The island of San Pietro, within Venice’s Sestiere Castello east of the Arsenale, was first known as Olivolo, and later also known as Quintavalle. It is considered to be a tomba, one of nine “high” islands in the Venetian Archipelago that possessed firm soil for building construction. Therefore, one of the earliest communities was founded on this island the 5th Century, among the earliest developed in what became Venice.
Three Offices, Three Churches
The first known church to be built on the island, in about 650AD, was apparantly of wooden construction, and was dedicated to the Byzantine saints (and martyred lovers) Sergius and Bacchus —Chiesa Santi Sergius e Bacchus.
When the Patriarchate of Grado established the Diocese of Venice in 774, that church became the seat of the Diocese, until a facility more suitable to the Bishop and his office could be built there during the 800’s, San Pietro Apostoli di Olivolo. It was one of the twelve “matrix” churches authorized by St. Magnus, Bishop of Odero, in Venice around 774. The change to San Pietro from Sergius and Bacchus is thought by some historians to have been a gesture to the Pope in Rome.
After the Pope created the Patriarchate of Venice, in 1451, the growth of church functions eventually led to the need for larger facilities. Construction of the current edifice, begun in the late 16th Century, was completed over the usual Venetian course of about 100 years. Its rather staid Renaissance facade was based upon an Andrea Palladio design carried to completion by Francesco Smeraldi.
A minor name-change to Cattedrale di San Pietro at the dedication recognized the position of the Patriarch, also a Cardinal, in the hierarchy of the church. This Patriarchate is quite exceptional. Three 20th Century Patriarchs (Cardinals) of Venice were elected Popes of the Roman Catholic Church.
The first Patriarch of Venice, San Lorenzo Giustiniani, is interred in the church. His “seat”, and that of the Bishops prior to him, was about as far removed physically from the secular politics and intrigues of the first Venetian secular center of Rialto as is possible in Venice.
The site was established earlier than the move of Venetian civil authority from Rialto to the Palazzo Ducale (Doges’ Palace) site facing the Bacino at Piazzetta di San Marco. The Catholic Church was not a captive to the civil government here, and history proved that, throughout most of Venetian history, the opposite case was also true! Still, actions at both ends of the spectrum and interactions between them “rocked the world” of Venice for centuries.
The Olivolo church was renamed San Pietro di Castello after the Patriarchate was relocated to San Marco in 1807, during the Napoleonic era, and the Patriarchal Palace was transformed into barracks! Fortunately, the downgrading from Cattedrale did not require demolition and reconstruction of a new, fourth church on the site!
Over the centuries before the Fall of the Republic, newly elected Doges would travel to San Pietro to be installed into office by the Bishop or Patriarch of Venice.
Names and Settings
Different scholars allege that the island was named Olivolo either because of its roughly olive-like shape or due to the early existence of olive trees there. However, the island is early stated to be the site of the ancient castle protecting lagoon communities, Castrum (Castello) Olivoli.
Historian Pompeo Mulmenti recounted a legend that Antenor, “leader of the Eneti” led the building of the original castle (Venice: Its Individual Growth from the Earliest Beginnings to the Fall of the Republic , Part I, Volume I, Venice in the Middle Ages, translated by Horatio F. Brown, A.G. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1906).
According to others, “Enti” were people from Illyrium, across the Adriatic Sea in current Croatia, and that linguisitc usage added a “V” to created V-enti, and transition to “Venice”. Still others postulate that Antenor’s band were Trojans who came to the Lagoon after the Sack of Troy!
The Quintavalle name is still present on several calle, a fondamente, and the southern point of the island. Peter Marturi Quintavalle was Patriarch of Grado beginning in 880 and, a century later another Peter became Bishop of Venice in 995, seated on this very island.
The cathedral faces the Canal Di San Pietro to the west across the formal garden of the Campo San Pietro, and has a detached, leaning campanile at its southwestern corner. Across the canal, a separate island once housed the Convent of Santa Maria Nova, later renamed …della Vergini, demolished and the land absorbed into the Arsenale in the early 19th Century although some gardens remain.
