The Santi Giovanni e Paolo is known as the San Zanipolo in the Venetian dialect. With a nave that is 101,5 metres deep and 35 metres high, it is the largest church in the city and the principal church of the Dominicans. The San Zanipolo towers above the surrounding buildings like a huge ark made of brick (to get an idea of the size of the church, take a look at this picture). The church is not known for having an exquisite collection of paintings or frescoes, but it can be regarded as some sort of national Pantheon of Venice. Twenty-five Venetian Doges were laid to rest in this basilica. The famous painters Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1430-1516) and his older brother Gentile (ca. 1429-1507) found their final resting places here as well. In the square in front of the church stands Andrea del Verrocchio’s famous equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (ca. 1395-1475), a condottiero from Bergamo who served as Captain-General of Venice.
Representatives from the Dominican Order started to arrive in Venice by the year 1230, about a decade after the death of the founder of their order, the Spanish priest Saint Dominicus (1170-1221). The then Doge Jacopo Tiepolo (1229-1249) granted them a marshy piece of land in the northern part of the city, in the sestiere of Castello. This was hardly the best part of town, but mendicant orders like the Dominicans thrived in difficult circumstances. Soon construction of a church was well underway. By the time Doge Jacopo Tiepolo died in 1249, enough of the San Zanipolo had been completed to give him a proper burial there, the first Doge to be interred in the church, although strictly speaking his tomb is not actually in the church: it can be found in a niche outside, to the left of the main entrance.
The first San Zanipolo would have been completed by the end of the thirteenth century. The Dominicans then quickly realised they were facing a similar problem as their chief rivals the Franciscans: like the church of the Frari, the San Zanipolo was simply too small to accommodate the huge masses from the lower classes of society that gathered here to attend the religious services. Plans were made to construct a larger building and work got off to a start in the early fourteenth century. The project was slowed down by a lack of funds after 1368, and it was not until 1430 that the nave was completed and the enlarged church could be consecrated.
The church is not, as one might expect, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist (or the Evangelist) and Saint Paul the Apostle, but to two rather obscure officials from Constantine the Great’s court. Tradition claims they were martyred during the reign of Julianus the Apostate (361-363). This is all supposed to have happened on the Caelian Hill in Rome, and there we find an eponymous, but much smaller church dedicated to the brothers.
The church is conspicuous for its lack of exterior decoration, although the huge apse with Gothic windows is quite spectacular. One of my travel guides claims that there were initially plans to provide the San Zanipolo with a marble facade, but that these were abandoned because of financial problems. The current facade in naked brick would probably have pleased Saint Dominicus, who stressed the need for soberness, an important value eventually abandoned by his followers.
The church was provided with an ornate Gothic portal made by Bartolomeo Bon (1405/10-1464-67) between 1458 and 1462. Jacopo Tiepolo’s tomb, part of the facade, has already been mentioned above. Several more wall tombs are part of the church exterior. The San Zanipolo does not seem to have a campanile. The transept does have a rather unimpressive bell-cote to compensate for this omission.
Once inside the church, it is easy to feel tiny. Ten pairs of columns separate the nave from the aisles. As with the Frari church elsewhere in Venice, the columns and arches are supported by crossbeams for extra stability. The main wall decorations inside the basilica are the tombs of illustrious Venetians. Among them is Marcantonio Bragadin, who defended the Cypriot city of Famagusta against the Turks in 1571. After surrendering, he was treacherously captured and skinned alive. After the execution, his skin was stuffed, put on a cow and paraded through the city. Nine years later, the Venetians managed to steal the skin in Constantinople and take it back to Venice, where it was placed in the San Zanipolo in 1596. As stated above, twenty-five Venetian Doges were interred here. The last would be Silvestro Valier, who died in 1700. Since it would be both tedious and time-consuming to discuss all the tombs, I will confine myself to just three. All of these can be found in the choir of the San Zanipolo.
Michele Morosini was a wealthy Venetian nobleman who became Doge of Venice on 10 June 1382. Four months later he was dead, one of the shortest Dogeships in Venetian history. In his authoritative history of Venice, John Julius Norwich argues that Morosini would have made an excellent Doge, had he not fallen victim to the Plague. Norwich does add that Morosini’s reputation has been stained by accusations that the Doge had enriched himself during the war with Genoa between 1378 and 1381, but concludes that these accusations are almost certainly baseless.
English art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) certainly liked his tomb in the San Zanipolo, describing it as “the richest monument of the Gothic period in Venice”. It is indeed splendid, a delicate combination of sculpture and mosaic. The sculptors are unfortunately unknown, as are the mosaicists. The lunette beneath the Gothic arch has a scene of the Crucifixion with several saints. Doge Morosini is on his knees. He is presented to Christ by his namesake, Saint Michael the Archangel. His wife Cristina Bondumier is accompanied by Saint John the Baptist. I assume the other saints are the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist.
Morosini’s tomb is right next to that of Leonardo Loredan (1501-1521). His twenty-year reign was anything but easy. After a disastrous war against the Turks (1499-1503), in which Venice lost her important twin colonies of Modone and Corone on the Peloponnese, the Republic found itself up against a new and formidable adversary, the warrior-pope Julius II (1503-1513). The Pope quarrelled with Venice over cities in the Romagna and was responsible, in 1508, for the formation of the League of Cambrai, an anti-Venetian coalition composed of the Papacy, Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and Duke Alfonso I d’Este of Ferrara. The Serenissima was soon fighting for her very survival. She was forced to capitulate in 1510 and had to humble herself before Julius.
