St Mark’s Campanile (It: Campanile di San Marco), is the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica. It is the tallest structure in Venice and one of the most recognisable symbols of the city.
From the belfry loggia, there is a spectacular 360-degree bird’s eye view of the city and the lagoon. The view north to the plain of Venetia and its mountain backdrop; is particularly fine.
Against the base of the campanile, is the balcony built by Jacopo Sansovino between 1537 and 1549 and decorated with fine marble and bronzes.
Below: Evening light over St Mark’s Square, dominated by the Campanile.
History and Development of the Campanile
Located in Saint Mark’s Square, Venice’s former centre of government; the campanile was initially built as a defensive watch tower, to sight approaching ships and protect entry to the city. It also served as a landmark to guide Venetian ships safely into harbour.
Venice remained vulnerable to invasion, by way of the deep navigable channel that allowed access to the harbour from the sea. In particular, the young city was threatened by the Slavic pirates, who routinely menaced Venetian shipping lanes in the Adriatic.
A visit to the campanile was an attraction offered in the past to illustrious guests, though the Lords were cautious in granting permission to foreigners; for fear that they might survey the layout of the city and its ports for military purposes.
Right: View of the Campanile from the Bacino di San Marco
In the early 10th century, construction of the watch-tower began. It was slowly raised in height and acquired a belfry and a spire constructed of timber, in the 12th century,
Early fortifications included a Doge’s castle (on the site of the current palace), a wall along the San Marco waterfront and an iron chain that could be pulled taut across the entrance to the Grand Canal.
In the 14th century the spire was gilded, making the tower visible to distant ships in the Adriatic.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, the belfries and spires of the campanile suffered damage on numerous occasions; mostly due to lightning strikes on the top wooden structures, but also due to wind and weather damage.
Left: St Mark’s Square – early 10th century diagrammatic plan, NB the Doge’s Castle.
On 11 August 1489, lightning again struck the tower during a violent storm , setting ablaze the spire which eventually crashed into the square below. The bells fell to the floor of the belfry and the masonry of the tower itself cracked. A temporary clay-tile roof was placed over the belfry and the bells that were still intact were rehung.
Left: detail from the woodcut “Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam” by Erhard Reuwich (1486), showing the bell tower after the restoration of 1405–1406.
To the Right: detail from the engraving “Veduta di Venezia” by Jacopo de’ Barbari (1500), showing the bell tower temporarily roofed after 1489.
On 26 March 1511, a violent earthquake further damaged the fragile structure and opened a long fissure in the brick work, on the northern side of the tower; making it necessary to immediately intervene. The temporary clay roof over the belfry was removed and repairs commenced.
In 1514 the campanile reached its present form, when the belfry and spire was completely rebuilt in Istrian stone.
Galileo used the campanile as an observatory to study the skies and it was there in 1609 that he demonstrated his telescope to the Lords (photo left).
On 18 March 1776, the physicist Giuseppe Toaldo, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Padua, installed a lightning rod; the first in Venice.
In 1902, disaster struck again when the original collapsed; due to inherent design weaknesses in construction. Fortunately, the front of the basilica only suffered minor damage, but the Balcony was completely buried under the rubble.
Of the five original bells only the largest “Marangona” bell survived intact. Together, with the pieces of the four shattered bells which would need to be re-caste; it was transferred inside the Doge’s Palace, for safekeeping during the reconstruction of the tower.
Above: Photographs of the rubble (damage to Marciana Library) and the Campanile being rebuilt in c.1911
The Municipal Administration resolved that the Campanile should be rebuilt exactly as it had been. Construction was started in 1903 and the new campanile was finally inaugurated on St Mark’s Day in 1912. Externally the building was a faithful copy but was built, for greater safety and stability, in accordance with the more rigorous laws on construction technique.
The New Bells
Of the five bells cast by Domenico Canciani Dalla Venezia in 1820, only the largest, the “Marangona”, survived the collapse of the bell tower in 1902.
Together with the pieces of the four shattered bells, it was transferred inside the Doge’s Palace for safekeeping during the reconstruction of the tower.
Image left: Giuseppe Cherubini, “The Blessing of the Bells of Saint Mark’s” (1912)
On 14 July 1908, Pope Pius X, patriarch of Venice at the time of the bell tower’s collapse in 1902, financed the recasting of the four bells as a gift to the city. The work was carried out under the supervision of the directors of the choirs of Saint Mark’s and Saint Anthony’s in Padua, the director of the Milan Conservatory and the owner of the Fonderia Barigozzi of Milan.
