The Sestiere di San Polo, derives its name from the Church of Saint Paul Evangelist, in the heart of Venice.
Originally, the “Sestiere di San Polo” and the “Sestiere di Santa Croce” was one district called “Luprie”. The district is confined to the north and west by Santa Croce, to the south by the Dorsoduro and all along the other side by the Grand Canal. Rialto is known for its prominent markets as well as for the monumental Rialto Bridge across the Grand Canal.
Rialto and the market area are undoubtedly the most important and oldest parts of this area, settled in the 9th century and for a long period of time the financial and commercial heart of the city. The name Rialto is derived from “Rivoaltus” or “high bank” and at a height of up to three metres above sea-level, it is the highest point of the city.
The first dry crossing of the Grand Canal was a pontoon bridge built in 1181 by Nicolò Barattieri. It was called the Ponte della Moneta, presumably because of the mint that stood near its eastern entrance.
Due to the development and importance of the Rialto market on the eastern bank, it was replaced in 1255 by a wooden bridge. This structure had two inclined ramps meeting at a movable central section, that could be raised to allow the passage of tall ships. The connection with the market eventually led to a change of name for the bridge. During the first half of the 15th Century, two rows of shops were built along the sides of the bridge and the rents brought an income to the State Treasury, which helped maintain the bridge.
Maintenance was vital for the timber bridge. It was partly burnt in the revolt led by Bajamonte Tiepolo in 1310. In 1444, it collapsed firstly under the weight of a crowd watching a boat parade and again in 1524.
The idea of rebuilding the bridge in stone was first proposed in 1503. Several projects were considered over the following decades. In 1551, the authorities requested proposals for the renewal of the Rialto Bridge, among other things. Plans were offered by famous architects, such as Jacopo Sansovino, Palladio and Vignola, but all involved a Classical approach with several arches, which was judged inappropriate to the situation.
The present stone bridge, a single span designed by Antonio da Ponte, was finally completed in 1591. It is similar to the wooden bridge it succeeded. Two inclined ramps lead up to a central portico. On either side of the portico, the covered ramps carry rows of shops. The engineering of the bridge was considered so audacious that it would not last, but it has defied all critics to become one of the architectural icons of Venice.
From the top of Rialto bridge, can be found the first civic numbers of San Polo and San Marco area.
Heading down from the bridge into San Polo, on the right-hand side is the area of the two busy markets; the Marcato di Rialto. Since 1097, Venetians have depended on the Rialto markets for their daily supplies of fish, vegetables, fruit, and other foodstuffs.
It’s best to arrive early if you want to see the Erberia (vegetable market) and Pescheria (fish market) in full swing. The markets are open Tuesday to Saturday. The barges start arriving at dawn, and the vendors start bargaining with customers from 7.30 am. The wholesalers and most of the retailers start to close up shop by midday.
San Giacomo di Rialto is a small church just over the Rialto Bridge in the market area. The addition of “Rialto” to the name distinguishes this church from its namesake San Giacomo dell’Orio, found in the district of Santa Croce.
According to tradition, San Giacomo is the oldest church in the city, supposedly consecrated in the year 421. Although documents exist mentioning the area but not the church in 1097, the first document citing the church dates from 1152. It was rebuilt in 1071, prompting the establishment of the Rialto market with bankers and money changers in front of the church. The system of a “bill of exchange” was introduced here, as clients went with such a bill of exchange with a credit inscribed from one banker to another.
It has a large 15th-century clock above the entrance, a useful item in the Venetian business district but ridiculed for its inaccuracy. The Gothic portico is one of the few surviving examples in Venice. It has a Latin cross plan with a central dome. Inside, the Veneto-Byzantine capitals on the six columns of ancient Greek marble date from the 11th century.
In 1503, it survived a fire which destroyed the rest of the area, and was restored from 1601 by order of Doge Marino Grimani, including works to raise the pavement to counter the acqua alta.
One small gem of interest is to be found in the Campo San Giacomo, opposite the church. The Gobbi di Rialto (the Hunchback of Rialto) is a statue of a kneeling figure supporting a staircase leading to a column. In the middle ages naked wrongdoers, ran the gauntlet between Piazza San Marco and this statue; an alternative to a goal sentence.
Proceeding west you arrive at the “Campo Sant’Aponal” in the area called the Carampane di Rialto. This was one of the red-light districts of Venice in the fifteenth century, by official decree. Sex workers there would open their legs wide or display their breasts from nearby balconies to attract business. The Serenissima supported this heterosexual sex in order to help stem the tide of a growing wave of homosexuality, which had grown into what was perceived as a social problem. By 1509, one writer estimated that there were some 11,565 courtesans working in Venice. In the vicinity is the infamous “Ponte delle tette” (bridge of tits).
