Venice: Piazza San Marco

The Piazza San Marco.

I think this is actually the first time I dedicate a post to a famous square in an Italian city. But then again, the Piazza San Marco in Venice is not just your average square. In fact, my Trotter travel guide informs me that it is the only square in the Serenissima that is called a piazza. All the others – and there are quite a few – are called campi. Some people might find the crowds and the hustle and bustle in the piazza unbearable, but I think there is no need for exaggeration. Yes, the Piazza San Marco attracts lots of people, but I consider that part of the charm. If you do not like crowds, visit the piazza in the early morning or late in the afternoon, when most of the tourists have already left. Now let us take stock of the various buildings and monuments in and around the square.

Campanile of the San Marco.

The most important monument to be found here is obviously the basilica of San Marco and this world-famous church has already been discussed separately. The basilica’s freestanding campanile – just under 99 metres high – warrants a short discussion in this post. The first thing you need to know is that this is not the original bell-tower. Construction of the first campanile probably started in the ninth century with the construction of the first San Marco church, and the tower was completed in the twelfth century during the dogeship of Domenico Morosini (1148-1156).[1] It acquired its present form in the sixteenth century. Antonio Grimani, then a Procurator of Saint Mark and later Doge of Venice (1521-1523), restored the campanile and gave it its familiar green spire.[2] The architect Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) later added an elegant loggia or loggetta to its eastern side. In 1609, the famous scientist Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) demonstrated his telescope from the campanile.

Despite multiple rounds of maintenance in the next few centuries, the brickwork developed dangerous cracks, which were discovered in July 1902. Nothing could be done to save the campanile. On 14 July, the tower finally collapsed. Since this collapse had been anticipated, the only victim was apparently the custodian’s cat. The Venetians immediately decided to rebuild the tower. Whether or not the famous words “dov’era, com’era” – “where it was, how it was” – were ever spoken, it is clear that the Venetians intended to erect a second tower that was an exact copy of its predecessor. The new campanile was completed in 1912 and inaugurated on 25 April of that year, a date specifically chosen because it is Saint Mark’s feast day (at least in the Catholic Church).

Expect long queues if you want to visit the campanile. After paying eight Euros, an elevator will take you to the top. The view is marvellous, but if you want to avoid crowds and queues, try the campanile of the San Giorgio Maggiore instead (see below).

Torre dell’Orologio.

There is another tower on the edge of the Piazza San Marco: the Torre dell’Orologio or clock tower. Construction of this tower started in 1496. It has been tentatively attributed to Mauro Codussi (or Coducci; 1440-1504), but there is no documentary evidence. The Torre dell’Orologio was completed in 1499, but the two wings on either side of the tower were only added in 1506, two years after Codussi’s death. Above the clock, we see a statue of the Madonna and Child. One level higher, there is the familiar winged Lion of Saint Mark. The animal used to be accompanied by a statue of Doge Agostino Barbarigo (1486-1501) – see Murano: San Pietro Martire – but this was removed after the French had dissolved the Venetian Republic in 1797. The original composition is known thanks to a drawing made by Francisco de Holanda in ca. 1538. The tower is topped by two Moors in dark bronze. The men have wooden mallets, which they use to strike a bronze bell every hour.

If you think you have seen the Torre dell’Orologio before, you might very well be correct. The tower is featured in the James Bond movie Moonraker. Some scenes of this movie are set in Venice, and in one of them, Bond fights bad guy Chang in a glass museum. The two combatants climb a couple of stairs and suddenly find themselves in the clock room of the tower. There the fight continues and ultimately Bond manages to defenestrate his opponent through the glass face of the clock, destroying a precious work of art in the process. Of course it is just a movie: no real clocks were hurt during the filming. And the real clock of the Torre dell’Orologio does not have a glass face anyway.

Clock of the Torre dell’Orologio.

Just to the left of the clock tower are the Procuratie Vecchie, forming a screen of arches and offices on the northern side of the Piazza San Marco. On the other side we find the Procuratie Nuove and the two buildings are connected on the western side of the square by the so-called Napoleonic Wing. There are obvious architectural differences between the three buildings and they were clearly not erected at the same time. Some background information is in order here. The term procuratia refers to the procuratori di San Marco, the Procurators of Saint Mark. The office of procurator was a prestigious one. Procurators were appointed for life and administered and maintained the church of San Marco, as well as performing several other important duties (see the example of Antonio Grimani above). The Procuratie were their offices, built on top of elegant galleries (which, incidentally, happened to be the place where prostitutes offered their services during the Carnival).

