An ancient and strangely charming church with much to see, including fossils! This is one of my very favorites; I love the church but I also love the campo, having stayed in a great apartment here on two of my trips. My favorite restaurant (La Zucca) is in this neighborhood along with my favorite wine bar (Al Prosecco), and I’ve spent many happy hours sitting in the campo drinking prosecco and watching the neighborhood while looking at the back of this great old church.
One of the oldest churches in Venice, dating back to the 10th century, this church is interesting in that the different styles of so many centuries have been combined so harmoniously. The church was rebuilt in 1225 and has been expanded and renovated several times since then. So in one place, you can see elements of the major periods of Venetian style from Byzantine to Gothic to Renaissance to Baroque.
The church is dedicated to St. James (San Giacomo), while the “dall’Orio” part of the name is a Venetian dialect phrase whose meaning is up for grabs. It might refer to a bay laurel tree (lauro) that used to be in the campo or to “Luprio” which is what this lagoon settlement was called before the creation of the Republic. Either way, it’s a reference to the location of the church and not to the saint himself.
The church and its art
I love the way this church looks from the outside. The back of the church faces into the campo of the same name, one of the nicest campos in Venice with a few trees and park benches, and real Venetians with their kids and dogs. There’s very little ornamentation on the outside of the church – it’s just stone, and it looks so….old. The apses look like huge stone barrels, all merged together, in various weather-beaten colors. The entrance to the church faces a canal, and there’s an outdoor pizzeria (Il Refolo) on the canal right by the façade. You get a sense of how a parish church like this one is such an integral part of a neighborhood. The 800-year old campanile is a nice stocky brick one with great bells that ring on a zany and inexplicable schedule that I’ve yet to figure out.
While the church looks a bit rambling from the outside, the interior is surprisingly elegant with lots of art to see. But more than the art, it’s the quirky details of this church that are intriguing, like the floor. It’s red and white marble in a checkerboard pattern common to a number of Venetian churches, but this one has fossils embedded in it. Big fossils that look like huge swirly crustaceans – it’s great fun to walk around and find them!
And then there’s the gothic wooden ceiling (14th c). Many Venetian wood craftsmen began their careers as ship builders, and several churches in Venice have an ornately constructed wooden ceiling that looks like the inverted hull of a boat. Other churches with these ship’s keel ceilings include Santo Stefano and San Polo, among others, but this is one of the finest. There are also some nice carved wooden beams and cornices. There’s just something so beautiful about the contrast of wood and stone – too much marble can make a church seem coldly mausoleum-like, but wood warms a place right up.
And finally, the green column. The church has a number of stone columns, but only one made of green marble. It was part of the loot that the Venetians brought home from the raid on Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1204); before that, the folks in Constantinople may have stolen it from an ancient Greek or Roman temple. It’s certainly beautiful – Ruskin was fascinated by it and said that it was more jewel than stone, and poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio said, “It is like the fossilized condensation of a great green forest.” Fossils again! I’d love to know the story of how this one amazing column ended up in this rather homely parish church instead of in Basilica di San Marco with all the other plundered treasures that the Venetians hauled home.
This church has a large collection of art that spans the many centuries since its creation. The Renaissance is well-represented with works by Veronese and Lorenzo Lotto (his Virgin and Child with Saints is above the high altar). My favorites include some of the older works, like the 13th c. painted wooden crucifix by Paolo Veneziano, and various Byzantine works scattered around, including a nice marble Madonna in a niche on the wall.
More photos of the outside of the church are here.
To visit this church:
San Giacomo dall’Orio is one of the Chorus Pass churches, so you can count on finding it open from 10-5 on Monday through Saturday.