San Polo Archives

October 16, 2007

The churches of San Polo

Titian Pesaro altar in the FrariThis sestiere has 10 churches, including one of the greatest of all. The Frari is one to visit over and over – I can’t imagine being in Venice and not going to see the Bellini altarpiece and those gorgeous Titians (Titian's Pesaro altarpiece to the left).

San Giacometto is a very charming little church nestled in the midst of the Rialto Market; this is probably the site of the first church in Venice, built around 421. San Cassiano has three Tintorettos which John Ruskin thought were among the artist’s finest works anywhere. The high altar of San Giovanni Elemosinaro has a nice Titian that was recently returned to the church from the Accademia.

Chorus Pass churches are the Frari, San Giovanni Elemosinaro, and San Polo.

Churches in San Polo

Frari (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari)
San Cassiano
San Giacometto (San Giacomo di Rialto)
San Giovanni Elemosinario
San Giovanni Evangelista
San Polo (San Paolo Apostolo)
San Rocco
San Silvestro
San Toma (San Tommaso Apostolo)

I’ve been in 8 of 10 these; the two I’m missing are San Toma and Sant’Aponal which are deconsecrated and seem to be permanently closed.

The church of San Rocco is a blur because both times I’ve visited it, I’d just come out of the scuola next door and was in complete and utter Tintoretto overload. Next time, I’m going to visit the church first.

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October 31, 2007

San Giacometto


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.”

Canaletto's SanGiacometto

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November 14, 2007

Titian's Assunta in the Frari

Titian's AssuntaTitian’s Assumption of the Virgin (the Assunta) is arguably the greatest Venetian painting in the world.* We’re lucky that we can see it in the church for which Titian painted it almost 500 years ago.

Born in the Dolomites, Tiziano Vecellio was sent to Venice to study art when he was 10 years old. He first studied in a mosaic workshop, then apprenticed to the Bellini family, and later studied and worked with Giorgione. Titian was still very young (in his 20’s) when he was commissioned to paint the Assunta for Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice’s enormous Franciscan church. It was a prestigious commission for any artist, especially a young one, but Titian wasn’t really in the position where he was still trying to prove himself. Bellini and Giorgione had both recently died, so Titian must have known that he was the greatest living artist in town and perhaps this gave him the confidence to do a painting unlike any ever done before.

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April 5, 2008

San Giovanni Elemosinario

San Giovanni Elemosinario

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.

San Giovanni Elemosinario

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April 21, 2008

Paolo Veneziano in the Frari


This painting by Paolo Veneziano is in the Chapter Hall of the Frari. From the main sanctuary, walk through the Sacristy (where the great Bellini altarpiece is) and into this Hall which has windows overlooking the former monastery’s cloisters. The painting is over the funeral monument for Doge Francesco Dandolo and shows the Doge and his wife being presented to the Virgin and Child by Saints Francis and Elizabeth. The Christ Child’s hand is raised, blessing the Doge. Painted in 1339, this is probably the first portrait of a Doge that was painted from real life and also might be the oldest painting in Venice that remains “in situ” (in the place for which the artist painted it).

Paolo Veneziano (Paul the Venetian) isn’t the first Venetian artist but he’s the first with a name and a recognizable style. Before him, there were a number of anonymous artists making mosaics, and painting frescoes and icons. He lived from 1290-1362 and was a contemporary of the Tuscan artist Giotto who revolutionized painting a few miles away in Padua.

Paolo’s paintings are colorful with lots of gold and brocade and show elements of both the older Byzantine and the emerging Gothic styles. He was one of the first artists in Venice to paint on panel and make altarpieces and polyptychs instead of painting frescoes right on the church walls. He painted lots of "Madonna and Childs" and "Virgins Enthroneds" as well as crucifixions on panels in the shape of a cross.

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September 27, 2008

San Toma

San Toma

No longer open to the public, this church is worth visiting anyway just because this neighborhood is so nice and also to see the beautiful relief of the Madonna on the outside of the church.

The church is dedicated to San Tommaso Apostolo (the apostle Thomas, famous for doubting). Originally built in the tenth century, the church has been restructured several times since, most recently in 1742. The façade designed by Longhena was added in 1660 and rebuilt a century later when it was on the verge of falling off.

On the right side of the church is the sarcophagus of Giovanni Priuli, a 14th century war hero and senator. Hard to photograph, but his feet are resting on a small dog. On the left side is one of the most beautiful Madonnas in town, a gothic relief of the Madonna della Misericordia. Gorgeous.

