Every so often, amongst the usual tourist chatter and polite requests for directions, I overhear a gem. A snippet of a conversation, a tidbit that makes me giggle. Or sometimes groan. Let me give you an example.
One sultry afternoon, whilst strolling home through St Mark’s Square in Venice I overheard a family talking about the history of the city. It was obvious that the teenage son was a history geek, fascinated by the buildings in front of them. He seemed to know a bit about them too, which was impressive. But then he dropped a bombshell – “Of course, you know St Mark’s Square was built by the Ancient Romans!”
Ummm, I beg your pardon?!
And with that outrageous statement hanging in the air, they disappeared down one of the little calle, or streets, off the piazza and into a crowd of tourists.
So, since I didn’t have the chance to help that family out with a spot of local history, I thought I’d do it here with a brief overview of the square that Napoleon allegedly proclaimed “the drawing room of Europe.” And here’s a brief hint. The Ancient Romans weren’t involved, well not in the construction, but we’ll get to them in a minute!
Piazza San Marco, or St Mark’s Square, is the biggest public space in Venice and one of the most beautiful squares in the world. It’s often the first place visitors stop as it is overlooked by some of the most prestigious buildings in the city including the Basilica di San Marco (Basilica of St Mark’s), the Campanile (bell tower) and the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). And in fact, up until 1846, when the train station opened, St Mark’s would have been the visitor’s first view of the city as passenger ships disembarked along the busy waterfront in front of Piazzetta di San Marco, aka Little St Mark’s Square, the extension that links the grand piazza with the lagoon.
Standing in Piazza San Marco, the first building you will undoubtedly notice, as you can’t miss it, is the Basilica di San Marco, the official cathedral of Venice. Founded in 832 AD the byzantine basilica is sumptuously covered in spectacular gold mosaics, marble and carvings.
Built to a Greek-cross plan it has 5 onion-shaped domes reminiscent of Islamic design and supports 4 prancing stallions in gilded copper on its balcony. The basilica, nicknamed appropriately the chiesa d’oro, or church of gold, is stunning by any standards, and up to 1807 when it replaced the Church of San Pietro di Castello as the city’s cathedral, was originally the Doge’s private chapel! Not bad for the Doge, eh?
The horses of Saint Mark were installed on the balcony, above the main doors, in 1254 but actually date back to ancient times. Some theories suggest that they once topped the Roman Arch of Trajan as part of a sculpture depicting a four-horse chariot race. Whether that’s true or not, we can, however, prove that they were displayed atop the Hippodrome of Constantinople, later Istanbul, from at least the 8th or 9th century AD until the Venetians conquered the city in 1204 during the fourth crusades. Doge Enrico Dandolo sent them to Venice as part of the loot from the sack of Constantinople. And then Napolean looted them for France when he conquered Venice in 1797. But the majestic horses were finally returned to Venice in 1815 and have been on display at the Basilica ever since, although the originals are now inside, replaced on the balcony by copies.
If we turn anticlockwise from the basilica, you’ll notice 2 stone lions guarding a little courtyard originally named the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, the Lions Square. The square is now known as the Piazzetta Giovanni XXIII in honour of the Venetian elected Pope in 1958.
From there, to the left, you’ll see the Torre dell’Orologio, or clock tower, built in 1499 and immediately acclaimed to be the most complex astronomical clock in existence. It displays a 24-hour clock, the signs of the zodiac and, in the dark blue centre, the phases of the moon. The clock was a spectacular showpiece for the city’s wealth, glory and beauty and was positioned specifically so it would be visible to visitors landing on the waterfront. Legend also has it that the clockmakers, father and son Gian Paolo and Gian Carlo Ranieri, of Reggio Emilia, were blinded after the clock’s completion to ensure that no other city would ever have as wonderful a clock which seems extremely harsh!
From the clock tower Piazza San Marco is enclosed on three sides by colonnaded buildings constructed and reconstructed over a period of 1000 years. The first, the Procuratie Vecchie, along the long, north side including Caffé Quadri, was begun around 800 AD and later rebuilt in 1512 after a huge fire. It was the residence and offices of the Procurators of St Mark’s who, after the Doge (president), were the highest state officials of the Republic and the only civil servants elected for life. They were guardians of the basilica and administrators of the enormous sums of money given by the city’s nobles to St Mark’s so had an extremely prestigious position in society.
