Around San Polo

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San Polo, more precisely the Rialto district, was and still is the commercial hub of Venice. Seat of the Banco Giro and Banco di Rialto, two leading banking institutions in 16th-century Europe, as well as the best goldsmiths in the city, the Rialto may have lost some of its past luster but still retains an aura of mercantile dynamism in its fruit, vegetable and fish markets, its many bacari, osterie, and artisan shops.

From San Marco, we cross the Rialto Bridge from where, to our right, we can admire the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi built in 1525 to accommodate the offices of state finance magistrates. The bridge itself was finished in 1591 after a very lengthy process in which projects by Michelangelo, Palladio and Sansovino were considered before the Signoria settled for a design by Antonio da Ponte. The views from the Rialto Bridge are among the most photographed in the world. No tourist who comes to Venice leaves without a picture from this bridge. Neither did I in the autumn fog, late-summer light and winter snow.

Map of Venice

The church of San Giacomo di Rialto, affectionately called San Giacometto because of its small size, is said to be the oldest in Venice, associated with the mythical foundation of the city in 421. The building dates from the 11-12th century and was restored on numerous occasions. The beautiful clock on the façade dates from 1410. Across from the church is the Colonna del Bando, with the steps leading to it supported by the Gobbo di Rialto (Hunchback of Rialto) from where official announcements were read to the public in the time of the republic. It is likely that the word bandit originated in these pietre del bando (there is also one in Piazza San Marco) making reference to the outlaws so proclaimed from such places.


Between Campo San Giacomo di Rialto and the Grand Canal is the Rialto Market, a cornucopia of fresh produce, meats and fish. To the American eye, so used to perfectly wrapped little packages of sterilized food, a stroll through this market is a sensual feast and a journey of discovery. Highly recommended for grade schoolers.

We leave the Rialto Market behind and walk along one of the busiest  streets in the city,  Ruga Vechia S. Giovanni, lined with trattorie, bakeries and souvenir shops.
If we take a detour on Calle dei Do Mori, on our right, we will find one of the oldest and most emblematic bacari in town, Do Mori. Patronized mainly by locals, it's the perfect spot to have a light lunch or a before-dinner appetizer. The cicheti are very creative and the wines, directly poured from oversized demijohns, offer a taste of local flavor. It is said that Casanova mingled here.

A short distance away on Calle de l'Arco, San Polo 456,  there is a peculiar doorway with a wide opening at the bottom used to roll barrels in and out of the storehouse. A basrelief of a barrel can be admired at San Polo 551, on Campo Rialto Novo, on the other side of Ruga Vechia S. Giovanni, along with a relief of a tree, emblems of the guilds of boteri (barrel makers) and silk workers, respectively.

Nearby on Calle del Sansoni at the intersection with Ramo de la Donzela, San Polo 963, there is a crooked doorway, so out-of-plumb but around which everything seems to fit so perfectly, that one can't help but wonder whether it became slanted as a result of the soil subsiding or just bad but whimsical and resourceful craftsmanship.

We continue on the Ruga Vechia which soon narrows and becomes Rugheta del Ravano. At the end of one of the side streets, on our left, we can see the church of San Silvestro. At number 1091 the painter Giorgio Barbarella of Castelfranco, known as Giorgione had his residence. His groundbreaking La Tempesta can be admired at the Accademia Galleries.


The street ends at Campo Sant'Aponal with the deconsecrated church dedicated to Sant'Apollinare. Beautiful reliefs grace the Gothic façade. On the right side is Calle del Perdon and Sotoportego de la Madonna. Pope Alexander III took refuge here, incognito, in 1177 while running away from Emperor Barbarossa. He granted plenary indulgence to anybody who says one Our Father and one Hail Mary while standing at the sotoportego. In remembrance of his stay, a carving of the resting Pope can be admired at the entrance of the sotoportego, under the capitello dedicated to the Madonna. I had my Venetian baptism at the end of this sotoportego on Rio de le Becarie. The view of Ponte Storto that hot summer afternoon was mesmerizing. It captured a full range of sbarlusego, or water reflection, under its arch... and there I went, trying, and only trying, to capture it. A sandolo moored by the steps saved me from total immersion as I clutched at its side. Water up to my neck was refreshing enough on that hot summer afternoon. The picture of the bridge shown here was taken from a different angle and on a different occasion.

From Calle del Perdon we reach Campiello dei Meloni. If you look up to your left, you'll see one of the most attractive collections of Gothic windows in the city. In the corner shop, Pasticceria Rizzardini specializes in Venetian dolci: pavana, zaletti, busolai and marzipan cakes. Enjoy.

We climb on Ponte de la Madoneta and soon reach Campo San Polo. This is the perfect spot for a mid-afternoon break. The campo is one of the largest in Venice and its trees offer generous shade to humans and sparrows alike. Facing the campo is the pharmacy "Alla Colonna e Mezza" (column and a half a name cut to order to distinguish it from another pharmacy near San Canzian in Cannaregio called "Alle Due Colonne" (two columns). The emblem can still be seen by the door. We will later come back to Campo San Polo.

We continue on Salizada San Polo. To our left, the guardians of the campanile look directly at us. They were also witness to a crime. On February 26, 1548, Lorenzino de' Medici and his uncle Alessandro Soderini were assassinated, just a few steps away in front of his lover's house, by a hit man hired by Cosimo de' Medici as a pay back for the murder of Alessandro de' Medici committed by Lorenzino some ten years prior. Alfred de Musset's play "Lorenzaccio" (Bad Lorenzo) is based on Lorenzino's life.

