Walking around the narrow and hidden streets of Santa Croce, we discover one of Venice’s most fascinating places of worship, the embodiment of its architectural and cultural syncretism
If we only looked at the numbers, Santa Croce would appear to be the least interesting of all the venetian sestieri (districts, for the uninitiated). Smaller in size, only a few squares in a web of narrow alleys, fewer churches, fewer buildings, fewer attractions. And yet, only an inattentive observer could underestimate the true extent of its charm: as we say here in Italy, it is in the smallest barrels that the best wine is kept. Among Santa Croce’s landmarks, the church of San Giacomo dall'Orio has stood vigil for twelve centuries, one of La Serenissima’s most fascinating places of worship. Defining it generically as a Romanesque-style church, while evoking echoes of a lost time, does not entirely do justice to its appeal, which is based on an interplay of contrasts. If on the outside San Giacomo has an austere, almost archaic appearance, once inside the visitor is overwhelmed by the ingenious articulation of its spaces, dominated by the warm presence of a splendid beamed wooden ceiling. But one such visitor, before stepping inside, could first take a walk around the large apses of the church and circumnavigate it. By so doing, he would find a smaller and almost hidden square, just off the Rio di San Giacomo, embellished by a small fountain and by the presence of two bridges. There, our visitor may be surprised to find a façade so simple and understated that can make one doubt whether San Giacomo is, in fact, a sacred building; yet, to remain in the region of discounted but always true old sayings, appearances can be deceptive.
And now some history. The first recorded mentions of San Giacomo date back to 1089, but we know that a century and a half later, in 1225, the church was entirely rebuilt in the Byzantine style favoured at the time, and underwent subsequent Gothic-style modifications in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
From this period are the precious wooden ceiling, built using the naval construction techniques of the arsenal of Venice, and the remarkable pictorial cycle painted by Palma il Giovane in the old sacristy and in the Santissimo chapel. To increase the oriental atmosphere of the church, a green marble column was brought here directly from Byzantium, today’s Istanbul, as a trophy from the fourth crusade: legend has it that the column is made of a marble so clear and pure that, when hit by sunlight, you could see through it. A transparency that brings to mind that of Masottina’s organic Costabella Brut, the perfect refreshment to enjoy here among the springtime colours of the San Giacomo campo trees and the lively voices of children playing in the piazza, a celebration of our uninterrupted journey through the stories of the world’s most fascinating laguna.