A hidden Rialto market church with a Titian on the high altar.
San Giovanni Elemosinario (St. John the Almsgiver or Almoner) is a Byzantine saint more commonly honored by the Orthodox rather than the Catholic church. A wealthy 7th century Patriarch of Alexandria known for his generosity to the poor, he’s an unusual saint in that he was married, lived to be an old man, and died of natural causes rather than martyrdom.
No one is sure how old this church is - its campanile collapsed in 1071, so it had probably been around for a few centuries before then. The great Rialto fire of 1514 destroyed the church along with the surrounding market area; this fire occurred on a particularly cold night when the canals and wells were frozen, making fire fighting impossible. Scarpagnino (who also built the Scuola di San Rocco) was hired by the Republic to get the Rialto back in business as quickly as possible, and he probably rebuilt this church along with the entire area.
This church was closed for the last several decades of the 20th century and re-opened in 2002, at which time its Titian was returned from the Accademia.
The Church and its art
The church is completely hidden by the surrounding buildings of the Rialto market. You reach it from Ruga Vecchia San Giovanni by going through a vaulted archway with an iron gate. This calle is crowded with vendor stalls, and the entranceway is hard to see (look for the Chorus Pass sign on the gate). The ceiling fresco in the photo above is from the archway.
It’s quite small inside with an elegant late Renaissance interior. Pordenone frescoed the central dome with angels - these frescoes came to light during the recent restoration. There are a number of ornate altars dedicated to various merchant guilds, and a hole in the floor where you can look down and see a frescoed tomb.
Titian’s San Giovanni Elemosinario is on the high altar. Titian was a master at painting very soulful old men who just radiate compassion and wisdom, and the saint in this painting is a great example.
To the right of it is Pordenone’s Saints Catherine, Sebastian, and Rocco, a vivid work which shows the three saints along with a sweet cherubic angel speaking intently to San Rocco. Vasari (Lives of the Artists) reported a competition/rivalry between these two artists that centered around their works for this church, with the upstart Pordenone challenging the famous Titian and Titian being furious, but most scholars think that Vasari made it all up (Renaissance tabloid journalism, perhaps?). Regardless, both paintings are very fine.
Also worth seeking out is a 5th century Byzantine stone relief with a scene of the Adoration of the Shepherds – a completely charming fragment that shows an ox and a donkey kissing or licking the baby Jesus. I love nativity scenes and this is a great one.
Ruskin called it “the most interesting piece of central Gothic remaining comparatively intact in Venice” and during his time, there was a green grocer’s shop at the base between the pillars. At one time, the campanile had a clock with one of those interactive tableaus like the one in Piazza San Marco – a rooster would crow three times and then two men would strike the hour. This was destroyed in the fire.
To visit this church
A Chorus Pass church (Monday-Saturday 10-5).
Some nice photos and a 360 Panaramic view on the Chorus Pass website. The Pordenone painting is below (the colors are much more vivid in real life). Love that cherub!