St. Mark’s Basilica dominates the square with its Byzantine-style onion domes and glowing mosaics. Mark Twain said it looked like “a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk.” To the right of the basilica is its 300-foot-tall Campanile. Between the basilica and the Campanile, you can catch a glimpse of the pale-pink Doge’s Palace. Lining the square are the former government offices (procuratie) that administered the Venetian empire’s vast network of trading outposts, which stretched all the way to Turkey.
The square is big, but it feels intimate with its cafés and dueling orchestras. By day, it’s great for people-watching and pigeon—chasing. By night, under lantern light, it transports you to another century, complete with its own romantic soundtrack. The piazza draws Indians in saris, English nobles in blue blazers, and Nebraskans in shorts. Napoleon called the piazza “the most beautiful drawing room in Europe.” Napoleon himself added to the intimacy by building the final wing, opposite the basilica, that encloses the square.
For architecture buffs, here are three centuries of styles, bam, side by side, uno-due-tre, for easy comparison:
1. On the left side (as you face the basilica) are the “Old” offices, built in about 1500 in solid, column-and-arch Renaissance style.
2. The “New” offices (on the right), in a High Renaissance style from a century later (c. 1600), are a little heavier and more ornate. This wing mixes arches, the three orders of columns from bottom to top—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—and statues in the Baroque style.
3. Napoleon’s wing is Neoclassical (c. 1800)--a return to simpler, more austere classical columns and arches. Napoleon’s architects tried to make his wing bridge the styles of the other two. But it turned out a little too high for one side and not enough for the other. Nice try.
Imagine this square full of water, with gondolas floating where people now sip cappuccinos. That happens every so often at very high tides (acqua alta), a reminder that Venice and the sea are intertwined. (Now that one’s sinking and the other is rising, they are more intertwined than ever.)
Venice became Europe’s richest city from its trade with northern Europeans, Ottoman Muslims, and Byzantine Christians. Here in St. Mark’s Square, the exact center of this East–West axis, we see both the luxury and the mix of Eastern and Western influences.
Watch out for pigeon speckle. The pigeons are not indigenous to Venice (they were imported by the Habsburgs) nor loved by the locals. In fact, Venetians love seagulls because they eat pigeons. In 2008, Venice outlawed the feeding of pigeons, so their days may be numbered. There are now fewer pigeons, but they’re still there. Vermin are a problem on this small island, where it’s said that each Venetian has two pigeons and four rats. (The rats stay hidden, except when high tides flood their homes.)
• The tourist information office is nearby, in the corner of Napoleon’s wing. It’s wise to confirm your sightseeing plans here and pick up the latest list of opening hours. Behind you (southwest of the piazza), you’ll find the public WC (€1.50) and a post office with a helpful stamps-only line (usually closes at 14:00).