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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of San Martino Church in Venice

What is San Martino?

Église San Martino de Castello, known as simply ‘San Martino’, is Roman Catholic church in Venice with an unassuming exterior, but a beautiful and elaborate interior. It is dedicated to the 4th-century Saint Martin of Tours.

San Martino Church in Venice

Didier Descouens, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

San Martino History

The red-brick church of San Martino (or Saint Martin) may not look like much from the outside, but its interior tells a different story. This church is home to work by some of the city’s most talented artists, Jacopo Palma il Giovane, Antonio Zanchi and Jacopo Guarana amongst them. Look out for Guarana’s impressive Saint Martin in Glory on the church’s ceiling, featuring Christ surrounded by a tumbling cherubic choir, and enjoy Domenico Bruni’s outstanding illusionistic painting that frames the central fresco. This gilded treasure trove also contains Pietro Nachini’s wonderfully elaborate organ, as well as a baptistery constructed from Tullio Lombardo’s repurposed altar from the demolished church of San Sepolcro.

San Martino is located in the Castello district, close to Venice’s Arsenale. From the late Middle Ages right up until the Early Modern period, this complex of former shipyards and armouries was the lynchpin to the Venetian Republic’s naval power. Adjacent to the church, you’ll find the former Scuola di San Martino. This was the original seat of the Guild of Ship Caulkers (who made vessels watertight), of whom Saint Martin was patron saint.

San Martino is one of the oldest churches in Venice, thought to have been founded in the late 6th century by a group of Paduan refugees, though nothing of the original building still stands, its wooden walls and thatched roof long gone. In fact, the structure you see today was built in the 16th century to a plan by Jacopo Sansovino, the Florentine architect known for introducing the style of the High Renaissance into Venice. You’ll find many more of his iconic buildings grouped around Piazza San Marco.

So, who was Saint Martin? Born in Hungary in the 4th century AD, he was the son of a tribune in the Roman army. At the age of 15, he stepped into his father’s shoes, joining the Roman cavalry to fight in Gaul – modern-day France. When he saw a beggar freezing at the city gates of Amiens, Martin was so appalled by this individual’s wretched condition, he took his sword and cut his warm cloak in half in order to share it. You can see a depiction of this on the relief on the façade of next door’s Scuola. At the exact moment Martin split his cloak, the sun began to shine on the pair. (This, incidentally, is why what we refer to as an Indian summer is known locally as an estate di San Martino, or Saint Martin’s summer). The next night, as a result of this act of charity, Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing the part of the cloak that he had given to the beggar. This miracle compelled him to leave the army and become a monk. He went on to become Bishop of Tours, and (although his relics are scattered around Europe) is buried there.

Saint Martin’s eponymous day remains important in the Venetian calendar. If you are lucky enough to be in Venice on the 11th of November, you’ll find the city filled with anarchic children in fancy dress, banging pots and pans and singing in Venetian dialect in exchange for traditional sweet biscuits shaped like the saint on horseback.

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