Castello is the largest of the six sestieri of Venice and stretches from San Marco and Cannaregio in the west, to the islands of San Pietro and Sant’Elena in the east. It was originally known as “Olivolo”, probably due to the large number of olive trees which grew on this land. The later name is said to come from the ruins of an early castello or fortress, dating from at least the 6th century, which once stood on the island of San Pietro.
T oday it is a diverse area rich in historical and cultural interest, yet one can quickly get away from the crowds to find either real city life or enjoy quieter green spaces.
To the east of Castello is the island of San Pietro, linked to the main islands of Venice by two bridges. In the 7th century it became the seat of the Bishop of Venice, a position it held until 1807, when the Basilica di San Marco replaced it as Venice’s cathedral. The present Church of San Pietro was the seat from the 9th century, which after several revisions gained its Palladian style frontage in 1596.
Sant’Elena is also an island of Venice, lying at its eastern tip. The original island was separated by an arm of the Venetian lagoon from Venice itself and was centred on the Church of Sant’ Elena and its monastery, originally built in the twelfth century and rebuilt in the fifteenth. The island has since been expanded to fill in the gap and is linked to Venice by three bridges. It includes the Remembrance Park, a naval college and the football stadium, in addition to residential areas and some Venice Bienniale buildings.
In the northeast of the district is the “Arsenale” – the old industrial heart of the city, where powerful military and mercantile fleets were built and for centuries maintained the pride and fortune of the Republic. It was built on two islands called Gemelle (meaning twins) in the year 1104 and was surrounded by high walls and square towers emblazoned with the symbolic winged lion. The name is probably a corruption of the Arabic darsina’a (meaning “house of industry”) and from which comes the Italian word darsena. During busier periods more than 16,000 workers were employed there: records suggest that on one occasion a warship was completed in twelve hours and a hundred such vessels were launched there in only two months. Today it is used by the Italian navy and access is not allowed except for occasional special events.
Just south of the entrance to the Arsenale along the waterfront, is the Museo Storico Navale (Museum of Naval History), a treasure trove of all things nautical and a great place to understand the close relationship of Venice and the sea. Originating from 1815, the museum moved to its present site in 1958.
The southeast part of the district was later altered by Napoleon, who planned what is now the Giardini Publici. Since 1895, this area houses the Bienniale Internazionale d’Arte, held on odd years and comprising some 40 pavilions; as well as the restored Corderie (rope factory) and other buildings in the Arsenale. On even years an architectural Bienniale is held. Between the Arsenale and the Giardini Publici is the Via Garibaldi, a wide shopping street in a vibrant working-class area.
Running along the south of the district and overlooking the Saint Mark’s Basin is a series of quays, the first section of which is called “Riva degli Schiavoni” (Quay of Slavs), taking its name from Dalmatian merchants, trading here with wares from the East. Famously depicted by artists such as Canaletto and widened in 1780 with Istrian stone, this has become Venice’s favourite promenade and a major tourist attraction. The quaysides extend from the Doge’s Palace, past the Giardini Publici and on to the island of Sant’ Elena. Close to the Doges Palace are the embarkation points of San Zaccharia, the main hub of water transport systems serving Venice and the lagoon.
On or just behind the Riva degli Schiavoni are a number of significant churches, the first being Santa Maria della Visitazione, commonly named La Pieta and closely linked with the famous Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Today it is both a religious building and concert hall. The present church with its fine neoclassical facade was designed by Giorgio Massari and built from 1745-60; with the facade being finally completed in 1906. Vivaldi was also known as “il prete rosso”, the red priest – a name recalling his flame red hair and red coat. In 1703 he was appointed violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pieta, a charitable institution for orphaned and illegitimate girls. He wrote many pieces for them to perform at services; building up his reputation. Whilst retaining his links with La Pieta, fame took him further afield, until his death in Vienna in 1741.
San Zaccharia is a beguiling blend of Gothic and Renaissance architecture and rich in artistic treasures. Founded in the 9th century to house the body of St Zaccharias, the father of John the Baptist, it was rebuilt several times and included a Benedictine monastery housing the daughters of the rich and noble. Eight early Doges are buried in the surviving waterlogged crypt. The present building, started in 1440 during a period of great stylistic change, resulted in a Gothic interior and a mainly Renaissance facade.
San Giorgio dei Greci with its leaning Bell tower, was elevated to cathedral status in 1991 and has become an important emblem of the Orthodox church in both Venice and Italy. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many more Greeks found refuge in Venice, their community becoming one of the largest, being second only to that of the Jews. In 1526 the Greeks obtained permission to practice the orthodox rite and to acquire a huge piece of land along the St. Lawrence Canal; where from 1539 onwards, they built their church and associated school and bell tower. The architects of the church were Sante Lombardo (1539-1547), Gianantonio Chiona (1548 onward) and Bernardo Ongarin (1587-1603), who also designed the inclined bell tower. Architecturally, it is a domed Basilica with a single inflection. From the outside however, it resembles a Venetian church of the Renaissance era. As a whole the Cathedral is simple and imposing, decorated with beautiful and harmonic architectural elements. To the left of the cathedral are the Hellenic Museum and the Institute of Byzantine Studies, both buildings designed by Baldassare Longhead.
San Giovanni in Barogram, situated in a peaceful campo is one of Venice’s oldest churches. The present building dates from 1475 with a facade in the Tuscan style. It is on the site of an early 8th century church subject to several revisions and dedicated to St John the Baptist. It is also the place where Vivaldi was baptised, the original font and copies of baptismal documentation can be seen. The name possibly derives from the word’s barogram (market place), bricolage (to fish), agora (Greek: square) or brag and gore (dialect for mud and stagnant canal). Significant works by Vivarini and da Conegliono can be seen.
To the north of San Giovanni, is the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schivoni. This intimate and atmospheric scoula (religious or charitable confraternity), was founded in 1551 to look after the city’s large community of Dalmatian or Slavic population, (roughly present-day Croatia). Slavs had been in Venice since earlier times, but numbers significantly increased after Dalmatia was acquired by the city in 1420 during its expansion. In 1502 Carpaccio was commissioned to decorate their building with scenes from the lives of three Dalmatian patron saints; George, Tryphon and Jerome. By 1508 the paintings were installed in the upper gallery, until 1551 when the scuola was rebuilt.
To the northwest of Castello is the great Gothic church of San Giovanni e Paolo (San Zanipolo), rivalled only by Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It was built for the Dominicans between 1246 and 1430 and no other church is the resting place of so many doges and heroes. The interior is a vast single space, punctuated by simple columns. Tombs and monuments by some of Venice’s most important Renaissance sculptors line the walls, much of it by the Lombardo family. Significant paintings by Bellini, Lotto and Veronese can be seen.
Adjoining it is the Scuola Grande di San Marco. Originally built by the St. Mark Corporation in 1260 to act as its seat, it was destroyed by a large fire in 1485 and rebuilt in the following twenty years under a new design by Pietro Lombardo, with a fund established by the members. The façade, a Renaissance masterwork with delicately decorated niches and pilasters and with white or polychrome marble statues, was later completed by Mauro Codussi. In 1819 it became an Austrian military hospital, but it now forms an entrance to the civic hospital complex behind.
Bt the side of the church is the monument of Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400-76), a successful mercenary. Depicted as a warlike figure on horseback, suggesting military prowess and created by Andrea Verrocchio (1435-88), the monument was finally erected in 1496.