Originally, the Piazza San Marco was an open space where pigs roamed freely. It was during the reign of Sebastiano Ziani (1172-1178) that the piazza was paved over ‘in herring-bone brick’[3] and embellished. Ziani had good reason for his project, as it was during his dogeship, in 1177, that the Treaty of Venice was signed, reconciling Pope Alexander III and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (see Siena: Palazzo Pubblico and Museo Civico). But it was not until the early sixteenth century that the last trees and shrubs were removed from the piazza.[4] By that time the north side of the square had long been closed off by the Procuratie Vecchie. The original building dates from the twelfth century, but the building we see today is from the sixteenth century. The Procuratie Nuove on the south side are a work of Vincenzo Scamozzi (1548-1616), who started construction in 1583. The building was finished long after his death by Baldassare Longhena (1598-1682), who completed the job in 1640.

The Piazza San Marco in the morning.

The Napoleonic Wing or Ala Napoleonica is the youngest part of the Procuratie, created during the so-called Kingdom of Italy (1805-1814), a French vassal state of which Venice was a part. Eugène de Beauharnais, son of Napoleon’s wife Joséphine from her first marriage, served as viceroy and needed a palace. Unfortunately, construction of this palace in 1807 also involved the destruction of the church of San Geminiano, which can, for instance, still be seen in a work by Canaletto. The Napoleonic Wing and parts of the Procuratie Nuove now house the Museo Correr, which I can certainly recommend to visitors.

The Piazzetta San Marco.

South of the Piazza San Marco, located between the Biblioteca Marciana and the Palazzo Ducale, is a separate open space called the Piazzetta, the ‘little piazza’. It leads to the Molo, the charming quayside where visitors from all over the world entered Venice when it could still only be reached from the sea; a causeway connecting the city to the mainland was constructed as late as the middle of the nineteenth century. Along the waterline runs the famous Riva degli Schiavoni, the ‘shore of the Slavs’, a good indication of Venice’s multi-ethnic and multicultural identity.

The Piazzetta is also, in a way, a creation of the aforementioned Sebastiano Ziani. There had originally been a long defensive wall here since the end of the ninth century. It was built by Doge Pietro Tribuno (887-912) who, in 899, had succeeded in fending off an attack by a Magyar army. Tribuno believed the wall to be necessary to protect the city against future invasions, but Doge Ziani had it pulled down before clearing and enlarging the Piazzetta. The Doge then hired the services of a man called Nicolò Barattieri, who later became the architect of the first Rialto bridge. Barattieri was asked to erect two large marble columns that had been dumped here more than fifty years previously. These may have been stolen from Tyre by Doge Domenico Michiel (1117-1130), who with his fleet had aided the Crusaders in capturing this city in what is now Lebanon in 1124 (see Murano: Santi Maria e Donato). The columns arrived in Venice a year later. Originally there had been a third column as well, but it ended up on the bottom of the lagoon when it was unloaded and accidentally dropped.

Apparently the Venetians then lost interest in the columns and left them to rot in the vicinity of Pietro Tribuno’s wall. John Julius Norwich’s story that “several attempts had been made to raise them, all unsuccessful”[5] somehow does not convince me, as it suggests a lack of technical skill on the part of the Venetians that is more than a little incredible. I find it more likely that the Venetians simply needed a good reason to erect them in the Piazzetta, and the visit by both the Pope and the Emperor in 1177 may just have been such a reason. Barattieri was a competent architect and the columns were swiftly erected. One of them is topped by a statue of Saint Theodore (‘San Todaro’ in the Venetian dialect), who was patron saint of Venice until he was replaced with the much more prestigious Saint Mark in 828. Theodore is accompanied by the dragon that, according to tradition, he had defeated. However, many commentators have remarked that the animal looks more like a crocodile. The statue we see today is a copy.

Winged Lion of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore.

The other column is topped by the traditional winged Lion of Saint Mark. The bronze statue has a complicated history to say the least. The lion itself certainly predates Christianity and is thought to have been made in about 300 BCE, perhaps in Cilicia in present-day Turkey. How it ended up in Venice is unknown, but given the reputation of the Venetians there is a fair chance they stole it somewhere and took it back to their mother city. The wings were added later, to make the statue resemble the symbol of Venice. Still, the lion is far from perfect, as the book with the famous words PAX TIBI MARCE EVANGELISTA MEUS – “Peace to you, Mark, my evangelist” – is missing altogether.

The Piazzetta was paved for the first time in 1264. Nowadays it is a lovely place to stroll, but under the Venetian Republic, criminals were executed between the two columns. If you walk to the quayside, you can admire Andrea Palladio’s famous church of San Giorgio Maggiore on the eponymous island on the other side of the water.

San Giorgio Maggiore.

John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, was a vital source for this post. Three travel guides – Trotter, Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) – provided additional information.


[1] John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 99.

[2] John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 436.

[3] John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 117.

[4] John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 456.

[5] John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 118.


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