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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of San Pietro di Castello in Venice

What is San Pietro di Castello?

San Pietro di Castello is a renaissance basilica that is dedicated to Saint Peter, was founded in the 7th century, and was once the cathedral of Venice.

San Pietro di Castello

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San Pietro di Castello History

Surprisingly, Venice in the Middle Ages had not just one bishop, but two, and a patriarch in addition. The island of Torcello (in the north of the lagoon) had its own prelate, while the patriarch of Grado (north-east of Venice) soon moved to the city. However, none of them laid claim to St Mark’s Basilica, which by tradition was viewed as the sole preserve of the city’s doge. In consequence, the graceful church of San Pietro di Castello served as Venice’s de facto cathedral from the 11th century until 1807.

The island on which it stands – once called Olivolo, possibly an allusion to the olive trees found all over Venice at one time – has stood separate from the rest of Venice for its entire history. It was here that Saint Mark is said to have found refuge during a violent storm. That night an angel appeared to him in a dream, foretelling that Venice was to be his final resting place.

Nowadays, it’s one of the few parts of Venice where you can still hear locals speaking the city’s vernacular. In the Middle Ages, the sestiere (or district) of Castello was a scarcely populated monastic area. The choice of this unusual location for a religious house was due to its independent position and possibly the presence of a Byzantine fortress, hence the name of the sestiere, which in Italian means ‘castle'. There would have been an open field where the adjoining square stands today.

The earliest known structure on this site dates to the 7th century. However, the present church, with its commanding classical Renaissance façade and large dome, was built in the 16th century by Francesco Smeraldi, reworking a design by Andrea Palladio, one of the foremost architects of his time. The leaning 15th-century bell tower, inspired by the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria, was designed by Mauro Codussi, and was the first in Venice to be clad in Istrian stone. The light-filled interior is relatively unadorned after exposure to the terrible fires that have ravaged the city over the centuries, causing irreversible damage to many of Venice’s treasured buildings and their contents.

One of the intriguing highlights of the church is the Chair of Saint Peter, an elegant but mysterious marble object to be found by the right wall near the entrance. According to tradition, this was the throne from which Peter preached in Antioch, fabled to have been gifted to Venice by the Byzantine emperor. In fact, it’s a cut-down 11th-century Islamic tombstone inscribed with verses from the Koran. Only in the 18th century was it realised that Arabic couldn’t have been used before the 7th century in Antioch, disproving the alleged biblical association of the church’s most prized possession. Before you leave, make sure you don’t miss Paolo Veronese’s colourful Saints John the Evangelist, Peter and Paul, located above the entrance.

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