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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice

What is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco?

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is a beautifully decorated religious building in Venice that hosues over 50 of Tintoretto’s most important works.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Scuola Grande di San Rocco History

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco was founded in 1478 by a group of wealthy Venetian citizens wishing to promote Christian values and to perform charitable acts. Home to over 50 of Jacopo Tintoretto’s most celebrated paintings, the Scuola remains one of the most beautifully decorated buildings in Venice, and home to the one of the few historic confraternities to survive the fall of the Republic. Incredibly, not only did the building survive, but it has also undergone barely any alterations since its original construction.

Work on the confraternity building began in 1515. The project was originally entrusted to Bartolomeo Bon, but went on to involve architects Sante Lombardo, Antonio Abbondi (generally better known as Scarpagnino) and Giangiacomo dei Grigi, finally being completed in 1560. Four years later, Venetian native Tintoretto was commissioned by the brotherhood to embellish it and chose to illustrate episodes from both the Old and New Testaments.

The building’s ground-floor embellishment honours the Virgin Mary, concentrating on episodes from her life. The first floor, a more private space intended for meetings between the confraternity, illustrates the entire Biblical story from the Fall to the Redemption. You’ll notice that the scenes depicted on the ceiling (set into elaborate gilded stucco) are from the Old Testament, while those lining the walls are from the New. It took Tintoretto and his assistants over 20 years to finish this monumental task. Their efforts did not go unnoticed. After the English art critic John Ruskin saw the magnificent decorations in the mid-19th century, he commented: ‘As for painting, I think I didn’t know what it meant till today’.

As you’re enjoying Tintoretto’s dynamic works, with all their drama and perspectival complexity, remember that they were painted specifically for the Scuola, making this an incredibly rare opportunity to see Renaissance art in the location for which it had always been intended. Other works in the Scuola include paintings by Giorgione, Titian and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

scuola grande di san rocco interior

In the Sala dell’Albergo – a small side room originally used for meetings by the confraternity’s governing body – is St Roch in Glory, the painting which won Tintoretto the competition for the decoration of the building. In fact, not only did Tintoretto create a completed painting for the contest rather than preliminary drawings, but he also further installed it in its place without permission. After this brazen behaviour, he would spend decades of his life working on the Scuola paintings. He produced an extraordinary array of work in his lifetime which, with his profound religiosity, was daringly dramatic and intense, where he played masterfully with light and dark, illumination and shadow. Tintoretto’s use of bold, long brushstrokes and the speed at which he worked earned him the nickname Il Furioso (the Furious).

The remains of San Rocco (or Saint Roch) have been in the possession of the brotherhood since 1485. The saint was believed to be a protector against the plague, and his miraculous powers even after death attracted hordes of pilgrims to his tomb. This ongoing belief meant that over the years the Scuola became the richest and most politically prestigious confraternity in the city.

The grandeur and beauty of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco may seem out of place for a charity. However, confraternities played a major role in Venetian life. The Great Council of Venice, which formed the main voting body of the Republic, was restricted to the aristocracy. Whereas the scuole were open to anyone – aside from priests and patricians – and were a means of gaining power and influence as a non-noble. The scuole could become immensely wealthy through donations and lineages and, like the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, garnered great prestige through patronising works of art. Especially between the 14th and 16th centuries, the scuole were prestigious institutions fully engaged in the pomp and circumstance of state ceremonies. For a republic structured as an oligarchy, the scuole were not just means of social assistance but vital outlets for political stability.

The confraternity of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco is still active today. It’s made up of around 400 men and women who pursue a charitable mission and look after this building’s extraordinary artistic patrimony.

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