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).
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 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...
This “Little Square” is framed by the Doge’s Palace on the left, the library on the right, and the waterfront of the lagoon. In former days, the Piazzetta was closed to the public for a few hours a day so that government -officials and bigwigs could gather in the sun to strike shady deals.
The pale-pink Doge’s Palace is the epitome of the style known as Venetian Gothic. Columns support traditional, pointed Gothic arches, but with a Venetian flair—they’re curved to a point, ornamented with a trefoil (three-leaf clover), and topped with a round medallion of a quatrefoil (four-leaf clover). The pattern is found on buildings all over Venice and on the formerly Venetian-controlled Croatian coast, but nowhere else in the world (except Las Vegas).
The two large 12th-century columns near the water were looted from Constantinople. Mark’s winged lion sits on top of one. The lion’s body (nearly 15 feet long) predates the wings and is more than 2,000 years old. The other column holds St. Theodore (battling a crocodile), the former patron saint who was replaced by Mark. I guess stabbing crocs in the back isn’t classy enough for an upwardly mobile world power. Criminals were executed by being hung from these columns in the hopes that the public could learn its lessons vicariously.
Venice was the “Bride of the Sea” because she depended on sea trading for her livelihood. This “marriage” was celebrated annually by the people. The doge, in full regalia, boarded a ritual boat (his Air Force One equivalent) here at the edge of the Piazzetta and sailed out into the lagoon. There a vow was made, and he dropped a jeweled ring into the water to seal the marriage.
In the distance, on an island across the lagoon, is one of the grandest scenes in the city, the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore. With its four tall columns as the entryway, the church, designed by the late-Renaissance architect Andrea Palla-dio, influenced future government and bank buildings around the world.
Speaking of architects, I will: Sansovino. Around 1530, Jacopo Sansovino designed the library (here in the Piazzetta) and the delicate Loggetta at the base of the Campanile; it was destroyed by the collapse of the tower in 1902 and was pieced back together as much as possible.
The Tetrarchs and the Doge’s Palace’s Seventh Column
Where the basilica meets the Doge’s Palace is the traditional entrance to the palace, decorated with four small Roman statues—the Tetrarchs. No one knows for sure who they are, but I like the legend that says they’re the scared leaders of a divided Rome during its fall—holding- their swords and each other as all hell breaks loose around them. Whatever the legend, these statues—made of precious purple porphyry stone—are symbols of power. They were looted from Constantinople and then placed here proudly as spoils of war. How old are they? They’ve guarded the palace entrance since the city first rose from the mud.
The Doge’s Palace’s seventh column (the seventh from the water) tells a story of love, romance, and tragedy in its carved capital: 1) In the first scene (the carving facing the Piazzetta), a woman on a balcony is wooed by her lover, who says, “Babe, I want you!” 2) She responds, “Why, little ol’ me?” 3) They get married. 4) Kiss. 5) Hit the sack—pretty racy for 14th-century art. 6) Nine months later, guess what? 7) The baby takes its first steps. 8) And as was all too common in the 1300s...the child dies.
The pillars along the Doge’s Palace look short—a result of the square being built up over the centuries. It’s happening again today. The stones are taken up, sand is added, and the stones are replaced, buying a little more time as the sea slowly swallows the city.
• At the waterfront in the Piazzetta, turn left and walk (east) along the water. At the top of the first bridge, look inland at...
The Bridge of Sighs
In the Doge’s Palace (on your left), the government doled out justice. On your right are the prisons. (Don’t let the palatial facade fool you—see the bars on the windows?) Prisoners sentenced in the palace crossed to the prisons by way of the covered bridge in front of you. This was called the Prisons’ Bridge until the Romantic poet Lord Byron renamed it in the 19th century. From this bridge, the convicted got their final view of sunny, joyous Venice before entering the black and dank prisons. According to the Romantic legend, they sighed. As you will, too, when you see the scaffolding.
Venice has been a major tourist center for four centuries. Anyone who’s ever come here has stood on this very spot, looking at the Bridge of Sighs. Lean on the railing leaned on by everyone from Casanova to Byron to Hemingway.
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
a palace and a prison on each hand.
I saw, from out the wave, her structures rise,
as from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand.
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
around me, and a dying glory smiles
o’er the far times, when many a subject land
looked to the Winged Lion’s marble piles,
where Venice sat in state, throned on her hundred isles!
• from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
For more details, please see Rick Steves’ Venice.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2010 Rick Steves