Founded in 840 and originally dedicated to Greek saint Demetrius, this church was rebuilt in 1170, became a parish church, and was rededicated to the apostle Bartholomew (the church is known as San Bortolomio in Venetian dialect). Several renovations since then, combined with the dense development of this central campo on the San Marco side of the Rialto Bridge, have resulted in today’s church which is engulfed by surrounding shops and is easy to miss. Look for the door (it’s all you can see of the church from the campo).
It’s ironic that the church is so hidden because its campanile is one of the most visible in Venice and appears in zillions of photographs of the bridge.
In the 13th century, this became the church for Venice’s thriving community of German and Eastern European merchants, whose warehouse and offices were in the nearby Fondaco dei Tedeschi (once the Venetian post office, now a Benetton store). During the Renaissance, the Germans decorated their church with some very fine art; they also hired Giorgione and Titian to fresco the outside of their warehouse (those frescoes are long gone except for some faded fragments in the Galleria Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro). The best art from the church is gone too.
The wealthy German confraternity commissioned a painting from their countryman, Albrecht Durer, who lived in Venice for several years and completed this painting while there in 1506. This work, The Feast of the Rosary (or Rose Garlands), is one of the great masterpieces of the Renaissance, and the inspiration of Bellini (who befriended Durer while he was living in Venice) can be seen in the jewel-like colors. The painting was an immediate sensation, so much so that it only remained in San Bartolomeo for 100 years and was sold to Hapsburg Emperor Rudolph II in 1606; the German merchants sold it for 900 gold ducats which was over ten times more than they paid Durer for it. It’s now in the National Gallery in Prague.
The church’s organ shutters painted by Sebastiano del Piombo are still in Venice but now in the Gallerie dell'Accademia. In medieval and Renaissance times, organ doors were a prestigious commission for an artist – the ones del Piombo created for San Bartolomeo depict four larger-than-life saints. The artist was a native Venetian who studied with Bellini and Giorgione and then moved to Rome where he befriended Michelangelo and spent the rest of his life; there are only a few of his works in his hometown.
Today there are some lavish but rather typical altars, several of which house paintings by Palma il Giovane, the late Renaissance artist who is so very well-represented in the churches of Venice. Probably the church’s greatest remaining treasure is its organ, built in 1775 by famed Venetian organ builder Gaetano Callido, who also built organs for the Basilica di San Marco and the Frari. Callido was so esteemed that the Republic honored him with a tax exemption (quite an accomplishment in Venice, I’d say). You can see the organ and the altars on this interactive map. There are some nice paintings in the Chapel of the Annunciation to the right of the high altar. I also like the painting of Archangel Michael in the third altar on the right.
In November 2011, the church was a venue for an international conference, "The Church of San Bartolomeo and the German community in Venice," the first in a series of conferences about the churches of Venice.
The ancient bell tower was damaged in an 1688 earthquake and rebuilt in 1754. Its Baroque onion dome is easy to recognize and is a helpful landmark when you’re learning your way around Venice. Walk past the doorway to the church and turn down a very narrow calle to find the door of the campanile, which is protected by the grotesque head of some kind of bearded creature with horns. Is his tongue sticking out or does he have a weird chin?
San Bartolomeo was deconsecrated and closed in the 1980’s then later reopened as an exhibit and concert hall. Today it’s back in business as a church, though it's no longer a parish church, replaced by nearby San Salvador.
To Visit this Church
Sunday Mass 8:30 AM
Opening times published on the San Salvador website.
Tue/Thur./Sat. 10:00 - 12:00 AM
Wed./Fri. 7:00 - 9:00 PM. (only for prayer and worship)
Also open occasionally for organ recitals.