The pedestrian vortex around the Rialto Bridge is one of the best places to appreciate Venetians in motion. Locals move through the space differently than anyone else, somehow able to pass tourists without altering or slowing their course. And Venetians move fast, particularly compared to the rest of us bumbling about the city’s labyrinthian layout. I once had to literally run to keep up with my host.
Many visitors treat San Polo as a thoroughfare between the train station and the Rialto; some might detour to the Titians in the Frari or the Tintorettos in the San Rocco, but few drift into the campos and residential pockets. Walking deeper into the district, one can sense tensions evaporating with the traffic level. At the end of the workday, locals pause for an aperitivo and some cicchetti (nibbles) on their way home. The golden hour is especially magical here, a fleeting window when all irritations melt into the sunset.
Given that it’s one of the oldest parts of Venice, San Polo still feels down-to-earth. The city’s legendary pageantry centered around San Marco while San Polo handled the business. Tucked into the Grand Canal’s big bend, Venice’s smallest sestiere is also the only district without any land on the lagoon. Many guidebooks lump San Polo with Santa Croce – which isn’t surprising since the boundary between the two districts is hard to to detect on the ground.
We’ve compiled a guide to the major sights in San Polo, all marked on our Google map.
For most of Venetian history, the Rialto Bridge was the only way to cross the Grand Canal without a boat. The unusual, iconic form we see today alludes to earlier versions erected on the spot. When the 1181 pontoon crossing proved inadequate, the city replaced it with a wooden structure in 1255. A pair of ramps rose up on either side to meet a central section which could be raised to allow passage of tall ships; rents from the shops along the sides provided funds for maintenance.
After two collapses and a fire, the government finally called for proposals to rebuild the timber bridge in stone. Many famous Renaissance architects – including Palladio, Sansovino, and Vignola – submitted designs, but city statesmen deemed these too radical; the winning candidate avoided Classical references. Ironically, engineering a bridge based on the ancient Roman model would have been much easier than translating a wooden form into stone. In spite of fears that it would soon collapse, the 1591 Rialto Bridge survives today.
Mercato di Rialto
As old as the city itself, the Rialto market ranks next to the Piazza San Marco in significance. Venice’s economic engine grew on a spot of high ground, the Rivo altus, whose name was shortened to Rialto. Traders and eventually bankers congregated here, developing the “bill of exchange” and other forms of credit which made the modern world possible.
The official Mercato di Rialto has provided residents with food since 1097. The Erberia (vegetable market) and Pescheria (fish market) run from 7:30 to mid-day, Tuesday-Saturday. After the crowds thin and souvenir stalls shutter for the night, bars materialize and vanish within the space of a few hours.
Between the market and the Rialto Bridge sits the unassuming San Giacomo di Rialto church, commonly known as San Giacometto. Under a famously-inaccurate clock added in 1410, the façade features a wooden portico – one of just two to survive after the city switched to less-combustible materials. (Venice’s density made it peculiarly vulnerable to fires.)
According to legend, the Republic of Venice officially began on March 21, 421, when the San Giacomo di Rialto was consecrated. The earliest record of the church dates to 1152, and the layout of the present structure probably dates to this period. A modestly-sized floor plan in the shape of a Greek cross topped by a dome emphasizes the early city’s Byzantine heritage. In spite of multiple renovations over the centuries, traces of the older church remain. Most notably, the interior retains its original Greek marble columns and capitals, as well as altars dedicated by the merchants who worshipped here – including a 12th century inscription admonishing them to be honest in their trade.
San Giacometto opening hours: Monday-Saturday 9-5. The church sometimes hosts concerts (usually Vivaldi) in the evenings.
Opposite the church (and often hidden behind boxes or piles of vegetables) crouches a statue known as the Gobbo di Rialto, or Hunchback of Rialto. Apparently persons convicted of minor crimes in medieval times could avoid going to jail by running naked from here to the Piazza Marco.
Campo San Polo & Chiesa di San Polo
Venice’s second-largest square was originally a grazing area, then the site of a market serviced by an adjacent canal (now filled in). Later the open expanse became a venue for bullfighting, as well as a spot to host masked balls. Today it remains the district’s heart, with open-air concerts and screenings during the Venice Film Festival.
In a city with so much opulence, the unassuming architecture of the Chiesa di San Polo is refreshing. Instead of passing through a grand façade, one enters the church through a side portal. Some parts of the structure go back to the ninth century, including the ship’s-keel roof. Besides paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese, and Giambattista Tiepolo, the San Polo houses an entire cycle by the latter’s son.
Giandomenico was just 20 when he executed the 14 Stations of the Cross in the Oratory of the Crucifix (at the front end of the church, to the left as one enters). Although the subject matter makes the cycle more conventional than his later work, the artist already showed his remarkable ability to depict bodies floating above us.
Chiesa di San Polo: opening hours Monday-Sat 10:30-1:30 and 2:30-5, €3 or free with Chorus Pass.
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
In terms of wow-factor, it’s hard to beat the Frari. Architecturally, it resembles Venice’s other Gothic churches, especially its Dominican counterpart in Castello, the Santi Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo).
The austere combination of brick and white stone provides the perfect backdrop for the artwork. Major artists working on the grandest of scales vie for attention, from the funerary monuments lining the nave to Titian’s gargantuan altarpiece. Spilling out from the crossing, smaller masterpieces such as Donatello’s wooden St. John the Baptist reward closer inspection.
For visiting information, see the website.
San Rocco Scuola Grande & Church
Middle-class Venetians exercised political power via scuole, charitable organizations which grew into a de facto welfare system. The most powerful of these became known as scuole grandi, and their wealth allowed them to become major artistic patrons during the Renaissance.
Belief in San Rocco’s power to ward off plagues attracted mass donations to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and the institution quickly grew into the richest of its kind. Founded in 1478, the Scuola was able to finance construction of a both a new church and a new headquarters within just a few decades. The organization also managed to attract replacements on several occasions after a ‘parting of ways’ with the architect.
The Scuola’s façade traces the city’s changing tastes, from the early-Renaissance lower level, with layered arches and colored marble accents, to the high-Renaissance upper portions with Classical pediments and deeply-indented white forms. In 1725, the San Rocco church had to be rebuilt due to structural instability; the new version deliberately echoed the dimensions and forms of the headquarters.
Both buildings feature a number of paintings by Tintoretto: six in the church and over 50 in the Scuola. The artist worked for decades on the coveted commission for the latter, which features some of his most visionary work. Between the sheer density of the paintings and their intense subject matter (the plague), visiting the building can be overwhelming. Mercifully, the Scuola provides handheld mirrors for viewing the ceiling paintings.
Scuola Grande and church hours: Monday-Saturday, 9:30-5:30; the church is also open Sunday 1:30-5:30. Admission: Scuola €10, church €2.
Commissario Brunetti, the hero of Donna Leon’s mystery series, lives near the Campo San Polo. Fans of the books and anyone interested in the eating establishments preferred by locals may wish to consult Brunetti’s Venice: Walks with the City’s Best-Loved Detective, compiled by Toni Sepeda.