A small shop, Biasin,  that specializes in typical Venetian prints and original woodwork is nearby.


We cross Ponte San Polo and continue on narrow Calle dei Saoneri at the end of which, off Rio Terà dei Nomboli, is the street with the most poetic of names: Calle Amor dei Amici (Love of Friends).


We cross Ponte San Tomà and reach Campiello and Campo San Toma. The church of San Tomà and the Scuola dei Calegheri (shoe makers) flank the campo. Two beautiful representations of the Madonna della Misericordia can be admired in this corner of Venice, one on the side of the church and the other above the portico of the scuola.

Beside the church is a quintessential Venetian sign offering you a choice of names for one street, three in this case: Campaniel or Civran or Grimani.

We exit Campo San Tomà behind the Scuola dei Calegheri and take Calle Larga. This leads us to Campo dei Frari and the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. To our left is Campo San Rocco, the church of San Rocco and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the most important repository of Tintorettos anywhere in the world. Visit it only at your own risk. Contrary to the soothing Carpaccios and Bellinis, in my opinion, too many Tintorettos can be hazardous to your health. A visit to the Frari church is a must if only to admire Titian's altarpiece Assumption of the Virgin, Donatello's Saint John the Baptist and the breathtaking triptych by Bellini of the Madonna, Child and Saints (in the sacristy). 

Across from the church is Caffè dei Frari. The legendary cat Nini is pictured on the window. Nini was famous in life and in death. He had his own guest book where the likes of Verdi and Alexander III, czar of Russia, signed the pages. A wake was held when the cat died in 1894 and poems were written in his honor. Here is a poem written by Horatio Brown, frequent visitor to the nearby State Archives and the caffè:

"What wit and learning died with you,
What wisdom too!
Take these poor verses, feline cat,
Indited by an Archive rat."

The caffè, with a beautiful mezzanine, comfortable tables and a fin-de-siècle atmosphere, is worth the visit.

We walk along Fondamenta dei Frari, cross Rio de San Stin and reach Campo S. Stin which we traverse diagonally to Calle del Magazen where we turn right. A few steps away is Scuola Grande San Giovanni Evangelista. One of the six Scuole Grandi (the other five were S. Maria della Misericordia, S. Maria della Carità, San Marco, San Teodoro and San Rocco). The building has been restored not too long ago and can be visited. The entrance screen with the eagle above the doorway, symbol of Saint John the Evangelist, is the work of Pietro Lombardo. The great stairway, a work of Mauro Coducci, is a Renaissance masterpiece.

We retrace our steps to Campo San Stin and exit it by Calle de Ca' Donà that, after the bridge, takes us to Campiello Sant'Agostin. Soon we are in Campo Sant'Agostin. One of the side streets is Calle Bajamonte Tiepolo (used to be called Calle Ca' Tiepolo). Bajamonte Tiepolo was the leader of the infamous 1310 insurrection (you may remember him from the "Lady with the Mortar" story in San Marco). For many generations the noble Tiepolo family had their house on this street until it was demolished as punishment for Bajamonte's plot. Architectural details that belonged to the house can still be admired on the façade of the tiny chapel on Campo San Vio. A nearby window sometimes works as an eco-friendly fridge, at least in the winter months.

We continue on Rio Terà Secondo and make a right turn on Calle del Scaleter. We cross Ponte Bernardo and soon we are back in Campo San Polo.

Winter or summer, Campo San Polo is the perfect spot to unwind and watch Venetians and tourists go by. The impressive Palazzo Soranzo used to be on the bank of a canal, since filled-in. The canal, Rio San Antonio, can be seen in de' Barbari's engraving.

In one of the corners of the campo, Palazzo Corner Mocenigo (San Polo 2128 and 2128b) used to be the house of Gattamelata, the famous mercenary who fought for Venice (among other Italian cities) in the first half of the 15th century. In the late 18th century Giovanni Corner lived and died in the palazzo and had two doors opening into a single vestibule. One door being used by the living and the other by the dead on their way to the cemetery. What it is not clear to me is which one is which...

Portrait of Gattamelata (or perhaps  just a young warrior) attributed to Giorgione
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

We leave the campo by Sotoportego Cavali and make a left turn on Calle de la Furatola. We cross the canal and arrive at the sotoportego of the same name at the end of which is one of the most beautiful corners of Venice, Ponte Storto.

Walk around this area and admire the many paterae and basreliefs that grace the walls. A nearby vera da pozzo, with pulley and bucket, inside an enclosed garden completes the scene.

We leave the area by Sotoportego de le Carampane and reach Calle dei Boteri. Osteria Al Garanghelo is the perfect place to have lunch or dinner. It offers an eclectic menu of "light" Venetian dishes with emphasis on using little fat and sugar. The time I visited I ordered some fantastic gamberi in saor (steamed prawns with onions, olive oil, lemon and a touch of parsley) and a superb fegato a la Veneziana. The bread was excellent and so was the service. In the rare event that you crave something other than Italian food, a nearby Chinese restaurant may do it for you.


At the end of Calle dei Boteri there is an unobstructed view of Ca' d'Oro. We leave the area by Calle de le Becarie that takes us back to the Pescaria, the Rialto district and the end of our tour.

Spoils of the fall; dried on the steps of Sant' Aponal