San Toma Madonna

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October 8, 2008

Scuola dei Calegheri

Across the campo from the church of San Toma is the gothic Scuola dei Calegheri (Guild of the Cobblers or Shoe-makers). There’s another beautiful Madonna della Misericordia relief on the façade of the scuola and below that, a lunette over the door that shows San Marco healing the cobbler Anianus, who'd hurt his hand while making shoes and converted to Christianity after Mark healed him (and later became a saint himself). This Renaissance relief was sculpted by Pietro Lombardo, who may have copied a drawing by master painter Giovanni Bellini.

This is the scuola, with the Frari campanile behind it:

Scuola dei Calegheri

The Madonna della Misericordia on the facade:

Madonna della Misericordia

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November 12, 2008

The Pesaro Altarpiece in the Frari

celestia catI found this sweet story in E.V. Lucas’ A Wanderer in Venice (published in 1914), and since it combines three of my favorite things (churches, cats, and art), I had to share it on the blog.

In his story, Lucas was sitting in front of Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece in the church of the Frari (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari).

As I sat one day looking at this picture, a small grey and white cat sprang on my knee from nowhere and immediately sank into a profound slumber from which I hesitated to wake it. Such ingratiating acts are not common in Venice, where animals are scarce and all dogs must be muzzled.

Whether or not the spirit of Titian had instructed the little creature to keep me there, I cannot say, but the result was that I sat for a quarter of an hour before the altar without a movement, so that every particular of the painting is photographed on my retina.

Six months later the same cat led me to a courtyard opposite the Sacristy door and proudly exhibited three kittens.

Sigh. I haven’t met any cats or kittens during my many visits to the Frari, but I have read that in the former monastery next door (now the Venetian Archives), there’s a much loved colony of cats who keep the mice from nibbling away all the ancient documents of the Republic.

Here's the painting Lucas was looking at when the kitty jumped in his lap.

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July 26, 2011

San Cassiano


It’s a bit of a surprise to walk in and see how pretty this church is, since the outside is a rather nondescript mustard-brown box. Founded in the 8th century or so, this church has been rebuilt and remodeled as many as six times, and the building we see today dates to 1611. The campanile is much older, 13th century with parts dating back to the 9th century; some think it was originally a defensive tower rather than a bell tower.

This church is on the border between San Polo and Santa Croce, and is not to be confused with the church of San Canciano on the other side of the Grand Canal in Cannaregio. Different church and different saint. This one is dedicated to 4th century martyr, St. Cassian of Imola. He's the patron saint of school teachers despite the fact that he died at the hands of his pagan students who stabbed him to death with their ink pens (there’s a Baroque painting of this gruesome/funny scene in the church). San Cassiano’s body is here along with other relics that include the head of St. Cecilia and the jawbone of St. Lawrence Martyr.


John Ruskin said that the only thing worth seeing of the building itself is a Byzantine door fragment leftover from an earlier incarnation, but proclaimed that San Cassiano is a “don’t miss” because of its paintings by Tintoretto. Many of the churches of Venice have at least one painting by Tintoretto, but this church has three, all on the high altar (The Crucifixion, The Descent into Limbo, and The Resurrection). Ruskin declared this Crucifixion as “among the finest in Europe.” Writer Henry James was gaga over this painting too.

This church is also known for its lost altarpiece by Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina, who is believed to have introduced oil painting to northern Italy; he spent a couple of years in Venice studying with (or teaching) Giovanni Bellini. The Pala di San Cassiano disappeared mysteriously from the church in the early 17th century. It was divided into smaller paintings which were dispersed, but three of the pieces have been reunited and are now in the art museum in Vienna. You can see a diagram here that shows how much of the altarpiece was recovered (most of it is still missing). It gives me chills to think about cutting up a painting like this! I wonder if the church needed money to rebuild for the umpteenth time and sold it?

San Cassiano

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November 1, 2011

San Rocco

San Rocco

I’ve visited this church many times but until last November, every visit was more-or-less a blur because I visited the Scuola next door first and was in a complete Tintoretto overload haze. So last year, I went to the church first and it finally made an impression on me, a good one. There are some fine paintings in here, by Tintoretto and others, and it’s a nice space.

About the saint, San Rocco (or St. Roch) is another one of the plague saints. He was a French holy man who gained fame as a healer as the Black Death spread across Europe. He’s often pictured in the woods with an angel and his faithful dog companion, a nice image; he’s a lovable saint all around. He died in Montpellier in 1377, and his relics became revered by all those seeking protection and healing from the plague.

So in typical Venetian fashion, a couple of monks went to France in 1484 and stole San Rocco’s body and brought it back to Venice. Because of the possession of the relics of the saint, the confraternity that built the church and the Scuola became very wealthy as plague-fearing people made donations. And then they came into possession of another attraction, a painting with healing powers.