The fragments of the four bells were first assembled and moulds were made to ensure the same sizes and shapes; after which the original bronze was melted down at foundry was activated near the Church of Sant’Elena. The new “Maleficio”, “Trottiera”, “Meza terza”, and “Nona” were cast on 24 April 1909, the vigil of Saint Mark’s Feast.
After two months, the bells were tuned to harmonise with the Marangona, before being transportation to Saint Mark’s Square for storage. They were formally blessed by Cardinal Aristide Cavallari, patriarch of Venice, on 15 June 1910, prior to being raised to the new belfry on 22 June.
To ring the new bells, the earlier simple rope and lever system, used to swing the wooden head-stock, was replaced with a grooved wheel around which the rope is wrapped. This improvement minimised the vibration and hence the risk of damage to the tower; whenever the bells were rung.
The present tower (photo left) is 98.6 m (323 ft) tall, free-standing in a corner of St Mark’s Square, near to and opposite the front of the Basilica. It has a simple form (of Roman concept in its severe harmony of line and proportions), the bulk of which is a fluted brick square shaft, 12 m (39 ft) wide on each side and 50 m (160 ft) tall and a series of vertically disposed small arched windows to the left of sides.
Above this is a loggia surrounding the belfry, housing five bells. The belfry is topped by a cube, alternate faces of which show the Lion of St. Mark and la Giustizia (Justice); the female representation of Venice.
The tower is capped by a pyramidal spire, at the top of which sits a golden weather-vane in the form of the archangel Gabriel.
From the belfry loggia, there is a spectacular 360-degree bird’s eye view of the city and the lagoon. The view north to the Venetia plain and its mountain backdrop, is particularly fine.
Against the base of the campanile is the balcony, originally built by Jacopo Sansovino between 1537 and 1549 and decorated with fine marble and bronzes and later rebuilt, after the devastating collapse of the Campanile in 1902.
This history of the campanile is linked to the memory of the traditional “flight of the Angel ” celebration that took place on the last Thursday before Lent. This was a balancing act, in which an acrobat descended a tightrope from the belfry to a boat in the Basin or to the loggia of the Ducal Palace where the Doge and Lords observed the spectacle. Today, it is re-enacted as part of the Venice Carnival celebrations.
In 1892, it was first proposed that an elevator be installed in the bell tower. But concerns over the stability of the structure were voiced and the project was abandoned.
At the time of the reconstruction, a temporary elevator was utilised to raise the new bells to the level of the belfry. Finally, in 1962 a permanent elevator was installed, located within the inner shaft of the tower, taking 30 seconds to reach the belfry.
Recent restoration work (2007–2012). The Campanile underwent a major building works beginning in 2007. Like many buildings in Venice, it is built on soft ground, supported by wooden piles. Due to years of winter flooding (acqua alta), the subsoil had become saturated and the campanile had begun to subside and lean. Evidence of this was seen in the increasing number of cracks in the masonry.
In order to stop the damage, a ring of titanium was built underneath the foundations of the campanile. The titanium ring will ensure that the tower subsides equally and does not lean.
The local police keeping a discrete watch over St Marks Square, Xmas 2109
The History and Function of the Bells
History. Early documentation only attested to the presence of a bell back in the 13th century. A deliberation of the Great Council dated 8 July 1244, established that the bell to convene the council; was to be rung in the evening if the council was to meet the following morning and in the early afternoon, if the meeting was scheduled for the evening of the same day.
The number of bells varied over time. In 1489, there were at least six. In the 16th century, four were present; until 1569 when a fifth was added. Beginning in 1678, a bell called the “Campanon da Candia” was brought to Venice from Crete and hung in the tower; after the island was lost to the Ottoman Turks. Unfortunately, it fell to the floor of the belfry in 1722 and was not re-suspended.
After this time, five bells remained and were named (from smallest to largest) “Maleficio” (or Preghiera), “Trottiera” (or Dietro Nona), “Meza-terza” (or Pregadi), “Nona”, and “Marangona”.
The historical accounts of the damage to the tower caused by storms, lightning and occasionally by earthquake; make reference to broken bells and an indication that the bells must have been recast at various times. But the first documented instance concerned the Trottiera, which was recast in 1731. The resulting sound was unsatisfactory and the bell needed recasting several times, before it harmonised with the older bells.
After the designation of Saint Mark’s Basilica as the cathedral of Venice in 1807, the bells, along with others from former churches; were melted down and re-caste several times into a new series of five bells, by the foundry of Domenico Canciani Dalla Venezia. Following the total collapse of the Campanile in 1902, only the Marangona survived, requiring that the broken bells were re-caste and the set harmonised.
