The Scuola Grande di San Rocco: the Serenissima magnificent and charitable welfare system

23 August 2021

Venice, 13th August 2021 – Impressive. Magnificent. Adorned with gold and light and shade effects. It stretches over two floors and is fully decorated by the hand of Jacopo Robusti, commonly known as Tintoretto, who realized one of the greatest and most fascinating artistic undertakings of all times.

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is one of the venetian Scuole (or schole) survived both to the Napoleonic era and to the fall of the Repubblica Serenissima. Moreover, it is one of the few Scuole still active in Venice. Established in the second half of the 1200s, each secular brotherhood was dedicated to a specific religious figure. These “schole” were created with several purposes, such as: protecting workers, providing support to foreign communities within the city (ancient embassies) and helping poor people by implementing the value of charity, at the basis of Christianity. These were called “Scuole Grandi”, and considered as real welfare structures. By the end of the 1500s there were six “Scuole Grandi” in Venice: San Teodoro, built in 1258, Santa Maria della Carità, built in 1260, San Marco e San Giovanni Evangelista, built in 1261, Santa Maria Misericordia built in 1308, San Rocco, built in 1478 ad eventually the Scuola dei Carmini, which was established at the end of the 1500s. Today, four are the ones still active (Carmini, San Rocco, San Teodoro, San Giovanni Evangelista).

«People used to come here to ask for help. There were widows looking for a house, orphans looking for a place to stay and young girls looking for the dowry necessary to get married – said Pier Paola Setti, a sister in the Scuola. Several are photographic proofs of long queues outside the entrance of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, in the years which stretched through the two World Wars. Pictures show how people, to survive famine, used to leave the Scuola Grande with bags of flour on their shoulders».

Characterized by an organization which entailed the existence of a set of rules approved by the Council of Ten – commonly known as Mariegola – the Scuole Grandi were managed by a Guardian Grande together with other 15 counselors. Nevertheless, this governmental body will later be supported by a group of brothers, whose duty was to supervise the proper work carried out within the “Scuola”. Nowadays, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco still hosts around 480 brothers, some of whom, in the past, were elected as popes, such as Pio X and Giovanni XXIII, both Patriarchs of Venice before the pontificate.

A luxurious and religious place, in which non profitable charity activity was carried out.

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which originally was located within the church of San Giuliano, was later moved near the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, where it can still be found. Built in 30 years, its development began from an empty building later decorated, at the brothers’ behest, with luxurious furniture designed by several among the most popular artists of the 1500s and the 1600s. First and foremost, Jacopo Robusti “Tintoretto”, the first official painter of the Scuola, between 1564 and 1587 painted at least 60 artworks. Tintoretto previously won the selection process to become the painter of the Scuola by offering an artwork as a tribute to the Saint. Before the publication of the selection process results, Tintoretto placed on the ceiling of the Sala d’Albego the painting which he defined as a “gift to San Rocco”. Nevertheless, several are the artworks by Antonio Zanchi, Pietro Negri e Francesco Pianta il Giovane, created to decorate the whole building.

Every painting and every sculpture of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco was designed with the aim of teaching something to each visitor crossing the threshold of the Scuola. By staring at the ceilings and walls, people could live Jesus’s life and, consequently, learn and follow his example by being good and practicing charity. Every floor shows paintings in which Jesus’ life is represented: from childhood to the Passion, until the salvation that underlines the message according to which through good actions anyone can reach salvation.

«This brotherhood relies on devotion – sister Pier Paola Setti said –. They chose San Rocco since he is the symbol of a man that dedicated his whole life to charity and good actions. Although luxurious, this was a charitable association, whose main goal was to host poor people in a nice environment. As a matter of fact, everyone could benefit from a nice environment: both people who were asking for help and those who were providing it. Every object was donated or came from the brothers' self-taxation. As a matter of fact, money was used to pay artists, sculptors and to purchase goods. People really believed in the spirit of this institution ».

In the Scuola Grande di San Rocco we can find the Sala Terrena, which is where sculpture representing San Rocco and a series of paintings dedicated to the Virgin Mary and Jesus’ childhood are displayed. From the Sala Terrena we reach the Scalone, a monumental staircase, within which l’Annunciazione painted by Tiziano is included in one of the arches. At the top of the Scalone, visitors are welcomed to the Sala Capitolare. This is the brotherhood’s room, entirely dedicated to San Rocco and in which Jesus’ salvation is described, from the original sin to the several episodes of the Old Testament.

In the Sala Capitolare, precisely inside the altar – decorated with a canopy, realized with the Doge’s cloak, given to the Scuola and later enriched by 1700s gold embroidered fabric - the holy relics of San Rocco’s finger are preserved. At this very floor, the most important room of the building can be found: the Sala dell’Albergo, entirely decorated with the episodes of San Rocco’s life and La Crocifissione by Tintoretto, representing the Passion of Christ. This is one of the greatest paintings by Tintoretto, in which his innovative painting style is fully represented. This room used to host the brothers and the Doge – which visited San Rocco holy relics - , the day in which the saint was celebrated.

At the bottom of the painting a secret passage is hidden. It takes through an underground vault where the accountant of the Scuola Grande used to have his private office. In there, he stored accounting books and the brotherhood money (golden coins) within lockboxes – which had peculiar lockers requiring at least four people to be opened. Lockboxes are still here today and can be admired together with a priceless collection of pottery and other goods. Moreover, at the floor of the Sala Capitolare, a small ladder, dedicated to the Cancelleria -where the members of the council used to gather in order to take decisions- , is located. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco also has another floor, where the Sala del Tesoro is located. This room guards the holy relics and the treasures survived to the Napoleonic era.

«The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is the only one that still preserves the whole number of original artworks – the chancellor Alfredo Baroncini explained -. Moreover, it is the only one that survived after the law banning those institutes, as a consequence to the fall of the Repubblica Serenissima and the beginning of the Italian Kingdom. It is an example, still in place, of the solidarity and the greatness of Venice in the 1500s ».

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