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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of San Giacomo di Rialto in Venice

What is San Giacomo di Rialto?

San Giacomo di Rialto is Venice’s oldest church, dating back to the 5th century, in what was once the commercial centre of the city.

San Giacomo di Rialto

San Giacomo di Rialto History

The church of San Giacomo (or Saint James) may be seen as a kind of gatekeeper to the nearby Rialto Bridge. It lies but a short distance from the Rialto, the fish market, and the Grand Canal. It’s believed to be the oldest ecclesiastical building in Venice, supposedly dating back as far as the 5th century. We know that the present church was consecrated in the 12th century, and survived several fires that enveloped both the bridge and the nearby buildings. Marino Sanuto, the 16th-century chronicler, wrote: ‘and only the church of Saint James was left intact, covered with lead as it was, amidst the flames. And so, for God’s will, it was saved’.

When the city began to take form and expand, a meeting point for merchants soon developed around the ancient church of San Giacomo (in fact, today you’ll see some hawking of souvenirs nearby). Over time, all the city’s commercial activities migrated to the area in front of this church. The desks of bankers, moneychangers and insurers were set up here, diligently measuring out their payments with scales to ensure they weren’t short-changed. If you look up at the church’s exterior wall (facing the Rialto Bridge) you’ll see a small 12th-century Latin inscription on a band of white stone beneath a cross. It reads: ‘Around this temple let the merchant’s law be just, his weights true, and his contracts faithful’.

The church has a unique style. The exterior structure is amongst the few surviving examples from the earlier phase of medieval Venetian architecture, built in the shape of a Greek cross (where all four arms are of equal length), with a central dome. The façade is crowned with an exquisite bell tower that’s topped with a rather small but charming statue of the Madonna and Child. However, it’s the majestic clock that dominates the façade. Originally installed in the 15th century, the huge one-handed timepiece is famously inaccurate and a long-standing joke amongst the local traders. Its unusual façade has been the subject of several paintings, including a celebrated and atmospheric work by Venetian master Canaletto.

The most recognisable aspect of the church is the elegant porch. Five Corinthian-style marble columns sustain the wooden structure protruding towards the square. It’s one of only two examples of a Venetian church with a porch, a feature that was once commonplace. The church’s arched gate is surrounded by inscriptions commemorating the reconstruction of the façade in 1531 and the concession of a plenary indulgence by Pope Alexander III to anyone visiting the church. In truth, no such forgiveness of sin was granted by the pope, and this concession seems to have been bestowed on the church by those who carved the inscription.

San Giacomo’s interior was altered considerably in the 16th and 17th centuries, and now features three naves divided by six ancient marble columns that were recycled from other sites. The church was the meeting place of several craft guilds, and it still bears the signs of their devotion. To the right, the Annunciation altar was paid for by the gerbelatori (or grain sifters). At the centre of the church you’ll find the statue of Saint James, to whom the church is dedicated, executed by Alessandro Vittoria and paid for by the casaroli (or cheese makers). And to the left, the altar of Saint Anthony, paid for by the oresi (or goldsmiths) and the argentieri (or silver makers), and designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi, a disciple of the famous Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.

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