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

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)

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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.

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

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

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