San Rocco

San Rocco

The painting is the Cristo Portacroce or Christ Carrying the Cross by Giorgione (maybe). As stories about its healing powers spread, visitors and donations increased, leading eventually to the decoration of the Scuola with 61 paintings by Tintoretto and its status of one of the six Scuola Grande in Venice.

Renaissance art critic Giorgio Vasari was very matter-of-fact about the miracle-working painting:

“Giorgione did a painting showing Christ carrying the cross for the church of San Rocco, and which now, because of great devotion that is paid to it, works miracles, as anyone can see for himself. “

This painting is now in the Scuola, not the church, and is usually attributed to Titian (though the Scuola’s website says it’s by Giorgione). A grateful recipient of a miracle had a votive copy of the painting carved in marble; this relief can be seen in the church next to the high altar.

Many of the paintings by Tintoretto in this church are scenes from the life of San Rocco, though there are a few other subjects too including this nice Annunciation below. The church also has a couple of paintings by Sebastiano Ricci and one by Pordenone.

San Rocco

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October 24, 2012



Here’s another “chiesa chiusa al culto” (church closed for worship). And closed for anything else too, as far as I know. Sometimes these closed churches pop open for a Biennale exhibit or such, but I haven’t heard of Sant’Aponal being open at all for anything.

I’ve walked by this big Gothic church so many times. I’d love to know what it looks like inside. I wish that Venice would arrange to open some of these deconsecrated churches, even if it was only for a few weeks a year (preferably in the winter when I like to go to Venice). My guess is that some of them are in such poor condition, they aren’t safe for visitors.

Sant’Aponal was founded in 1034 – the money came from families who had moved to Venice from Ravenna, and so the church was dedicated to St. Apollinaire, Ravenna’s patron saint. The saint’s name was crunched to “Aponal” in Venetian dialect. The church was rebuilt in the mid 15th century, and that’s the nice solid brick Gothic building we see today.


Sant'Aponal was a parish church until it was closed during the great suppression in 1810. The church was stripped of its art and altars, and for the next few decades, was used for various secular purposes (homeless shelter, jail, blacksmith shop). The church’s painting by Tiepolo (The Madonna of Carmel and the Souls of the Purgatory) was taken to Paris by the French, cut into two, sold in two lots which were later reattached, and ended up in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

Then in 1840, Sant’Aponal itself was put on the auction block for sale. A guy named Angelo Vianello bought it and then resold it to some devout people who managed to get it back in business as a church, at least for a little while. It was reconsecrated and redecorated.

It makes me dizzy to think about all these churches opening and closing, and so much artwork moving around. When Sant’Aponal reopened in 1851, a few of its altars were returned and it also inherited the main altar from the closed church of Santa Giustina in Castello. At some point, the Renaissance portal and sculptures by artist Antonio Rizzo were brought to Sant’ Aponal from the closed church of Sant’Elena, but those were returned in 1929 after Sant’Elena was reconsecrated and reopened.

Some sources credit Antonio Rizzo with the fantastic Gothic carvings on the façade of Sant’Aponal today, but that’s a mistake. These reliefs are of “unknown provenance” according to the Patriarch of Venice website. They probably came from some other closed or demolished church. Above the rose window, there’s a Crucifixion circa 14th century. Above the door, Christ on the Cross with Mary, John the Baptist, and many other saints, dated 1294.


About the campanile and its restoration – I photographed it in 2007, 2008, and 2010, and the scaffolding is exactly the same in every photo. No signs of progress at all. Here’s a photo taken in 2004 where you can see what the bell tower looks like. It’s one of the oldest towers in Venice (9th century Veneto-Byzantine foundation with Gothic additions made during a1464 restoration) so maybe the scaffolding is what’s keeping it upright.

You can also see the tower in this drawing of Campo Sant’Aponal by Giacomo Guardi (1764-1835), son of the more famous Francesco. At that time, the church had an actual portal.


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December 7, 2012

An Update on Sant'Aponal


This photo just makes me smile. Thanks so much to Andrew for answering my call for someone to check this out, and also for sending the photo to me and giving permission to post it here. Andrew took this photo on November 21, 2012, the day of the Festa della Salute. Happy to see such beautiful blue skies for that lovely celebration.

What cracks me up is that if you look at my photos from 2007, 2008, and 2010, and compare them to Andrew's photo, it is clear as a bell that NOTHING is happening here! Decorative scaffolding, a project completely stalled for some unknown reason. We'll continue to monitor the "progress" on this one. :)

And speaking of Venice and towers, I stumbled across this article about Pierre Cardin's controversial plan to build a "futuristic" tower in Porto Marghera. It wouldn't be in Venice but would be visible from Venice. What do you all think? I vote yes.

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Churches in Venice in the San Polo category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

San Marco is the previous category.

Santa Croce is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.


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