This is the great Venetian church of the Dominican order, just as the Frari is for the Franciscans. The sites which were granted to them are far apart and both are far from the political centre of Venice. The land for this church was, like that for the Frari, presented by order of Doge Jacopo Tiepolo. The first church here was said to have been built in 983, but is first documented in 1184. The Dominicans were given the land around 1230, and their first church was completed during the 13th century. It was soon found to be too small, however, and work on a much larger church began in the early 14th century. By 1368 the apses and transepts were finished but a shortage of funds halted work until the Maggior Consiglio (Grand Council) gave the Dominicans 10,000 ducats in 1390. By 1430 the nave was completed and the church was consecrated, with Bon's portal added in 1458-62, part of a planned marble façade that never happened.
Both Gentile and Giovanni Bellini were buried here, in February 1507 and November 1516. Like the Frari San Zanipolo also gets called 'a Venetian Pantheon' as it has twenty-five tombs of doges. The church was not, as you might think, named after the apostles John and Paul (Giovanni and Paolo). The name saints of this church are two obscure soldier-martyr saints of the same names. Images of these saints can be seen in the stained glass window, standing alongside Saints George and Theodore, two of Venice's three patron saints.
The west front’s huge unfinished brick façade contrasts with the marble-clad elegance of the decorated façade of the adjoining Scuola Grande di San Marco. The portal is by Bartolomeo Bon, with columns salvaged from a church on Torcello, and mixes classical details into its essentially gothic form, said to have been the style's last gasp in Venice. Notice too the lack of a campanile.
The interior looms impressively, cross-vaulted with stout plain columns and wooden tie beams. These are all features it shares with the Frari, but San Zanipolo lost its wooden choir in 1682 and so seems larger and airier. The aisles are separated from the nave by 10 thick columns of Istrian stone. The well-lit choir draws the eyes with all its Gothic windows and its Baroque high altar, attributed to Longhena. The stained glass windows are rare surviving examples from the period, produced on Murano to designs mostly by Bartolomeo Vivarini.
Less chock-full of crowd-pleasing paintings than the Frari, San Zanipolo does have the Giovanni Bellini Vincent Ferrer polyptych (see right) which is in its original frame. It’s an early work - his first important independent commission - but is somewhat lacking in the polished serenity of his later work, and with considerable studio involvement, especially in the predella. The polyptych was painted around 1465-8, when the influence of the sculptural style of Mantegna, his brother-in-law, was still strong on Giovanni. It was commissioned by the scuola piccolo devoted to the then-new saint, who had a reputation as a miraculous healer, which may have increased his popularity in Venice after the plague outbreak of 1464.
There's also the odd 1542 Alms of Saint Antoninus of Florence by Lorenzo Lotto. It's notable for depicting a somewhat hierarchical model of charity, with the saint himself having no direct contact with a poor person. Antoninus had been a leading Observant reformer of the Dominican Order, only just canonised, in 1523. He it was who had founded the Società dei Buonuomini that met in San Martino in Florence. Amongst the mass of the poor at the base of the painting, all looking like portraits, the central bearded figure in an orange robe has been recently convincingly argued to be a portrait of the artist. Lotto worked often for Dominicans, but they paid him little for this - his fee of 125 ducats had 35 deducted in exchange for a 'free' funeral, which we have no record of ever having happened.
This altarpiece is to be found, with some impressive ceiling paintings by Veronese, in the Capella del Rosario. This chapel was the one destroyed by fire in 1867 (see below), the Veronese ceiling paintings having been brought later from the lost church of Santa Maria dell'Umiltà. They had been taken to Vienna in 1821, following the demolition of the church, and only returned to Venice at the end of World War I, being installed here in June 1925.
The tombs of doges are a bigger draw - there are twenty-five here - and after the 15th century all of their funerals were held here. Especially fine are the three for the Mocinego doges on the entrance wall (see right). The one on the left (as you face the back wall) to Doge Pietro is by Pietro Lombardo, with the help of his sons Tullio and Antonio. It glorifies the Doge's military achievements, with Christian themes only getting a look in towards the top with the relief of The Three Marys at the Sepulchre. The tomb on the right to Doge Giovanni is by Tullio Lombardo, the elder son, probably with the help of his brother Antonio. The tomb in the middle, of Doge Alvise I and his wife Loredana Marcello, is later and probably Palladio-designed. It is embellished with two saints taken from Doge Pietro's tomb and incorporates the memorial to Bartolomeo Bragadin, which did not make the Bragadin family happy.
Marcantonio Bragadin's tomb, by Scamozzi is also here. He being the Captain of Venetian forces at Famagusta when it was taken by the Turks, who was tortured and flayed alive and his stuffed body paraded around the town seated on a cow. His remains were stolen from the arsenal in Constantinople nine years later, returned to his family and interred here.
The tomb of Doge Giovanni Dolfin is still flanked by fragments of monochrome frescoes of Virtues by Guariento, the Paduan painter, which where damaged by the moving here of Doge Andrea Vendramin's tomb from Santa Maria dei Servi.
San Zanipolo in a photochrom print of c.1890.
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