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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of the Campo San Polo in Venice

What is the Campo San Polo?

The Campo San Polo is a large peaceful square in Venice that was once cultivated for agriculture and later used for military exercises.

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Campo San Polo History

Venice has a unique language for place names that’s altogether different from mainland Italian. A narrow street is a calle and a square a campo (literally, an open ‘field’). Originally this square, whose name derives from the church of San Polo (or Saint Paul), was unpaved, and the area was used to cultivate crops or grazing. However, given its size (the largest square after Saint Mark’s) it came to be used as a marketplace in the late 13th century. The authorities were keen to avoid competition with the other existing markets and thus confined the city’s weekly flea market to this area, using the space for military exercises at other times (practice with crossbows). Ironically, given its location in the smallest sestiere (or district) of the city, it became the ideal setting for large gatherings and public events, especially after it was paved in 1493, such as the bull race, an event that was only prohibited in the 17th century. The Bull Hunt in Campo San Polo by Joseph Heintz the Younger (painted in 1648 and found in the Museo Correr) is a vivid representation of the campo transformed into a bullring.

Originally the buildings bordering the present square were separate palaces connected by bridges. After the square was paved, it was possible to create a coherent public space surrounded by magnificent and commanding buildings, whose styles span the Gothic to the Baroque. At the upper eastern corner of the square you’ll find a building used as the first Pilsner brewing factory in Italy, while on the same side are the two Soranzo palaces with their red façades, masterpieces of Gothic architecture, built for the prominent family of bankers and merchants. The palaces date to the 14th and 15th centuries and over time have been merged to form a single elegant rose-tinted building, instantly recognisable by its characteristic arched windows. It was once adorned by the Venetian painter Giorgione’s now lost frescoes.

The western side of the square is dominated by the church of San Polo, which dates back to the 9th century, but in its present form to the 15th. The church has been extensively altered and contains paintings by Old Masters Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, Giovanni Battista and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, and Jacopo Palma il Giovane. Elements from the medieval church are the ceiling in the shape of a hull and the magnificent Gothic gate by Bartolomeo Bon.

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