Piazza San Marco, Venice – the drawing room of Europe

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.

To San Marco

To San Marco

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?!

Piazza San Marco, viewed from the Museo Correr

Piazza San Marco, viewed from the Museo Correr

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!

An aerial view of Piazza San Marco from the lagoon

An aerial view of Piazza San Marco from the lagoon

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.

Detail of the golden mosaic above one of the three doors into the Basilica San Marco

Detail of the golden mosaic above one of the three doors into the Basilica San Marco

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.

Detail of one of the 5 onion shaped domes of the Basilica di San Marco

Detail of one of the 5 onion shaped domes of the Basilica di San Marco

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?

Detail of the golden mosaics that cover the walls and domes of the Basilica di San Marco

Detail of the golden mosaics that cover the walls and domes of the Basilica di San Marco

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.

The horses of San Marco

The horses of San Marco

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.

The Clock Tower

The Clock Tower

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!

Detail of the gilded Clock Tower face

Detail of the gilded Clock Tower face

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.

Caffè Quadri

Caffè Quadri

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!

Piazza San Marco looking towards the Ala Napoletano wing on the left

Piazza San Marco looking towards the Ala Napoleonica wing on the left

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.

Royal court room in the Ala Napoletonica

Royal court room in the Ala Napoletonica

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.

Procuratie Nuovo, along the southern face of Piazza San Marco

The Procuratie Nuove, along the southern face of Piazza San Marco

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!

Caffeè Florian, Piazza San Marco

Caffeè Florian, Piazza San Marco

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!!

The Campanile, bell tower, of the Basilica of St Mark

The Campanile, bell tower, of the Basilica of St Mark

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 pink-brick gothic Doge's Palace

The pink-brick gothic Doge’s Palace

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.

Detail of the arcade under the Biblioteca Marciana

Detail of the arcade under the Biblioteca Marciana

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.

Piazzetta di San Marco looking down to 2 granite columns on the Molo waterfront

Piazzetta di San Marco looking down to 2 granite columns on the Molo waterfront

The piazzatta and piazza are barely above sea-level and often succumb to aqua alta or high water flooding.

Piazza San Marco at acqua alta

Piazza San Marco at acqua alta

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!

Saint Theodore and his dragon

Saint Theodore and his dragon

The winged lion of Venice

The winged lion of Venice

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!!

Michael Caine filming in Piazza San Marco, summer 2014

Michael Caine filming in Piazza San Marco, summer 2014

Useful information

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

Celebrating the opening ceremony to the National Paralympic Games 2014 in Piazza San Marco

Celebrating the opening ceremony for the Italian Special Olympics Games 2014 in Piazza San Marco

Overheard

#WeekendWanderlust

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15 Responses to Piazza San Marco, Venice – the drawing room of Europe

  1. Yvonne says:

    That was an excellent overview, thank you!

    My favourite question from tourists was asked on the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge. The two young Asian lasses had two landmarks on their radar “Where is the church? Where is McDonalds?” I assumed “the church” might be San Marco and directed them accordingly. But who knows, maybe they were looking for San Giacometto!

    • lizbert1 says:

      Oh dear!! How sad that they just wanted the church and McD, there’s soooooooo much more to Venice! One of my other favourite snippets overheard this summer came from 2 young backpackers standing on one of the water bus pontoons waiting for the ferry – “Do you think the houses sway about as much as this?” Umm, you mean the brick and stone houses? That weigh tonnes? You think they float…….??? #sigh#

  2. Snoskred says:

    Hey there, I found you via the NaBloPoMo blogroll.

    As part of NaBloPoMo I try to comment on as many participating blogs as I can, and I am also adding participating blogs to my feed reader. So I’m just dropping by to let you know I’ve added your blog to my feedreader, whenever you publish a post I will see it. 🙂

    I have created three bundles on Inoreader so that bloggers can easily visit other participating NaBloPoMo bloggers which you can find here –

    http://www.snoskred.org/2014/11/nablopomo-bundles-final-edition.html

    Your blog is in the second bundle.. I also have a link up going at my place so my readers can find participating blogs which you are more than welcome to add your blog link to.

    Looking forward to seeing your posts. You may see me drop by again during November, but it might be December before I finish my first drop by to blogs if I don’t get faster at leaving comments. 🙂

    Happy NaBloPoMo to you!
    Snoskred
    http://www.snoskred.org

    • lizbert1 says:

      Wow!!! Thank you so much for including me!! I’ve found NaBloPoMo quite hard going at times but I’m glad I gave it a go as it has definitely helped me to formulate my ideas better!!
      How’s the month been for you? Busy busy busy I’m guessing!! Keep up the great work!

  3. Francis says:

    A great account – makes me want to catch the next train to Venice!

  4. Fishink says:

    Top blog misses S. I like the saint and crocodile statue, I wonder how often crocs get depicted in stone ?

    • lizbert1 says:

      Thanks mister M! Mind you, that crocodile is supposed to be a dragon and if you see it close up, it does have a dragon’s head…..it still looks like a crocodile to me though!!!

  5. suggs69 says:

    Do you get rich by inheriting a mythical estate? I also like the dragon/croc

    • lizbert1 says:

      Its a figure of speech Suggs – many people wish for a long-lost rich uncle to leave them everything, but how often does it ever happen? Hence my designating it “mythical.”

      • suggs69 says:

        I meant you cannot buy expensive (or cheap) bottles of water with mythical things. I thought it was a funny combination of figure of speeches

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