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Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Or San Zanipolo: Venice's Pantheon

Tomb of Doge Pietro Mocenigo

The huge Gothic Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, better known in Venice as San Zanipolo, is the most important church on the right bank after St Mark’s.

Every now and then, Venice left its splendid isolation to join the Italian mainstream. One such occasion came during the great 13th-century religious revival begun by Saints Francis and Dominic, whose minor orders sought to bring the faith directly to the people by preaching and works of charity. Rather than dwell in self-absorbed monasteries, the Franciscans and Dominicans built jumbo utilitarian churches in the cities to bring their message to the biggest possible congregations. Every Italian city, Venice included, has one impressive example from each order; the Franciscans built Venice’s Frari church, and this one is the Dominicans’, decreed in June 1234, a month before Dominic was canonized.

Their first church on this site, erected in 1246, was on land donated by Doge Giacomo Tiepolo, but it soon proved too small, and in 1333 work began on the present cavernous basilica. The design is simple, vast and functional. The unfinished façade, next to the Scuola di San Marco, would be invisible but for a handsome doorway attributed to Bartolomeo Bon, with marble columns from Torcello and two Byzantine reliefs; a third one, of Daniel in the Lions’ Den, stands by itself in the right corner of the wall.

Plan of the Interior

SS. Giovanni e Paolo plan

1 tombs of the Mocenigo family
2 Bragadin Monument
3 Tomb of Ludovico Diedo
4 Chapel of the Madonna della Pace
5 Chapel of St Dominic
6 Tomb of Nicola Orsini
7 Cappella della Maddelena
8 Tombs of Doges Michele Morosini and Leonardo Loredan
9 Tombs of Doges Andrea Vendramin and Marco Corner
10 Tomb of Doge Giovanni Dolfin
11 Tomb of Doge Antonio Venier
12 Chapel of the Rosary
13 Sacristy
14 Tomb of Palma Giovane
15 Tomb of Doge Pasquale Malipiero
16 Tomb of Doge Tommaso Mocenigo
17 Tomb of Doge Nicolo Marcello

Tombs on the West Wall

San Zanipolo’s steep and prodigious space, hemmed together by tie beams, braced by 10 massive Istrian stone columns and lit by a beautiful crescent of Gothic windows in the choir, was put to good use as a pantheon of doges; all their funerals were held here after 1430, and some 25 of them lie here in splendid Gothic and Renaissance tombs.

The west wall belongs to the Mocenigo family, who gave the church three dead doges, the first interred in the celebrated, classical Tomb of Doge Pietro Mocenigo (to the left of the door) by Pietro Lombardo, assisted by his sons Tullio and Antonio (1476–81). Recently scrubbed, it is as beautiful as it is haughty, the culmination of Venice’s Renaissance style, a stage for statues representing the Three Ages of Man and other assorted warriors, standing over a pair of reliefs of the Labours of Hercules. Religion is relegated to a relief at the top, but it too is suitably heroic: a triumphant Resurrection. An inscription proudly remarks that the tomb was paid for by the Doge’s enemies (not willingly, mind you).

Over and around the portal is the huge Tomb of Doge Alvise Mocenigo I and Wife (1577), while on the right is Tullio Lombardo’s classically inspired Tomb of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo (d. 1485), with a fine relief of St Mark Baptizing Annianus.

Right Aisle

The first item on the right wall, in the shadow of Pietro Mocenigo’s mighty tomb, is a 13th-century Byzantine sarcophagus, all that remains of the tomb of Doge Ranier Zeno (d. 1268). Note the flying angels supporting the Throne of Christ: a conventional Byzantine symbol, and a remarkable example of artistic continuity – in Augustus’ day the same angels in the same poses were holding the civic crown of the caesars over public buildings.

After the first altar in the right aisle is the Monument to Marcantonio Bragadin, the commander of Famagusta (Cyprus) in 1570, who had withstood a Turkish siege for nearly a year when, outnumbered ten to one, he was forced to surrender.

The adjacent chapel contains Giovanni Bellini’s polyptych of St Vincent Ferrer, a fire-eating preacher who helped incite Spain’s religious persecutions. Vincent Ferrer is accompanied by a charming St Christopher and rather uncomfortable St Sebastian, while under the polyptych is an effigy of the Blessed Tommaso Caraffini, the Dominican confessor of St Catherine of Siena.

In the floor of the nave, near the next chapel, is the beautiful niello-work Tomb of Ludovico Diedo (1460s), with a bizarre relief with a dragon contemplating an orrery. The next chapel, the Addolarata, was lavishly Baroqued in the 17th century.

The flamboyant tombs of the Valier doges (1708) , Bertucci (d. 1658) and Silvestro (d. 1700) steal the show mark the entrance to the Chapel of the Madonna della Pace, is named after a miraculous Byzantine icon brought to Venice in 1349. On the wall, St Giacinto at the coming of the Tartars walks on the water of the River Dnieper by Leandro da Bassano.