The church of Sant’Aponal was founded in the 11th century, by refugees from Ravenna and dedicated to St Apollinare. Restored over the centuries, it underwent major reconstruction in the 15th century. During the Napoleonic occupation, it was deconsecrated and then only reconsecrated in 1851. For a time, it was used as a prison for political prisoners. It was re-closed in 1984, and is now mainly an archive. The facade retains features of gothic architectural decoration.
Campo San Polo, the second largest public space after Piazza San Marco is at the very centre of the district. Originally dedicated to grazing and agriculture, in 1493 it was entirely paved; a well (one of the few fountains to be found in Venice) being placed in the middle. It was subsequently used for bullfighting, mass sermons and masked balls. After the 17th century the “poor” market was moved here from Piazza San Marco. It remains to this day one of the most popular Carnival venues and is also used for open-air concerts and screenings during the Venice Film Festival.
Here can be found the church of “San Paolo Evangelista” (Saint Paul the Evangelist). The current Gothic church dates from the 15th century, but a church has stood on the site since the 9th century and the south doorway, possibly by Bartolomeo Bon, survives from this church. The campanile, standing detached from the church, was built in 1362-7 by doges Pietro and Giovanni Tradonico.
The interior has a ship’s keel roof and was restored in 1804 by Davide Rossi. On the left wall near the entrance is a Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto, while the first altarpiece on the left, is attributed to his studio. Other walls have canvases by Paolo Piazza (“St Silvester baptizes Emperor Constantine and St Paul Preaching” and by Jacopo Guarana (“Sacred Heart”). The altar of the absidal chapel on the left has a “Marriage of the Virgin” by Paolo Veronese.
Facing the church are the following buildings: Palazzos Tiepolo ,Soranzo, Palazzo Donà and Corner Mocenigo. A canal now filled in ran along the east side of the campo.
A short distance west after San Polo located in the Campo dei Frari, is the cavernous Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, commonly known as the Frari. The church is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and has minor basilica status.
The imposing edifice is built of brick, and is one of the city’s three notable churches built in the Italian Gothic style. In common with many Venetian churches, the exterior is rather plain. The interior contains the only rood screen still in place in Venice.
It is packed with great paintings, sculpture, monuments and the burial place of many famous citizens. Titian (Tiziano Vercello) the most prominent 16th-century Venetian painter, is interred in the Frari.
Unmissable sights include, Titian’s “Assumption of the Virgin” and “Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro”, Marco Cossi’s choir stalls, Donatello’s “St John the Baptist” and Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and child with Saints”.
In 1231, under Doge Jacopo Tiepolo, the city donated land at this site to establish a monastery and church belonging to the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor. This edifice proved too small and a three- nave church was begun in 1250 and not completed until 1338. Work almost immediately began on its much larger replacement, the current church, which took over a century to build. The new church inverted the original orientation, thus placing the facade facing the plaza and small canal. The work was started under Jacopo Celega, but completed by his son Pier Paolo. The campanile, the second tallest in the city after that of San Marco, was completed in 1396. Under the patronage of Giovanni Corner, the Chapel of San Marco was added in 1420. In 1432-1434 the bishop Vicenza Pietro Miani built the chapel of San Pietro next to the bell-tower. The facade was not completed until 1440, with the cornice is surmounted by three statues (1516) by Lorenzo Bregno. The main altar was consecrated in 1469. In 1478, the Pesaro family commissioned a chapel in the apse. On 27 May 1492, the church was consecrated with the name of Santa Maria Gloriosa.
Close to the south of the Frari, is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco; the sumptuous headquarters of the richest of the Venetian scuole. St Rocco (St Roch) was a French saint whose efficacy against the plague and a love of dogs, made him highly popular in plague ridden Venice. It was founded in 1478 and built between 1516 and 1560. The interior was decorated by Tintoretto between 1564 and 1587.
Chronologically the panels were started upstairs in the Sala dell’Albergo (Boardroom), where the ceiling portrays St Roch in Glory. The huge Crucifixion dominates the richly decorated room. The adjoining Main Hall, has Old Testament scenes on the ceilings and a Life of Christ cycle on the walls. Tintoretto was in his 60’s when he embarked on the decoration of the Ground Floor Hall, featuring his most visionary paintings; the Annunciation and the Flight into Egypt.
Finally, close by is another important school the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista, it is possible to admire works by Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Palma Il Giovane.