Campo San Polo in Venice
Venice is a true maze where it is easy (and wonderful) to get lost through narrow alleys, canals and bridges. And yet, every thick network of streets will eventually lead to a wide open space: the campo!
Venice was paved around the 16the C and therefore a campo, the equivalent of a square, a piazza, was by all means a field of grass and dirt. That is the origin of the name campo. And in fact, Venice has only one piazza: Piazza San Marco!
Venice is a group of more than a hundred small islands connected by bridges, and for every island the campo represented the heart of social life. The church gave its name to the campo and the church of San Polo, dedicated to the apostle Paul, has very remote origins. The building, which preserves somewhat its early byzantine plan with later Gothic additions, underwent some heavy handed restoration in the 19th C. In 1930, however, the church was brought back to its original 15th C look, revealing a stunning wooden trussroof crowning a beautiful basilica plan with a wide apse.
In 1700 the portico was demolished and the façade overlooking the canal was blocked so as to accommodate a winter oratory, which we can now access through the church. The decoration of the oratory was commissioned in 1747 to Giandomenico Tiepolo, who was only twenty at the time.
Giandomenico, son of the famous Giambattista, was asked to paint a sequence of small canvasses representing the Stations of the Cross, at a time when this spiritual exercise was been structured to become the devotional practice we know today.
The young painter had no models to refer to, that resulting into a surely demanding task which provoked severe criticism. Art historians have recently reconsidered this work and regarded it as a very original and interesting accomplishment.
The belltower was constructed in 1362 and decorated with two sculptures placed above its small entrance representing two lions facing each another. One of the two lions holds within its claws a human head! We often read that this might refer to the incident of doge Marin Faliero beheaded for high treason in 1355 or to the mercenary captain Carmagnola, also beheaded for high treason in 1432. However, this is just a legend, in fact the 2 lions are older that that, as they apparently date back to the 12th C.
That of San Polo is the largest campo in Venice. It was of course the location of markets and celebrations, as well as the venue of bull fights!
Just picture the arrival of bulls on boats, some falling in the canals, while others ran away out of control, scaring those who were there to watch the event. Once the order was re-established, the bulls were tied by their horns and dogs were launched against them. A true pandemonium, quite similar to the feast of San Fermìn in Pamplona rather than the classical and formal corrida.
Consider that the last bullfight in Venice took place in Campo Santo Stefano in 1802: a bull in a frenzy crashed onto a tribune terrifying the whole crowd and causing several casualties. Since then, bullfights were to be abolished in the whole city.
In the painting by Heintz il Giovane, but even more clearly so in the map by Jacopo de Barbari, we can see that the eastern part of the campo is limited by a canal and framed by a sequence of old palaces built alongside the curved watercourse, with their small private bridges for access. The canal was filled in 1761 to widen the campo. In the map by Jacopo de Barbari we can also notice that the campo is paved, a rare exception in 16th C Venice!
The two large Gothic palaces date back to the 14th and 15th centuries.
They were built by the wealthy De Bugni, a family of merchants from Cremona. Thanks to their immense wealth, they were granted citizenship and in 1401 they arranged for their daughter Bianca to marry Vittorio Soranzo, the descendant of duke Giovanni Soranzo.
The palaces are still the property of the Soranzos and on their brass doorbell, above their surname, you can see the engraved image of a ducal horn, the formal hat Venetians dukes used to wear… so as to remember the honour of boasting a doge among their ancestors.
And finally, the large well in the middle of the campo. One of the largest in town. This was an ingenious way to provide the city with provisions of drinking water. Though hard to believe, water was scarce and in fact as the Venetian chronicler Marin Sanudo wrote “the city despite being in the water, has no water”.
The ornate wellheads that we can find in every campo conceal the complex structure that lies beneath: a clay-lined cistern filled in with sand were rain water was conveyed through apertures on the ground. Filtered and purified, water could finally reach the central well shaft where it was stored. From time immemorial, chiefs controlled and rationed the distribution of this very precious commodity, they had the keys and opened the wells twice a day at the chiming of bells. In 1884, when the new aqueduct replaced them, there were approximately six thousand wells in the city!