The original Campanile (cam-pah-NEE-lay), or bell tower, was a lighthouse and a marvel of 10th-century architecture until the 20th century (1902), when it toppled into the center of the piazza. It had groaned ominously the night before, sending people scurrying from the cafés. The next morning...crash! The golden angel on top landed right at the basilica’s front door, standing up.
The Campanile was rebuilt 10 years later complete with its golden angel, which always faces the breeze. You can ride a lift to the top for the best view of Venice. It’s crowded at peak times, but well worth it.
You may see construction work around the Campanile’s base. Hoping to prevent a repeat of the 1902 collapse, they’ve wrapped the underground foundations with a titanium girdle to shore up a crack that appeared in 1939.
Because St. Mark’s Square is the first place in town to start flooding, there are tide gauges at the outside base of the Campanile (near the exit, facing St. Mark’s Square) that show the current sea level (livello marea). Find the stone plaque (near the exit door) that commemorates the high-water 77-inch level from the disastrous floods of 1966. In December 2008, Venice suffered another terrible high tide, cresting at 61 inches.
If the tide is mild (around 20 inches), the water merely seeps up through the drains. But when there’s a strong tide (around 40 inches), it looks like someone’s turned on a faucet down below. The water bubbles upward and flows like a river to the lowest points in the square, which can be covered with a few inches of water in an hour or so. When the water level rises one meter above mean sea level, a warning siren sounds, and it repeats if a serious flood is imminent.
Many doorways have three-foot-high wooden or metal barriers to block the high water (acqua alta), but the seawater still seeps in through floors and drains, rendering the barriers nearly useless.
You might see stacked wooden benches in the square; during floods, the benches are placed end-to-end to create elevated sidewalks. If you think the square is crowded now, when it’s flooded it turns into total gridlock, as all the people normally sharing the whole square jostle for space on these narrow wooden walkways.
In 2006, the pavement around St. Mark’s Square was taken up, and the entire height of the square was raised by adding a layer of sand, and then replacing the stones. If the columns along the ground floor of the Doge’s Palace look stubby, it’s because this process has been carried out many times over the centuries.
• The small square between the basilica and the water is...