There are few city squares in the world where you can easily spend an entire day exploring, or just dawdling as the rest of world goes by dressed in funny hats. But then again, few cities have so much psychologically concentrated in one place.
The waterfront is Venice’s front door to the Lagoon and the sea, its traditional lifeline and heartline; around the rim stand not only the palaces of government and religion – the residence of the Doge, the mint, the state library, the prisons and place of public execution – but also St Mark’s Basilica, which is not so much a church as a compact made between Venice and God. Arrive as early as you can to avoid the armies of Babylon, or linger late, to see the piazza as a masterpiece of urban design rather than a phenomenon of natural crowd control.
Piazza San Marco is the only square dignified enough to merit the title ‘piazza’ in Venice, although this pickiness over names seems quaint now that the square has been co-opted by the rest of humanity. It isn’t merely ‘the world’s heritage’ but ‘the world’s drawing room’ (Alfred De Musset), the only one ‘worthy of having the sky for its roof’.
The Venetians themselves joined in the act after the Second World War by dedicating their only piazza to peace; all the political parties unanimously voted never to hold rallies or demonstrations here. The tourist office estimates that about half the throng milling about the square will visit nothing else in Venice, and when their heads or cameras or iPads bob incessantly in your line of vision, as they invariably do, you might reflect that the piazza has been swarming with Venetians and foreigners alike since the 12th century. The world’s nations may debate their ceasefires in New York, but to Venice and St Mark’s Square they come, as they have for the past 500 years, for delight.
Whatever sensations of déjà vu most people bring to Piazza San Marco after seeing so many pictures never last for very long. The Venetians who walk through it day in and day out never tire of its magic, in all weathers or at any hour, whether the autumn acque alte have turned it into a gigantic looking-glass (they often do, as the piazza is the lowest point in the city); or in a winter fog, when everything – the pavement, the wings of the Procuratie, the pigeons, and even the mosaics of St Mark’s – dissolve into pearly grey and white sfumato shadows; or in the summer, when it’s filled with a chattering, jaunty, fun-fair crowd from the four corners of the globe. The café orchestras grind away, swinging out old jazz tunes the way only Europeans in starched shirts and bow ties can, while the huge banners flutter and the Basilica’s golden mosaics catch the sun, and children bombard waddling pigeons with little bags of corn.
The piazza proper is flanked by two smaller squares, the Piazzetta dei Leoncini to the left of the Basilica, and the Piazzetta San Marco on the right, by the Lagoon. What regularity these spaces may appear to possess is dispelled by a single glance at the plan: the piazza is Italy’s biggest trapezoid, 180 yards long and 60 yards wide before the Ala Napoleonica, 85 yards in front of St Mark’s.
The square took a thousand years to evolve into this interesting shape, beginning in the 9th century, when the seat of government was moved to Rivo Alto from Malamocco, and the seaward islet of Morso used to support a new castle for the doge and a lighthouse (site of the Campanile). The islet already had two churches, San Theodore and San Geminiano, built by Justinian’s great general, the eunuch Narses, in the 550s in gratitude for Venice’s support of Byzantium against Totila and the Goths. But most of Morso in the 9th century was planted with the vegetable gardens and orchards of San Zaccaria convent, and when the abbess donated these to the doge in 829 (when the first chapel of St Mark’s was built) the piazza was born.
The square attained its current dimensions in the second half of the 12th century, thanks to the vision of the fabulously wealthy ‘architect doge’ Sebastiano Ziani, who filled in the canal that once traversed it, demolished Narses’ church of San Geminiano, and transformed what had been a crenellated wall into porticoes for the Procurators of St Mark (now the Procuratie Vecchie).
The piazza that evolved from the doge’s foresight so pleased the Republic that later doges were forbidden to order even the least tinkering without the consent of the Maggior Consiglio. As the only open space of any size in the city, the piazza quickly became the centre of Venetian social life, of religious processions and the great Sensa fair, and of the triumphs of newly elected doges, who would be carried around the piazza on the shoulders of the Arsenale workers, tossing out handfuls of gold to the people.
Inter-city sports and neighbourhood rivalries filled the piazza with crowds to watch death-defying feats like the human towers called ‘the forze of Hercules’, or ‘the Turkish tightrope’ where daredevils walked down a wire stretched from the top of the Campanile to a boat halfway to San Giorgio Maggiore, or the ghastly Renaissance sport of binding a cat to a post to see who could butt it to death with a shaven head.
Jousts and tournaments were held here, one attended by Petrarch, who declared Venice ‘a nation of sailors, horsemen and beauties’. The second seems surprising, because Venetians in the saddle were a standing joke. But it is a fact that one of the bells in the Campanile was named the ‘Trotter’, warning senators that the council session was about to begin and they ought to spur their mounts to a trot, and it’s another fact that Doge Michele Steno owned a stable of 400 horses dyed saffron-yellow.
In later centuries, jousts were replaced with bullfights; the last corrida was run in 1782, in honour of the heir to the throne of Russia. A few years later Napoleon erected a Tree of Liberty here, an event that went down the average Venetian’s throat as smoothly as the Pink Floyd concert in 1989, when 200,000 rockers left a mess that took the army three days to tidy up.
Though now bull-less, the piazza holds exactly 13 lions, and roughly 40,000 pigeons, Venice’s totem bird; according to a poetic tradition, when a bird feels death approaching it flies off towards the magical East until it drops into the sea. One tale has it that 'St Mark’s doves' are descended from a pair given by an oriental potentate to relieve the melancholy of a dogaressa; another that pigeons were released each Palm Sunday from St Mark’s to re-enact Noah’s release of a dove from the Ark, and as such were holy and protected from urban poachers. In the old days, they were fed from the state granary; today selling corn to tourists in the square is said to support 19 famiies.
The birds have returned Venice’s favour with tons of droppings; ironically, pigeon-coated stones better endure the air pollution wafting over from Mestre and Marghera. Your odds of becoming a target while crossing the Piazza are 2004 to 1. Just be thankful all those winged lions stay put.
Not surprisingly, the square has appeared in nearly every film shot in Venice, including Othello (1952), Summertime (1955), Death in Venice (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), Moonraker (1979), Vampire in Venice (1986), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), The Wings of the Dove (1997), The Italian Job (2003), and Casino Royale (2006).
vaporetto San Marco
Images by: Jtesla16 , Creative Commons License, Rob Lee