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Saint Mark’s square
Shimmering like a jewel in the top of the royal crown surrounded by gold and other gems in the form of the most precious palaces in Venice.
It’s the most visited part of Venice and that for many reasons; It’s the only square in Venice, all the other open places are fields and it is the historical, financial, and political center of the city… Or at least it was when Venice was still a republic.
It’s also the lowest part of Venice. At high tide, already at 86 centimeters ( … That happened on 66 occasions in 2019), the part of the square in front of the Basilica starts to get flooded.
Saint Mark’s square measures 175 meters in length, and 80 meters in width at the widest part because it’s not rectangular but trapezoidal; like a rectangle with a very long triangle attached to it.
The Piazzetta and the Piazzetta dei Leoni
Going southeast towards the Doge’s Palace you arrive at the Piazzetta – Small square. From there you can admire the balcony and the red-ish columns at the Palace’s facade from where it’s said that the Doge announced the death penalties. Further out to the dock there are two high granite columns. On top of them are the statues of the patron saints of Venice, St Theodor, and the Lion of St Mark. Venetians never go between them, as this is the spot were the sentenced prisoners were decapitated. It’s just bad luck.
On the other side, there’s the even smaller Piazzetta dei Leoncini.
Saint Mark’s Square
The best time to visit is in the evening when the cruise passengers are gone… Or in the early morning when the buzzing tourist-crowds haven’t yet arrived. Just stroll along passing the many jewelry shops and caffès, but before sitting down and having a coffee, read this. Then walk back in the middle of the square. A few years ago you could buy seeds for the birds on the square. You could then let the completely domesticated pigeons eat from your hand or from other parts of your body, while friends and family took pictures.
Selling seeds in the square is now penalized.
…As is sitting down on the stairs eating takeaway. Be careful, because lately, the police are getting less tolerant.
But let’s take a look what’s on and around Saint Mark’s square:
- On the east side, there is the St Mark’s Basilica. The very first church was built at the beginning of the 9th century to house the bones of Saint Mark, stolen from Egypt at that time. The location was right next to the Palace and it was actually the chapel of the Doge and not the official cathedral of the City. The church burnt down in a rebellion 976 but was reconstructed in 978. A second reconstruction started in 1068 and through a couple of fires and subsequential restorations, the current basilica was more or less completed in the 13th century.
- Right next to the Basilica there’s the Doge’s Palace. The history of the Palace probably begins in the 9th century – with the transfer of the ducal seat to Venice – but it is only from the 14th century that the radical transformation that would bring the Doge’s Palace to its elegant current appearance began. Over the centuries, the ancient foundations have been enriched with extraordinary constructions and ornamental elements that have given it the unmistakable structure that we can all admire today.
- The Belltower. Like a candle in the birthday cake, the Belltower is the highest building in Venice with its 99 meters. It’s actually the fourth highest Bellwtower in all of Italy and in the old days no building or tower in Venice or elsewhere in the Republic could be higher than the Tower of Saint Mark’s. It was first built as a lighthouse for the ships but during the centuries it was slowly transformed into a … Yes, right, a Belltower.
In 1902, July the 14th, the Tower collapsed. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, apart from the ringer’s cat who was crushed by the masses of bricks and stones. It was rebuilt and in 1912 it reopened. What you see today is a replica of what it looked like in the 16th century.
- The Correr Palace. The far end – west end of the Square is home to Museo Correr, The Correr-museum. It’s an impressive collection of art and all kinds of artifacts made by Theodor Correr at the beginning of 1800. But even more interesting is maybe the building itself. It was the Palace for Napoleon after he conquered the City. After that, it became the Palace for the rulers of the Austrian Empire, the Empress and the very popular princess Sissi. After Venice had become a part of the Italia it again became the royal Palace, until 1919 when King Victor Emanuele III handed it over to the State for use by the Ministry of Education.
La Torre dell’ Orologio
- The Clock tower. On the northern side, close to the entrance of the Basilica there’s the Torre dell’Orologio. This extraordinary clock is in function from the second half of 1400 and it’s still working. There’s a very complex and interesting mechanism that brings out a procession of the three wise men, virgin mary and the archangel sounding a horn. On the top floor, there are two bronze figures hitting the Bell with hammers. These are commonly referred to as the Moors because of their dark color. An interesting fact is that the old moor, with the beard, strikes the two minutes before the hour, while the young one, without the beard, strikes the hour. As symbols of the time that has past and of the future.
