size. The church looks pretty much the same today as it did in Canaletto’s 1725 painting (see above).
The Church and its Art
San Giacometto is in the form of a Greek cross with a central dome. While the essential 11th c. structure of the church remains, there have been some changes over the centuries. Both the Gothic wooden portico (covered porch) and the huge 24-hour clock on the façade were later additions, in the 12th and 15th centuries respectively. A tiny campanile with visible bells is on top of the church. During the 1601 restoration, the floors were raised to avoid floods and more windows were added, but the ancient marble columns with 11th c. capitals were preserved.
Unfortunately, the mosaics that decorated the interior for centuries are gone, replaced by a number of Baroque altarpieces commissioned by various merchant guilds (the Cheese Merchants, Goldsmiths, and Oil Decanters, among others). The artistic highlights are a couple of sculptures: Vittorio’s statue of San Giacomo on the high altar and Campagna’s bronze statue of San Antonio Abate. Paintings include an Annunciation by Marcio Vecellio, Titian’s distant cousin.
This is a sweet little church. Every time I've been in, there have been Italian grandmothers in there praying, seemingly oblivious to all the hubbub in the market right outside.
To Visit this Church:
In her 1963 book Venice Observed, Mary McCarthy reported that San Giacometto was only open one day a year (which is all it takes for a church to remain consecrated).
It’s much easier to visit today and is open from 9:30-12:00, 4-6 Monday through Saturday. Also open occasionally in the evenings for concerts.