Giambattista Piazzetta painted the ceiling of the next chapel, the Chapel of St Dominic, with the Glory of St Dominic (1727), where the hero-saint is sucked up in a luminous vortex, accompanied by a small floating orchestra. The six bronze reliefs on scenes from the Life of St Dominic are the masterpieces of Bolognese sculptor Giuseppe Mazza (1720).

Next comes a shrine containing the foot of St Catherine of Siena, black and tiny, and resplendent in its golden Gothic reliquary. Catherine’s skill in convincing the popes to return to Rome from Avignon earned her the gratitude of an entire nation; along with St Francis, she is co-patron of Italy.

Right Transept

The stained glass in the right transept, the finest in Venice, was made in Murano in 1473, from cartoons by Bartolomeo Vivarini and Girolamo Mocetto. Here, too, are first-rate paintings by Alvise Vivarini (Christ Bearing the Cross, 1474), Cima da Conegliano and/or Giovanni Martini da Udine’s Coronation of the Virgin, and Lorenzo Lotto’s richly coloured St Antonine Distributing Alms (1542), to beggars whose faces reveal their anxious need.

The usually tight-fisted Signoria paid for the two monuments in this transept, in gratitude for service rendered during the War of the League of Cambrai: the gilded equestrian Tomb of Nicola Orsini, Prince of Nola, who earned it for his brave defence of Padua, and, over the door, the Tomb of Dionigi Naldo di Brisighella, with a second-rate statue by Lorenzo Bregno of the condottiere who led Venice’s infantry and died in action in 1510.

In the first of five transept chapels (starting from the right), are several works by Alessandro Vittoria: a Crucifixion and the grand tomb of Sir Edward (Odoardo) Windsor, an Elizabethan Catholic exile who died in Venice in 1574. The next chapel, the Cappella della Maddalena, contains the Tomb of Admiral Vettor Pisani, the saviour of Venice in the Battle of Chioggia (1380), during which he was mortally wounded; it was reconstructed on the 600th anniversary of his death. Sharing the same chapel is the Tomb of Marco Giustiniani della Bragora (d. 1346), held up by a quartet of primitive heads.

The Chancel

Double lancet windows with Gothic tracery light the polygonal chancel: on the right wall is the splendid Tomb of Doge Michele Morosini (d. 1382), a marriage of Gothic design and Byzantine mosaics possible only in Venice, with carvings attributed to the dalle Masegne, and the more lavish Tomb of Doge Leonardo Loredan (d. 1520), decorated with bronze reliefs by Danese Cattaneo.

On the left wall, the Tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin is a fine work by Tullio and Antonio Lombardo (1478) that nevertheless earned a quart of poison ink from the pen of Ruskin, the king of cranks. He caused the Venetians some alarm by ordering a ladder to clamber all over the tomb and prove that, just as he suspected, the sculpture was a sham because the sculptors hadn’t bothered to finish off the parts no one would ever see, a sign of ‘an extreme of intellectual and moral degradation’.

To fit it in, the earlier Tomb of Doge Marco Corner (d. 1368) took a few chops, but still preserves its fine statues by Nino Pisano of Pisa. The chapel to the left of the high altar has paintings by Leandro Bassano, while the next contains two sarcophagi suspended on the walls: the first is of Jacopo Cavalli (d. 1384) with an effigy by Pier Paolo Dalle Masegne and a large fresco background; the other contains the mortal remains of Doge Giovanni Dolfin (d. 1361).

Left Transept

In the left transept, the Dalle Masegne brothers were also responsible for the pink and white Tomb of Doge Antonio Venier (d. 1400) and his wife and daughter, an effort that became the model for Venice’s lingering transition from Gothic to the full bloom of the Lombardesque Renaissance.

A door in the left transept leads to the Chapel of the Rosary, built to celebrate the victory at Lepanto. Tragically burned in 1867, with its ceiling by Tintoretto all of its art and major paintings by Giovanni Bellini and Titian that had been temporarily lodged there, it underwent a half-century of restoration, and re-opened in 1959 with a ceiling panels by Veronese, that had once adorned the deconsecrated church of the Umilità.

Left Aisle

Another string of monuments lines the left aisle, though the first work is Three Saints from a polyptych by Bartolomeo Vivarini. Over the door of the sacristy is the Tomb of Palma Giovane, with busts of Titian, Palma Vecchio and himself (beyond the 18th-century organ). Pietro Lombardo, nearly as prolific as Palma Giovane, contributed the next work: the Tomb of Doge Pasquale Malipiero (1462), one of the first and purest Renaissance works in Venice.

The next batch of tombs includes an equestrian model for Pompeo Giustiniani, the Tomb of Doge Tommaso Mocenigo (d. 1423), by Pietro di Nicolo Lamberti and Giovanni di Martino, and Pietro Lombardo’s serenely beautiful Tomb of Doge Nicolò Marcello (d. 1474). The last altar on the left has a St Jerome by Vittoria (1576).

Walk around the flank of San Zanipolo; the small building near the apse is the Ex-Scuola of St Ursula, now a permanently closed chapel, but containing the tombs of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini.

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Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Laura Padgett, Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, Axbay, Creative Commons License