The history of Saint Mark’s Square
And so, at last, I have to tell you a little about the history of the only square we have in Venice. And the history is this: St Mark’s square was actually a field, just like the others, a long time ago… At the beginning of the history of Venice, in the 9th century.
At that time it was much smaller and actually designated as an agricultural area. The republic needed food and what better place to grow it than right outside the Doge’s Palace? The Palace was completely surrounded by water at that time. The lagoon started immediately in front of the southern wall and between the Belltower and the Palace, there was a basin and docks for loading and unloading ships.
Soon it started to become the city’s central and representative area though, as the importance of Venice and the republic grew. And as the whole area was completely burnt to the ground in the rebellion in 976, the city immediately rebuilt it in a new and more modern style. It was still much smaller than it is today. The southern border was in line with the northern wall of the Belltower. The western border was limited by the river Batario, and instead of 175 meters, the square was probably no more than 60- 70 meters long.
The 13th century
It had to wait until the middle of the 12th century before it was amplified. Under the Doges Vitale Michiel and Sebastiano Ziani the small church of San Geminiano was moved further west to make room for the enlargement of the square (…how on earth did they move a church in those days?), the basin between the Palace and the Belltower was drained and the Piazzetta was constructed, the river Batario was closed off at Orseolo. The southern wall was moved further south so that the Belltower came to be in a more monumental position in the middle of the square. Before that, it was incorporated in the wall.
After the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, a whole lot of additional pieces were brought over from the Byzantine Empire; Saint Mark’s horses now over the front door of the Basilica, and the Tetrarchs now on the corner of the Basilica just two meters from the Palace. More important than that was the huge amount of material, marbles and other precious building stones that came in. And suddenly the Venetians could start exaggerating in building Palaces of every kind. To that came the paving in 1264. Before that, Saint Mark’s square was just earth.
The 14th century until the end of the republic
From 1300 the changes continued. Venice needed more representative and formally luxurious environments and the somewhat military style of the early square was abandoned. The Procuratie that wrap around the square on the north and south side, came in place in the 16th century. Around that time the last of the military barracks and warehouses were demolished.
In 1722 the two columns on the Piazzetta facing the sea were erected.
In 1723 the present pavement was laid, in Euganean trachyte from the hills southwest of Padova.
In 1797 the Venice surrender to the French and that was the end of the Venetian Republic. In came Napoleon and he changed quite a bit in the city, apart from robbing the most valuable pieces and bringing them to Paris. He tore down the San Gemiliano-church at the western border of the Square and refurbished the whole western wall. Today that part is referred to as the Napoleonic wing.
And now to the practical things:
The Doge’s Palace
It’s open every day from 8.30 am to 9 pm (Friday and Saturday it’s open until 11 pm.) in summer and 7 pm in winter. Tickets can be bought at the entrance or online. Price is 25 euro / 13 euro for children, elderly and others. At that price, three other museums are included.
In summer the lines can be long and it’s highly recommended to book online.
Another awesome tip is to book the Secret Itineraries Tour. For just a few euros more you get to see some very interesting corners of the Palace with a Guide, as well as all the rest.
The Basilica is open every day from 9.30 am to 5 pm (4.30 pm on Sundays).
The entrance is free of charge. In winter you can just drop in, although you have to leave your bags and luggage at a deposit in Ateneo San Basso (Piazzetta dei Leoncini – in front of the Gate of Flowers, north façade).
The lines can be very long in summer though and you should book a skip the line ticket here.
In high season there is also the possibility to take a free guided tour (…tip is always welcome). Meeting point inside the Basilica at 11 am.
Open every day from 8.30 am till 9 pm in summer, from 9.30 till 4.45 pm in winter, and hours in between in autumn and spring. The price is 8 euro / 4 euro for under 18.
In summer it can be a very good idea to book a skip-the-line-ticket here too. (… or you could just skip going up altogether, take the Vaporetto from Saint Mark’s square over to San Giorgio and go up in the Belltower there. You’ll have a better view, the lines are much shorter and it costs less.) In that case, the price is 13 euro / 9 euro
The Clock tower
The clock tower is open only for guided tours and you have to book in advance. The price is 12 euro / 7 euro for children, students and elderly, etc.
The Correr museum
Opening hours summer: 10 am – 7 pm. Winter 10.30 am – 5 pm Sunday to Thursday, 10.30 – 7 pm Friday and Saturday.
The entrance is included in the ticket for the Doge’s Palace.