The Patriarchal Palace adjoins the cathedral’s south side, behind the Campanile, and forms an imposing wall separating the church from the adjacent community. The juxtaposition reinforces the fact that something more had transpired here than the creation of “just another Venice parish church”!
A sprawling boatyard occupies the land north of the Campo and church and encroaches into the fallow historical farmland to its rear. Small boat docks line the fondamente edge of one of the very, very few “green” Campi in Venice. The very recently rebuilt bridge, Ponte San Pietro, connects the island to Isola across the Rio San Pietro to the west, into the adjacent island community’s Calle Larga.
The very first bridge to San Pietro was constructed just north of this location sometime before 1635. A second bridge, Ponte di Quintavalle, replaced an earlier 20th-Century crossing in 2009, provides handicapped accessibility and links Isola di San Pietro’s population center to Fondamenta Sant’Anna on Isola Sant’Anna.
The Sant’Anna island community also developed later than San Pietro, perhaps in the 11th Century to house Arsenale workers, and the Sant’Anna convent next to Canal di San Pietro was founded in 1242. Except for an isolated monastery on a much smaller island now absorbed into its current easternmost flank, Sant’Elena, a very large island of recreation fields, ACTV vaporetto maintenance yards and modern housing estates south of Isola San Pietro, did not exist before the 19th Century.
Wandering and Discovery
On a recent trip to Venice, we disembarked from the #52 Vaporetto at the San Pietro in Castello landing and wandered from the quay into and through the late-20th Century multiple family housing development. The route soon passed into an older neighborhood that edges the southwest side of the island. Our route circled back through that area until we arrived via a sharp reverse turn into the far south corner of the Campo, behind the dramatic campanile (did I mentioned that it leans?).
The entrance view looks northwest toward the Canal di San Pietro rather than to the church, mostly hidden by the campanille. Of course, the historical approach was more user-friendly, not via a modern vaporetto stop but first alighting from your boat at the Campo edge, and later across the first bridge from the west, directly into the Campo. The “door prize” for successfully completing our traverse of the island (trivia fans demand to know!) was that we passed the Castello 001 address at the intersection of Calle dei Pomeri and Fondamente Quintavalle!
In the Eye of the Beholder
Campo San Pietro has been the scene and source of tumult in the past. The following few examples are instructive, although dates of events have been “redacted” since they vary from “history” book to “history” book! Verifiable records are certainly be safely ensconced in the State Archives, and the “truth of time” will be diligently pursued!
- The kidnapping of a Bishop/temporary Doge from inside the church at the conclusion of the Vespers service. The rival did not get the job.
- The kidnapping of the “Brides of Venice” from inside the church by Istrian pirates during the annual celebration of the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, in the presence of the Doge. All of the kidnapped brides-to-be (remember, the purification of the virgins) were recovered after a mad City-wide mobilization and boat chase, with a final score of Virgins 12, Pirates 0 (muerto).
- The departure point for a Bishop/Doge (related to the kidnapped one) who while on his way to a meeting at San Marco was assassinated on the Ponte Pugia on the Riva Schiavonni next to the Doges Palace, in sight of the “Bridge of Sighs”. The ambitious pretender, from yet another rival family/faction, did not succeed, either.
- Centuries of intrigues within the Patriarchal Palace. Centuries.
- Less-than sympathetic (i.e., scabarous) reviews of the architecture of the Cattedrale and the Campanile, the condition of the Campo grass, the interior art, the history of the alleged “Chair of St. Peter”, of Bishops and Patriarchs, Olivolo and Castello citizens – even the design of the old and new bridges!
The list may be endless, and certainly recedes into the stuff of legends.
However, our lasting reaction to the now-serene Campo was that, amidst the bustle of Venice, we had found yet another peaceful and historic place lost in time and forgotten by trend-setters and tour groups alike. Perhaps, unlike the sometimes sordid events associated with the place, a current-day sojourn there is proof of why Venice is…