St. Mark’s Square Walking Tour- page 2 | Rick Steves | Smithsonian
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St. Mark’s Square charms most visitors to Venice. Napoleon once called it “the most beautiful drawing room in Europe.” (Courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door)

St. Mark’s Square Walking Tour

For an overview of this grand square and the buildings that surround it, start from the west end of the square and follow along with this guide

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Now approach the basilica. If it’s hot and you’re tired, grab a shady spot at the foot of the Campanile.

St. Mark’s Basilica—Exterior

The facade is a crazy mix of East and West. There are round, Roman-style arches over the doorways, golden Byzantine mosaics, a roofline ringed with pointed French Gothic pinnacles, and Muslim-shaped onion domes (wood, covered with lead) on the roof. The brick-structure building is blanketed in marble that came from everywhere—columns from Alexandria, capitals from Sicily, and carvings from Constantinople. The columns flanking the doorways show the facade’s variety—purple, green, gray, white, yellow, some speckled, some striped horizontally, some vertically, some fluted, all topped with a variety of different capitals.

What’s amazing isn’t so much the variety as the fact that the whole thing comes together in a bizarre sort of harmony. St. Mark’s remains simply the most interesting church in Europe, a church that (paraphrasing Goethe) “can only be compared with itself.”

Facing the basilica, turn 90 degrees to the left to see...

The Clock Tower (Torre dell’Orologio)

Two bronze “Moors” (African Muslims) stand atop the Clock Tower (built originally to be giants, they only gained their ethnicity when the metal darkened over the centuries). At the top of each hour they swing their giant clappers. The clock dial shows the 24 hours, the signs of the zodiac, and, in the blue center, the phases of the moon. Above the dial is the world’s first digital clock, which changes every five minutes. The Clock Tower retains some of its original coloring of blue and gold, a reminder that, in centuries past, this city glowed with bright color.

An alert winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark and the city, looks down on the crowded square. He opens a book that reads “Pax Tibi Marce,” or “Peace to you, Mark.” As legend goes, these were the comforting words that an angel spoke to the stressed evangelist, assuring him he would find serenity during a stormy night that the saint spent here on the island. Eventually, St. Mark’s body found its final resting place inside the basilica, and now his lion symbol is everywhere. (Find four in 20 seconds. Go.)

Venice’s many lions express the city’s various mood swings through history—triumphant after a naval victory, sad when a favorite son has died, hollow-eyed after a plague, and smiling when the soccer team wins. The pair of lions squatting between the Clock Tower and basilica have probably been photographed being ridden by every Venetian child born since the dawn of cameras.

The Campanile

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About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and televsion personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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