The most glittering of all the world's belvederes, the most suggestive of great occasion and lofty circumstance.... Jan Morris, The Venetian Empire
The Piazzetta San Marco is Venice’s traditional foyer, where visitors from overseas would disembark at the Molo under the sleepless eye of the state bureaucracy. A few hundred years ago, one section of it was reserved for patricians, politicking in their trailing robes. This was known as the Broglio (or ‘kitchen garden’), for it once grew the turnips for the nuns at San Zaccaria.
Long before modern politicians had smoke-filled rooms, the Venetians had their Broglio for making deals, and for soliciting votes whenever an election was up; a number of visitors remarked on the quaint sight of a grand patrician from one of the oldest families, bowing so low to kiss the edge of an elector’s sleeve that his neck stole scraped the ground. The very Byzantine intrigues, entanglements and machinations that went on here, some say, gave Italian and then English the word imbroglio.
The Piazzetta holds one of Venice’s oldest symbols: the Two Columns. Take a look at these first thing in the morning, before the forests of tourists plant themselves on the steps and hide their curious medieval carvings. It’s hard to tell what many of these once were, so eroded have they become from centuries of weather and bottoms, though superstitious Venetians never sit here, or walk between the columns.
These granite pillars were part of the loot the Venetians picked up at Tyre in 1170. Originally there were three, but such was the difficulty in unloading them that one went overboard into the Bacino di San Marco and still keeps the fish company there.
Even thornier was the problem of getting them to stand upright, and during the reign of the ‘architect doge’ Ziani, the proclamation went out that whoever succeeded would be granted any grazia onesta. No one could until a Lombard named Nicolo Barattieri managed the feat with wet ropes (a story suspiciously similar to the 16th-century tale of the raising of the Vatican obelisk in Rome) and asked, as his reward, for permission to set up gambling tables between the two columns, thus making the area Venice’s first casino.
This idea too was about half a millennium ahead of its time and it scandalized the government; the last thing they wanted in their municipal parlour was a gambling den. Unable to renege on the grazia onesta, the artful doge decreed at the same time that all public executions should henceforth take place ‘between the two red columns’ (though one is really grey), and the heads of criminals be put on display there – which, as had been suspected, succeeded in driving away so many potential gamblers that Barattieri’s games were soon run out of business.
Most unfortunates were hanged or decapitated; on one memorable occasion in 1405, however, the Venetians woke up to find three traitors buried alive here, with only their legs sticking out of the ground.
The Venetians had not only a knack for converting their booty into self-serving symbols, but a precocious ability to create art from objets trouvés. The figure on one column is the obscure St Theodore with his crocodile or dragon, or fish. Venice’s first patron (made redundant with the arrival of St Mark’s relics, and not restored to his post until the late 13th century) was made from a Parian marble head of Mithridates of Pontus and a Roman torso, and other ancient bits, now all replaced by a copy; the original is kept in the Palazzo Ducale.
The second column’s Lion of St Mark is actually a bronze chimera from Syria or China; the Venetians simply added wings, and slid a book under its paw.
vaporetto San Marco
Images by: Nicolai Grut, Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls