This densely built district includes many of Venice’s most famous sights and was the location of Venice’s government and from 1807 onwards the religious centre.
Attracting masses of tourists, the major attractions are clustered around Piazza San Marco and its magical waterfront overlooking the Bacino di San Marco; from where the Grand Canal lined with impressive palazzi initially sweeps west, demarcating much of the district. Moving north from the Piazza San Marco towards the Rialto are a series of busy and narrow shopping streets, known as the Mercerie. To the west of the Piazza, an often-wider thoroughfare with some wonderful squares; links the Dorsoduro district by way of the Accademia Bridge. San Marco is home to many hotels, restaurants, banks and attractive shops famous for fashionable clothes and accessories, glass, ceramics, antiques and artworks.
P iazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), the main square and heart of Venice and the only one worthy of the name piazza, was described by Napoleon as “Europe’s finest drawing room; a place to admire some of the finest examples of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance architecture and soak up the soul of the city. The political and since the 19th century the religious centre of the city; it was a place where doges were ordained, commanders received their insignias before leaving and then feted on their victorious return; with parades and celebrations.
The area was once called “morso” possibly because of its hard ground and “brolo” suggesting the land was grassy and full of trees. The Piazza originated in the 9th century as a small area in front of the original St Mark’s Basilica, on land used as an orchard belonging to the monastery of San Zaccharia close by. It was enlarged to its present size and shape in 1177, when the Rio Batario, which had bounded it to the west and a dock, which had isolated the Doge’s Palace from the square; was filled in.
The buildings and smaller squares around the Piazza are anti-clockwise from the Grand Canal; the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), the Basilica di San Marco (St Mark’s Basilica), the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, the Torre dell’Orologico (Clocktower), the Procuratie Vecchie, the Ala Napoleonica wing of the Procuraties, the Procuratie Nuove the Campanile (Belltower) with its Loggetta. Facing the Piazzetta San Marco is the Biblioteca Marciana (Library), next to which is La Zecca (the Mint), overlooking the entrance to the Grand Canal. Finally, the greenery of the Giardini Ex Reali (Royal Gardens) and Harry’s Bar (of Bellini cocktail fame), offer some light relief.
The square is actually a trapezoid that slopes down towards the Basilica. It was first paved with bricks in the late 13th century, in a herringbone fashion with bands of lighter stone running parallel to the long axis. This design can be seen in certain late Medieval and Renaissance paintings.
In 1723 to a design by Venetian Andrea Tirali, the bricks were replaced with a more complex geometrical pavement design composed of a field of dark-coloured igneous trachyte with geometrical designs executed in white Istrian stone, similar to travertine. As part of the design, the level of the Piazza was raised by approximately one meter to mitigate flooding and allow more room for internal drains to carry water to the Grand Canal. This is ideal during heavy rain, but during periods of acqua alta, it has the reverse effect; with water from the canal surging up into the square.
In 1890 the pavement was again renewed, the new work follows Tirali’s earlier design, with alterations to accommodate the recently built Ala Napoleonica wing, at the west end of the Piazza.
To the right of the Basilica, between the Doges palace and the Library, looking south on to the Basin of San Marco, is an extension to the main Piazza called the Piazzetta San Marco. It features two large granite columns, stolen from the east and erected in 1172. A third column was said to have fallen into the sea and lost. On one is of the original patron saint, St Theodore with his crocodile; the other a mystical lion-like hybrid creature called a chimera, thought to be at least 2200 years old and of eastern provenance. Constituting the official gateway to the city, it was for centuries a place of execution between the columns.
The Palazzo Ducale is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, with its pink and white patterned brick facade above two layers of arcades. It was the residence of the Doge of Venice and contained the offices and assembly halls of the various state institutions, as well as justice and courtrooms; all arranged around a central courtyard. The Palace also contains several masterpieces of Venice’s greatest painters, such as Tintoretto and Veronese.
The current palace was largely constructed from 1309 to 1424 on 9th century origins; however fires in 1574 and 1577 necessitated extensive reconstruction carried out over the centuries. On the Piazzetta side of the palace is the Porta della Carta (Paper Gate), a monumental late-Gothic gate created by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon.
To the left side are the small porphyry figures of the Tetrarchs, taken from Constantinople, during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. As the Roman Empire began the process of disintegration, Emperor Diocletian imposed a new Imperial office structure: a four co-emperor ruling plan called “The Tetrarchy“. This porphyry (purple marble) statue represents the inter-dependence of the four rulers. The missing foot of one of the figures was discovered in Istanbul in the 1960’s, where it is still on display.
Entry is through the Porta dei Frumento on the lagoon side, into the central courtyard. Opposite is the ceremonial staircase, the Scala dei Giganti, named after Sansovino’s colossal statues of Neptune and Mars, symbolising Venice’s sea and land powers respectively. Visitors use the 16th century Scala d’Oro (Golden Staircase) again by Sansovino, to access the floors above.
At the rear of the palace is the famous Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), built in 1603 and baroque in style with a double passage way to avoid communication between those coming to trial and those convicted. It connects the palace to the Prigione Nuove (New Prison), built in 1589 and complete with an exercise courtyard. Romantic notions suggested that as prisoners who were sent down crossed the bridge, they looked out of the windows and “sighed” loudly at their loss of freedom. In fact only petty criminals were kept in the New Prison, the very bad were kept in the lowest levels of the Palace itself.
The Basilica di San Marco, connected to the Doges Palace, dominates the eastern end of the St Marks’ Square. It has been the seat of the Patriarch of Venice, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, since 1807. An exquisite blend of Byzantine and Western elements, this sumptuous shrine, encapsulates the old Republic’s vision of itself as successor to Constantinople. Due to its status as a symbol of Venetian wealth and power from the 11th century onwards, the building was known by the nickname Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold).
The Basilica was begun in 832 to house the body of St Mark, stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants, four years earlier. The building was replaced in 978 and again in 1094. Over the next three centuries although the basic structure remained, the original brick facade was adorned with marble and ornamentation. Materials brought back from the east over the centuries, has been incorporated into the fabric of the building both inside and out. The original domes were covered with higher ones to give a sense of architectural balance with the Doge’s Palace adjacent to it.
Looking at the facade, five columned archways front the atrium, adorned by 13th century mosaics depicting Old Testament scenes. Above this is the Loggia dei Cavalli, a great viewpoint with its famous four bronze horses; in fact, copies as the originals are inside.
The staircase immediately to the right of the entrance leads to a small museum, the Museo Marciano; containing the original ancient quadriga (four horses abreast), known as the Cavalli di San Marco. The Horses of Saint Mark were installed on the basilica in about 1254. Cast in Rome or Greece around AD 200, they possibly once adorned the Arch of Trajan. The horses were displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople and in 1204, Doge Enrico Dandolo sent them back to Venice as part of the loot sacked from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. In 1797 they were taken to France by Napoleon, but restored back to Venice in 1815, remaining in place until the 1990’s when they were replaced by bronze replicas.
The dimly lit interior is in the form of a Greek cross, with five domes of unequal proportions. The extremely uneven floor is a twelfth century mixture of mosaic and marble in geometric patterns and animal designs; rising from this are some 500 non matching columns. Walls and domes are all covered with mosaics – some 4000 square metres of them, in a mixture of Byzantine and Gothic styles. The mosaics contains gold, bronze and a great variety of stones, each tile no larger than ¼- ½ inch across and set to glitter even in low light levels. New Testament scenes on the main domes include those from the Pentecost, Ascension and Passion with the huge Christ Pantocrator, rising above the apse. Other major interests include the Altare Maggiore (High Alter), with its canopy supported by four alabaster columns, dating from the 7th or 8th century. Behind the Alter is one of Christendom’s greatest treasures; the Pala d’Oro, a gold bejewelled screen set with 2600 pearls and precious stones. Finally, the Tresoro (Treasury), containing treasures looted from Constantinople, during the 4th Crusade in 1204.
All this adds up to create a special and memorable atmosphere.
Opposite the Basilica, is another famous landmark the Campanile di San Marco (St Mark’s Bell-tower). Originating from the 9th century, the present design with its spire and guilded angel dates from 1514. In July 1912, disaster struck and the bell-tower collapsed; fortunately causing little peripheral damage. It was quickly rebuilt to an essentially similar but lighter design, with better foundations. It is Venice’s tallest building; being 100 metres high with a lift; enabling wonderful views of the square, the city rooftops and north to the Alps. Beside it is the small Loggetta by Sansovino.
To the left as you face the Basilica, is the small Piazzetta dei Leoncini, named after two marble lions that have been here since 1722. On the Basilica side is the tomb of Daniele Manin, a descendant of a family from the Venetian Ghetto. The leader of a revolt against the Austrians and the subsequent short-lived Venetian Republic of 1848-9, the heroic Manin was re-interred here in 1866; an unparalleled honour for him and his family.
Next to this on the north side of the Piazza, is the Torre dell’ Orologio (Clock Tower), constructed as a display of Venice’s wealth and as an aid to sailors departing. The building was designed by Mauro Coducci and constructed between 1496 and 1499. It has five bays, of which the wider central bay, incorporates a two-storey gateway. Above this is large clock face, followed by a single storey tower with a depiction of a Lion of St Mark against the night sky. Finally there are two bronze figures known as the “Moors” standing on top, that ring a bell on the hour. Terraces were added to the tower by Giorgio Massari in 1755.
The clock mechanism dating from 1499 drives the main clock face, consisting of several concentric dials. The outermost dial displays the numbers 1 to 24 in Roman numerals, whilst a hand embellished with a depiction of the sun; indicates the hour. The second dial depicts the twelve signs of the zodiac, picked out, like the inner dials, in gilt on an enamel blue background. The inner dials indicate the phases of the moon and sun. The mechanism also moves a display above the clock face, where a niche with a depiction of the Madonna and Child lies between two displays: the hour in Roman numerals and the minutes (in multiples of five), in Hindu-Arabic numerals. On Epithany and through Ascension week, figures of the three kings and a trumpeting angel, pass in front of the display.
Accessed by the archway under the Clock Tower is a chain of five narrow streets, collectively known as the Mercerie; linking the Piazza with the Rialto. It’s a bizarre mix of named designer shops and kitsch; progress can by slow when it’s busy!
The Procuraties (the Procuracies) are three interconnected buildings with wonderful arcades that line three sides of the Piazza; the last of which was completed under Napoleon’s occupation to finish off the square.
The Procuratie Vecchie (Old Procuracy) on the north side and connected to the Clock Tower is the oldest. Originally built as a two-storey structure in the 12th century, to house the offices and apartments of the Procurators (state officers charged with administration of the city districts); it was rebuilt after a fire in the 16th century to a three-storey design by Codussi, in early Renaissance style. Below is the famous Caffe Quadri, favoured by the Austrian’s during their occupation. Chairs and tables spill out into the Piazza, making it a great but expensive way of watching the world pass by.
The Procuratie Nuove (New Procuracy), on the south side was begun in 1586 by Vincenzo Scamozzi in a more strictly classical or late Renaissance style and completed by Longhena in 1640; designed to afford more space to offices connected with the Procurators. It was later occupied by Napoleon as a royal palace. In the arcaded ground floor is the famous Caffe Florian, first opened in 1720, with just two rooms. Originally called the Caffe alla Venezia trionfante (the Cafe of the Triumphant Venice), it was soon changed and named after the original owner, Floriano Francesconi. The interior dates from the mid 19th century, when it had expanded to four rooms. Coffee first began to be sold commercially in Venice in 1638, after which coffee houses soon sprang up around the city. The elegant surroundings attracted many of the notables of the day including the playwright.
Goldoni, Goethe and Casanova; the latter no doubt attracted by the fact that the Caffè Florian was the only coffee house that allowed women. Later, Lord Byron, Marcel Proust and Charles Dickens were frequent visitors. It is also included as part of the Venice Biennale running since 1893, exhibiting contemporary art.
The two Procuracy buildings originally had wings on the west side of the Square, separated only by the small church of San Geminiamo. In about 1810, the wings and the church were demolished and replaced by a third building, the Ala Napoleonica, or Napoleonic Wing of the Procuracies. It was designed by Giuseppe Maria Soli in a Neoclassical manner.
The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana is also known as the Libreria Sansoviniana, is on the Piazzetta San Marco, opposite the Doge’s Palace. The first sixteen arcaded bays of this Renaissance style building were constructed during 1537 to 1553, with frescoes and decorations carried out until 1560. In 1588 after Sansovino’s death in 1570, Vinccnzo Scamozzi following Sansovino’s design, undertook the construction of an additional five bays, which brought the building down to the embankment, next to La Zecca (the Venetian Mint), again by Sansovino.
Today, the Napoleonic Wing and upper floors of the Procuratie Nuove and the adjoining Biblioteca Marciana, make up the Correr Museum complex, which includes the Museo del Risorgamenti, the Museo Archeologico and the Biblioteca Marciana.
Based originally on the 18th century collection of Teodoro Correr, it is essentially Venice’s civic museum and contains artefacts from virtually every aspect of Venetian history. It houses a fine collection of 14th to 15th paintings including those by the Bellini family and also Carpaccio’s famous “Two Venetian Noblewomen”. There is also Antonio Canova’s (1757-1822) sculptures, a naval section with globes of the old world and clothing, including the fascinating stilt like platform shoes worn by 15th century courtesans. The Museo del Risorgimento, illustrates the history of Venice from the 19th century onwards, whilst the Museo Archeologico contains a core collection of Greek and Roman sculpture, bequeathed by Cardinal Grimaldi in 1523. Finally the Biblioteca Marciana contains stunning state rooms displaying manuscripts and early books, under ceilings of fine allegorical Mannerist painting.
The Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore lies in St Mark’s Basin, opposite the Doge’s Palace and just to the east of the Guidecca. Its fine Neoclassical Palladian church of San Giorgio Maggiore with magnificent marble facade and campanile provides one of the great views of Venice’s skyline. The original church was founded in 790, followed by an adjoining Benedictine monastery in 982; but both were unfortunately both destroyed by an earthquake in 1223. The monastery was rebuilt in 1443, being replaced in 1641 to a design by Baldassare Longhena. Around 1565, work began on a new church by the great Vicenzan architect, Andrea Palladio (1508-80); featuring a majestic four-columned portico. This was his first complete church design, successfully solving the problems of combining classical forms into a contemporary building.
The sparse interior space reflects the facade design and is luminous with white walls, lit by high windows. The Venetians were the first to use white stucco for church interiors. Artworks include paintings by Tintoretto and Bassano, with a superb carved wooden choir behind the alter. A lift to the top of its campanile provides arguably, Venice’s finest viewpoint.
In 1806, the Benedictine Order was suppressed and the monastery was used as workshops and later as barracks for the Austrian army of occupation. The island also became a free port with a new harbour built in 1812. In 1951 Vittorio Cini, established the Fondazione Giorgio Cini; an arts centre in memory of his son and renowned for its library. It is also home to the Teatro Verde open-air theatre.
In the centre of the district close to Campo Manin and northwest of the Piazza, is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo; a late Gothic building with a romantic arcaded staircase, the Scala del Bovolo (bovolo – snail shell). This tall and graceful spiral staircase, linked to loggias of brick and smooth white stone, can be viewed behind a small garden enclosed by fine wrought ironwork. It is open to the public and has a gallery and at the top a viewing terrace.
Just to the west of Piazza San Marco is the Church of San Moisè, dedicated to Moses and with a fine elaborate Baroque facade, covered in carvings. Like the Byzantines, the Venetians tended to canonise Old Testament prophets. It also honours Moisè Venier, who funded its rebuilding in the 9th century. The interior is dominated by a huge altarpiece; “Mount Sinai with Moses receiving the Tablets”, by Heinrich Meyring, to whom some of the facade sculptures are attributed.
Continuing west to the Campo San Fantin, is the Teatro “La Fenice” (the Phoenix Theatre); aptly named as it has been burned down and rebuilt several times. Completed in 1792 the opera house quickly gained a European reputation, featuring works by Rossini, Bellini (two works premiered) and Donizetti. In 1836 it was burnt down, reopening quickly a year later. From 1844 onwards, saw a long association with Guiseppi Verdi, with the premieres of Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra. In 1930, the Venice Biennale initiated the First International Festival of Contemporary Music, which brought such composers as Stravinsky and Britten to the theatre.
Disaster struck again in 1996, when it was totally destroyed by fire. Reconstruction to an 18th century design was started in 2001 assisted by old photographs; at a cost of some Euro 90 million. The inaugural concert took place in December 2003.
Southwest from the theatre is the church of Santa Maria del Giglio (St Mary of the Lily), more commonly known as Santa Maria Zobenigo, after the Jubanico family who founded it in the 9th century. It was rebuilt by Giuseppe Sardi in 1681, under the patronage of the Barbaro family and is considered to have one of the finest Venetian Baroque facades in Venice. Artworks include paintings by Tintoretto and the Flemish Rubens.
Finally, at the southwest corner of the district is the long Campo Santo Stefano, a gateway to the Dorsoduro district via the Accademia Bridge. A popular place for relaxing, it was the venue for Venice’s bull fighting until 1802, when fatal injuries curtailed the spectacle.
At the northern end of the campo is the Augustian Church of San Stefano (St Stephen). It was founded in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 14th century and altered again early in the 15th century; when the fine Gothic doorway and ship’s keel roof were added. The tall interior is also Gothic and has three apses. Artworks include those by Canova, Tintoretto, Vivarini and the Lombardo family.