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  • Writer's pictureNicola Carotenuto, MA

A Brief History of St Mark’s Square in Venice

What is St Mark’s Square?

St Mark’s Square, or Piazza San Marco in Italian, is a famous public square that served as the political centre of Venice for nearly a thousand years.

St Mark’s Square

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St Mark’s Square History

The Piazza San Marco (or St Mark’s Square) is one of the most famous landmarks of Venice, and certainly one of the most famous squares in the world. When the Venetians chose this area for one of their city’s few large squares, they certainly didn’t opt for the most obvious location. In fact, the square is battered by the waves of the lagoon and is commonly flooded. However, it’s also the strategic entrance to the city, as well as the most scenic point of Venice. The square used to host a market, and prominent foreign visitors were treated to careful guided tours of the piazza and its surrounding structures.

Called simply ‘the Piazza’ by locals (all other public squares in the city are deemed campi), St Mark’s has long been the political and spiritual heart of Venice, home to both the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, as well as all the main civic and municipal offices. Originally this site hosted nothing more than open fields, whose serenity is unimaginable today. Finally Sebastiano Ziani, doge in the 12th century, ordered the Rio Batario, a river, to be filled. As the river would have run between the two opposing wings of the Procuratie, the piazza almost doubled in size.

The L-shaped square (properly two squares, the piazza and a smaller piazetta adjacent to the water) was paved in the 12th century with herringbone bricks, later replaced by a more complex geometrical pattern, installed by Andrea Tirali in the 18th century. Near the centre stands the 100-metre Campanile (or Bell Tower), rebuilt exactly as it was after its collapse on the 14th of July 1902; the original version had stood for a thousand years. Within this towering brick structure in the 17th century, the astronomer Galileo tested his telescope; later he presented this instrument, so central to the story of European science, to Doge Leonardo Donà, his friend and supporter. At the building’s peak you’ll see a shining statue – which doubles as a weather vane – of Archangel Gabriel, while on the four sides are two allegorical figures of Venice as Justice and two of Saint Mark represented as a winged lion.

Around the corner, by the water, you’ll see two columns topped with statues of Saint Theodore, the first patron saint of Venice, with the dragon he was said to have slain (a copy, the original now in the Doge’s Palace) and another winged lion representing Saint Mark. The columns were transported from Constantinople, and according to tradition a long-lost third column fell into the lagoon. For a while they simply lay on the square, until one Nicolò Barattieri found a way to raise them to their feet, receiving in exchange permission to run a gambling facility between the two columns. Be that as it may, the columns were in fact used for executions, hence the Venetian expression eser tra Marco e Todaro (‘to be between Mark and Theodore’) to describe an unpleasant or hopeless situation.

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