This extraordinary Gothic shrine not only enjoys the status of a minor basilica, which gives it certain ecclesiastical privileges in respect to regular churches, it is first and foremost Venice's pantheon. It contains the tombs of twenty-five of Venice's 120 doges and serves as the resting place for numerous important military commanders and artists. In fact, today the Zanipolo, as it is called in the Venetian dialect, is considered the second most important church in Venice after the St. Mark's Cathedral.
Its history began in 1234, when Doge Jacopo Tiepolo dreamed of a flock of white doves flying over a swampland. Thinking that this was a sign from God, he donated the territory to the Dominican friars for the construction of a church. The edifice was finished two hundred years later and was dedicated to Saints John and Paul, two early-Christian martyrs, and not, as is mistakenly thought today, the apostles.
The ornate portal, shaped as an ogive (a pointed arch), is the work of Bartolomeo Bon and Domenico Fiorentino. The three tabernacles on top of the façade shelter the statues St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Peter Martyr of Verona and St. Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order. The big rose window in the center of the façade is not very ornate, but the little oculi to the left and right compliment it with a sense of symmetrical harmony.
Inside we find three naves divided by two rows of gigantic cylindrical marble columns. The high gothic vaults are connected by wooden ties (beams that help the vertical structures resist tension) and the floor layout is in the shape of a Latin cross. The size of the church is really impressive: 101 meters long, 46 meters wide and 32 meters high. The basilica's architecture, ornamentation and paintings are so exquisite that as we enter, we feel as if we have just walked inside a museum.
It is the Mocenigo family that can boast the highest number of ducal funeral monuments: four. One is on the left wall and three are on the interior façade. The most prominent of the four doges, Alvise Mocenigo 1st, rests right above the entrance. He governed Venice at the time of one of the most famous naval battles in the history of the world: the Battle of Lepanto. It took place on October 7, 1571 in the Gulf of Corinth near the Peloponnese. The combatants were the Ottoman fleet and the Holy League, a fleet consisting of contingents from Venice, Spain, the Papal State and other smaller European nations. Yet, it was not only a battle between nations and empires, it was a clash of civilizations, a battle for religious supremacy. Had the Ottoman fleet come out victorious, they would have certainly sailed for Italy, and today the religious composition of Europe would look very different. However, the Holy League proved to be stronger and the Ottomans finally demonstrated that they could be beaten.
Other notable doges resting in the basilica are Leonardo Loredan, Andrea Vendramin (both of whom lie in the presbytery) and Sebastiano Venier, who, after leading the Venetian fleet during the Battle of Lepanto, was elected doge in 1577. His bronze monument proudly stands by the entrance to the Rosary Chapel at the left transept.
The Rosary Chapel was created in 1575 in honor of the Madonna of the Rosary, to whom Pope Pius 5th prayed during the Battle of Lepanto. Previously, the chapel had been dedicated to St. Dominic. The Rosary Chapel once housed a grand array of paintings from all the 16th century Venetian masters: Tintoretto, Bellini, Bassano, Veronese, Palma the Younger and Titian. Unfortunately, in 1867 a fire destroyed absolutely everything - walls and paintings. Today on the gilded ceiling we can find three paintings by Paolo Veronese, "The Adoration of the Pastors," "The Ascension of Mary" and "The Annunciation." However, these paintings were brought to the chapel from another Venetian church.
Other outstanding paintings include Lorenzo Lotto's "St. Anthony asking for alms" and Cima da Conegliano's "The Coronation of the Virgin." Both works are located at the right transept. The basilica's most renowned artwork belongs to the brush of Giovanni Bellini: the St. Vincent Ferreri Polyptych. St. Vincent was a 14th century Spanish friar and missionary whose claim to fame was the conversion to Catholicism, often forced, of numerous Jews. The polyptych stands immediately to the right as you walk in. Bellini himself is also buried in the basilica, though no one can tell you exactly where.
To the right of the St. Vincent Polyptych, high up on the wall, stands the monument of one of the most phenomenal, if not the most phenomenal, Venetian heroes of all time: Marcantonio Bragadin. Bragadin was Captain General of Cyprus during the war with the invading Ottoman forces, which eventually resulted in the Battle of Lepanto. The Ottomans had conquered the entire island and lay siege to the fortress of Famagusta, which Bragadin was defending with an army that in number was twenty times inferior to that of the invaders. The siege lasted for eleven months. European reinforcements were promised, but never arrived. Finally, at the end of July 1571, seeing that the enemy was breaching the walls and that the Christians had no gunpowder, no provisions and only 500 soldiers left, Bragadin decided to surrender. He and his top commanders were invited to the Ottoman marshal's tent to hand over the keys to the fortress. At first they were greeted courteously, but then the marshal suddenly changed mood and started accusing Bragadin of having killed the Ottoman prisoners. Bragadin's commanders were beheaded on the spot and Bragadin was thrown into a cell, where the Ottomans tortured him and tried to convert him to Islam. The Venetian resisted for two weeks. His fortitude was so overwhelming that finally the Ottoman marshal had him dragged to the main square and skinned alive. The skin was then brought to the Sultan and kept in an arsenal in Constantinople. Several years later it was stolen by a Venetian prisoner and given to the Venetian ambassador. In 1580 Bragadin's skin returned to Venice and after first being interred in the Church of San Gregorio in Dorsoduro, it was brought to the Basilica of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where it still lies in the bronze urn. The monument was created by Vincenzo Scamozzi and the marble bust of Bragadin on the urn is by a student of Alessandro Vittoria. The pallid fresco depicting the hero's gruesome martyrdom is attributed to Giuseppe Alabardi.
Bragadin's martyrdom does not only carry moral, religious and patriotic value; it also played a momentous strategic role in the preparation for the Battle of Lepanto. It was precisely due to his incredible eleven-month resistance on Cyprus that the European nations were finally able, after months and months of quarreling, to build their forces and unite their fleets. After hearing about the fate of Marcantonio Bragadin, the Christian soldiers were fired up and lunged at the enemy crying, "You will remember Famagusta! You will remember Bragadin!"