Functions. In various combinations, the bells indicated the times of the day and coordinated activities throughout the city. Four of the bells also had specific functions in relation to the activities of the Venetian government. They were rung individually or in combination, in sets of a defined number of “series” of “individual “strokes”.
Times of the day. Bells were rung to demarcate times of day, from dawn to midnight and for rest breaks and periods of prayer. For example, bells rang with the first appearance of daylight (essentially the start of the 24-hour day) and at sunrise; which signalled the opening of the Church of Saint Mark, the loggetta at the base of the bell tower and the gates of the Jewish Ghetto. The Marangona, meaning carpenter’s bell; took its name from those working for the Arsenal.
The chart below, gives an idea of the complexity of functions, using the five bell system.
|dawn||sunrise||sunrise + 30 min||sunrise + 2 hr
|midday + 30 min||sunset
|sunset + 60 min||sunset + 84 min||sunset + 108 min||midnight|
of 18 strokes
of 18 strokes
|30 min||15 series
of 16 strokes
of 18 strokes
|30 min||15 series
of 16 strokes
|12 min||12 min||12 min||16 series
of 18 strokes
|opening of ghetto and Saint Mark’s Basilica||at termination (=sunrise + 1 hr) workday begins for government, mechanical guilds, and Arsenal||beginning of one-hour work break||at termination
(=midday + 1 hr) work break ends
|workday ends for government, mechanical guilds, and Arsenal||at termination
(=sunset + 72 min) night watch present for duty
(=sunset + 96 min) letters to Rialto
(=sunset + 2 hr) night watch begins
Convocation of the Great Council. The Marangona announced the sessions of the Great Council. A second bell the “Trotteria” (trotting of a horse), was rung at a time and sequence, to demarcate either a morning or evening session. The name of the bell originated from when horses were used in the city. It was rung a second time to ensure members “quickened the pace of their horses” to arrive at the meeting in time; as late members were excluded from entry!
Convocation of the Senate. The meetings of the Venetian Senate were announced by the Trottiera which rang for 12 minutes. It was then joined by the Meza-terza, and both bells rang together for 48 minutes. The Meza-terza was also known as the “Pregadi”, in reference to the early name of the Senate; when members were ‘prayed’ to attend.
Holy days and Events. On solemnities and certain feast days, all the bells rang in plenum. The bells rang to mark the election of the doge and the coronation of the pope. Two hundred lanterns were also arranged in four tiers at the height of the belfry, in celebration.
Bells also announced the death and funeral of the doge, for the death of the pope, the passing of cardinals and foreign ambassadors who had died in Venice, the wife and sons of the doge, the patriarch and the canons of Saint Mark’s, the procurators of Saint Mark and the Grand Chancellor (the highest ranking civil servant).
Public executions. The smallest bell, known as the Maleficio (from malus: evil or wicked), signalled public executions. Formally located in the Doge’s palace, it was moved to the campanile in 1569.
“Campanile” inspired designs worldwide
The original Campanile inspired the designs of other towers worldwide, especially in the areas belonging to the former Republic of Venice.
Almost identical, albeit smaller replicas of the campanile exist in the Slovenian town of Piran and in the Croatian town of Rovinj; both were built in the early 17th century.
The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in Manhattan (photo left):, modelled after the bell tower of Saint Mark’s. It was designed by the architectural firm of Napoleon Le Brun & Sons.
Other later replicas, include the clock tower at King Street Station in Seattle; North Toronto Station; Brisbane City Hall, Australia; the Rathaus (Town Hall) in Kiel Germany; the Daniels & Fisher Tower in Denver; the Campanile in Port Elizabeth, South Africa; Sather Tower, (nicknamed the Campanile), the University of California campus, Berkeley; 14 Wall Street and the right-hand bell-tower of St. John Gualbert in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
The Custom House Tower in Boston, MA; the Italianate-style tower at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York: the Sretenskaya church in Bogucharovo, Tula region, Russia.
Replicas of the current tower sit on the complex of The Venetian, the Venice-themed resort on the Las Vegas Strip; its sister resort The Venetian Macao; in the Italy Pavilion at Epcot; a theme park at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista; Florida and in the nearly empty New South China Mall in Dongguan, China.
Finally, others which are modelled on the Campanile in St. Mark’s Square are in Taguig in Manila, Philippines; the Venetian Towers in Barcelona, Spain and a chimney at the India Mill, Darwen in Lancashire.
Please click on the links below to see other related posts:
—-St Mark’s Campanile—–St Mark’s Campanile—–St Mark’s Campanile—–