The ground floor of the arcade houses shops and cafes including the Caffé Quadri, opened in 1775 and considered one of the two most elegant cafes in Venice. Caffé Florian, on the opposite side of the square is the other. Quadri has a typical Venetian style and, during the summer, has a quintet of musicians playing on a small platform outside. But beware, prices, even for a small bottle of water, are extremely high so unless you’ve recently won the lottery or inherited one of those mythical estates from a long-lost millionaire uncle, always check the menu prices before ordering!
Turning left again, the arcade continues along the short, west end of the piazza, rebuilt by Napoleon in 1810 and known as the Ala Napoleonica (Napoleonic Wing). Behind the shops is a large, ceremonial stone staircase leading to the entrance of the Museo Correr, or Correr Museum, originally used as a royal palace by the French and later Austrian, courts during their occupation of the city.
The piazza’s colonnade continues round onto the southern wing, known as the Procuratie Nuove, partially built between 1582 and 1586 and finally completed by Baldassare Longhena, designer of the Basilica of the Madonna of the Salute, in 1640.
Caffè Florian, opened in the arcade below in 1720 and is the oldest café in town. It’s also a contender for the oldest coffee house in continuous operation in Italy coming up for its 300th anniversary in 4 years! Its mirrored rooms and painted ceilings originally operated under the name Caffè alla Venezia trionfante (Café of the Triumphant Venice) but were later named after its founder Floriano Francesconi. The caffè became a meeting point for artists and playwrights including Venetian comedy writer Carlo Goldoni, the German Goethe, Charles Dickens, Lord Byron and the legendary Giacomo Casanova, no doubt attracted by the fact that Florian’s was the only coffee house that allowed women in. And much like Caffè Quadri, Florian’s is expensive as you pay for the view, the legend and the music, so beware!
The final building within Piazza San Marco itself is the free-standing campanile or bell-tower for the basilica. Originally built in 1156, it had to be completely rebuilt in 1912 after it collapsed in 1902. The current structure used as much of the old building as possible to rebuild it exactly “com’era, dov’era”, as it was, where it was. And tickets can be bought to go to the top of the campanile – on a fine day you can see out across the city’s rooftops to the lagoon and beyond! Oh and don’t worry, there’s a lift!!
And finally, in front of the basilica are 3 flag poles – one for the Venetian Marciana flag, one for the Italian flag and one for the European flag as citizens consider themselves to be Venetian first, Italian second and European third.
The Piazzetta San Marco, leads from Piazza San Marco down to the waterfront or Molo, passing between the magnificent pink brick gothic Palazzo Ducale and the colonaded Biblioteca Marciana or Marciana Library finished in 1591.
The Doge’s Palace was originally founded in 810 AD but the current building is a mixture of phases constructed and reconstructed by various Doge’s after at least 3 devastating fires.
The piazzatta and piazza are barely above sea-level and often succumb to aqua alta or high water flooding.
And, finally, on the Molo we find the last 2 things of interest, 2 granite columns erected in 1268. One is topped by patron saint Saint Theodore and a dragon, the other with the winged lion symbol of Venice. And unless you want to look like a tourist, never walk between these columns as executions took place here and it’s therefore considered bad luck! And how!
So there you go! A brief, potted guide to Piazza San Marco, home of the Doge’s palace, Venice’s cathedral and hundreds of pigeons! It’s so beautiful that film directors such as Woody Allen and Paolo Sorrentino use it for a backdrop to their films! Oh and by the way, there are no other piazze (plural of piazza) in Venice as all other squares are known as campi (single campo) literally meaning fields, so if you get lost, you just need to ask a local for directions to the Piazza and they’ll point you to Piazza San Marco! And as for those Ancient Romans, well they may have contributed the 4 horses atop the basilica but that’s about it! So next time you’re walking through Venice, just remember that, although they were responsible for some of the most iconic buildings in the world including the Pantheon and the Colosseum, the Ancient Romans did not build Piazza San Marco in Venice!!
Venice Tourist Office – for more information click here
Basilica di San Marco – for more information click here
Palazzo Ducale – for more information click here
Museo Correr – for more information click here
Caffè Florian – for more information click here
Caffè Quadri – for more information click here
Clock tower – for more information click here
Biblioteca Marciana – for more information (in Italian) click here
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