But Italian diplomacy and politics were highly confusing in those days, as now the Pope allied with Venice against France, ultimately forming the Holy League, an anti-French coalition that included Spain, the Empire and Ferrara, in 1511. In 1513, Venice left the League and joined the French side. This was a clever move, as the French ended up winning the war in 1515-1516. The result of the War of the League of Cambrai was that Venice, which at the start of the war was in danger of being wiped off the map, emerged victorious instead and had almost all of her mainland possessions – her terra firma – restored to her. Leonardo Loredan had led Venice competently during these turbulent years. He seems to have been quite popular as well. As John Julius Norwich remarks:
“Old Leonardo had not presided over Venice’s destinies with any marked distinction or éclat, but his reign had coincided with the most agonizing chapter of her history, from which she had emerged virtually unscathed; inevitably, therefore, he was associated in the minds of his subjects with her safe deliverance. His death in his eighty-fifth year had been genuinely mourned, his obsequies and funeral procession to SS. Giovanni e Paolo marked with even more magnificent solemnity than usual; and his tomb, just to the right of the High Altar, was to be of comparable grandeur – even if he did have to wait another half-century before it was finally erected.”
Loredan indeed had to wait until 1572 before his final resting place was completed. It was designed by the somewhat obscure architect Girolamo Grapiglia. The young sculptor Girolamo Campagna (1549-1625) made the statue of the Doge while Danese Cattaneo (ca. 1509-1572) was responsible for the rest of the statues. Loredan is seated between statues representing Venice and the League of Cambrai. The statues at the far sides are Abundance and Peace.
On the other side of the choir, we find a tomb that is not even supposed to be here. The tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin (1476-1478) was originally erected in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi, a church that was mostly demolished after its suppression during the Napoleonic age. The tomb was taken apart and then re-assembled in the San Zanipolo in 1816. It is the work of Pietro Lombardo (ca. 1435-1515) and his son Tullio Lombardo (ca. 1455-1532). Andrea Vendramin’s reign was short, but eventful. The Doge was mostly occupied with a costly war against the Ottoman Empire, which even saw Turkish irregulars raiding the Friuli region. According to Norwich, “from the top of the Campanile of St Mark the flames of the burning villages could be plainly seen”.
Among the other art highlights of the church is a polyptych featuring Saint Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), a Dominican saint, painted by Giovanni Bellini between 1464 and 1468. The Cappella della Madonna della Pace has an eponymous altarpiece of the Madonna of Peace. It is among the oldest works of art inside the San Zanipolo, having been here since 1349.
Andrea del Verrocchio’s equestrian statue of the condottiero Bartolomeo Colleoni has already been mentioned above. This mercenary captain from Bergamo had left his immense fortune of some 216.000 ducats to the city on one condition: he wanted the Republic to erect a statue of him in the Piazza San Marco, the most famous and most important square in all of Venice. Now that was a problem. No statues had ever been erected in this piazza, not even for Doges and not even for Saint Mark, patron saint of Venice. Clearly Colleoni’s request could not be honoured, at least not in the way that the condottiero himself had intended.
The clever Venetians then came up with a ruse. A statue on the Piazza San Marco being out of the question, they would erect it in front of the Scuola Grande di San Marco instead. The scuola happens to be in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, right next to the church. The job to make the statue was granted to Del Verrocchio (1435-1488), but he did not manage to complete it before his death in 1488. The project was then continued by Alessandro Leopardi, who did the actual bronze casting. The result is certainly impressive; Colleoni looks menacing indeed, clad in plate armour and standing in his stirrups. The location is quite pleasing too, as the Scuola Grande di San Marco, designed by Pietro Lombardo, is beautiful indeed.
Art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), who as a Florentine was rather biased with regard to Venice and Venetian artists, has a funny, but probably unhistorical tale about Verrocchio – a fellow Florentine – and the statue:
“The Venetians, meanwhile, wishing to honor the great valor of Bartolommeo da Bergamo, thanks to whom they had gained many victories, in order to encourage others, and having heard the fame of Andrea, summoned him to Venice, where he was commissioned to make an equestrian statue of that captain in bronze, to be placed on the Piazza di SS. Giovanni e Polo. Andrea, then, having made the model of the horse, had already begun to get it ready for casting in bronze, when, thanks to the favor of certain gentlemen, it was determined that Vellano da Padova should make the figure and Andrea the horse. Having heard this, Andrea broke the legs and head of his model and returned in great disdain to Florence, without saying a word. The Signoria, receiving news of this, gave him to understand that he should never be bold enough to return to Venice, for they would cut his head off; to which he wrote in answer that he would take good care not to, because, once they had cut a man’s head off, it was not in their power to put it on again, and certainly not one like his own, whereas he could have replaced the head that he had knocked off his horse with one even more beautiful. After this answer, which did not displease those Signori, his payment was doubled and he was persuaded to return to Venice, where he restored his first model and cast it in bronze; but even then he did not finish it entirely, for he caught a chill by overheating himself during the casting, and died in that city within a few days; leaving unfinished not only that work (although there was only a little polishing to be done), which was set up in the place for which it was destined, but also another which he was making in Pistoia, that is, the tomb of Cardinal Forteguerra, with the three Theological Virtues, and a God the Father above; which work was afterwards finished by Lorenzetto, a sculptor of Florence.” (source)
As a final thought, one of my travel guides has some useful advice for people visiting Venice to admire the equestrian statue: the name of the mercenary captain is pronounced COL-LE-O-NI and not COL-YO-NI. Coglioni is the Italian word for ‘testicles’, a word that – according to the same travel guide – is ‘not quite appropriate’ in Italian. Meh, bollocks!
Sources for this post include three travel guides – Trotter, Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) – as well as the Churches of Venice website. Additional information came from John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’ and from the Web Gallery of Art.
 Quote from ‘A History of Venice’, p. 258.
 ‘A History of Venice’, p. 436.
 ‘A History of Venice’, p. 356.
Updated 9 July 2023.