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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice

What is Santi Giovanni e Paolo?

Santi Giovanni e Paolo is a church in Venice that was founded in the 13th century and is the burial place of 25 doges and many other notable figures in the history of Venice.

Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Santi Giovanni e Paolo History

The church of Saints John and Paul (known locally in the Venetian dialect as San Zanipolo) is one of the most astonishing buildings in the city. Together with the Frari basilica and St Mark’s, it was the place where the Venetian doge was traditionally buried – 25 of them were laid to rest here. In a sense then, you could think of this building as the Venetian Pantheon. The church itself was originally founded in the 13th century by Dominican friars. Tradition states that Doge Jacopo Tiepolo had a vision of roses, white doves and angels populating the space where the church now stands. In 1234, he donated the marshy area to the Dominicans, who began erecting the church in 1246. However, the current structure was begun one hundred years later, and wasn’t completed until 1430.

The plan was for the subdued brick façade (which stands in stark contrast to the adjoining Scuola Grande di San Marco) to be adorned with gleaming marble, but it was unfortunately left incomplete apart from the sumptuous Gothic doorway, by Bartolomeo Bon, framed with six marble columns salvaged from Torcello. Against the façade, to the left of the doorway at eye level, you’ll see two tombs containing three doges. The one on the right is the 13th-century tomb of Doge Jacopo Tiepolo, the church’s founder, and his son Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo.

The airy interior is a true artistic treasure, a genuine rival to some of the city’s galleries and museums, filled with masterpieces by Paolo Veronese and Jacopo Palma il Giovane, amongst others. Don’t miss Giovanni Bellini’s 15th-century St Vincent Ferrer polyptych (on the south side) with its sparkling 16th-century frame, which depicts several monumental figures, including Saint Vincent, flame in hand, to symbolise his fiery preaching. (In fact, this superb work was Bellini’s first important independent commission.) Unfortunately, during the 19th century, anti-Catholic arsonists set the church alight, destroying some of its most prized possessions, including works by Jacopo Tintoretto and Titian.

Santi Giovanni e Paolo has also historically received and rehoused tombs from suppressed (or desanctified) churches. The tomb of Doge Michele Steno, to be found on the north side of the church almost hidden in a niche, was transported here from the former church of Santa Marina. Under his dogeship, Venice annexed part of the Italian mainland, but his epitaph describes him tactfully as ‘a lover of justice, peace, and abundance’.

Buried amongst the 25 doges is an interesting variety of other notable figures, each with their own ornate funerary monument. They include Vettor Pisani, the 14th-century war hero, whose tomb was reconstituted here in the 1920s; the Bandiera brothers, two notable 19th-century patriots; celebrated Venetian Renaissance artists Giovanni and his brother Gentile Bellini; and the 16th-century English baron Edward Windsor. This church really is a feast for the eyes, which will wander from Gothic architecture to Renaissance and Baroque monuments, drinking in the sights of this glorious Venetian Pantheon and artistic jewel box.

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