You may not go to Venice just to see Piazza San Marco, but it is surely one of the must-visit, if not the first place you would pay homage to with its important landmarks and being located in the heart of the waterborne city or the City of Canals. Three of the most prestigious buildings in the city are the Basilica di San Marco (Basilica of St Mark’s), the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) and the Campanile (bell tower).
In the olden days and before the advent of the train, ships docked here. So, visitors had the fortune to disembark in the busy waterfront of the smaller extension of La Piazza, aptly named Piazzetta di San Marco (Little St Mark’s Square). The experience rewarded them with a view of the piazza, a square that welcome everyone who decided to pass by, sit and schmooze. That included Napoleon Bonaparte, who called it “The Drawing Room of Europe,” and among the world’s finest at that.
Known as “La Piazza,” it is Venice’s “Times Square,” where people meet and gather for social, religious and political events after it was built in the 9th century. What makes this historical square more interesting is how it was able to stay majestic and unsullied by industrialization and technology of the past centuries and recent years.
If you’re ready to “rock and stroll” down the square, here are some facts and tips for you.
- It’s not a square! St Mark’s Square has structures that flare out to make it a trapezoid. The original square, which was laid out in the 9th century consisted earlier of a small square bordered by trees. It was laid out right in front of the original St Mark’s cathedral, which was a part of the Doge’s palace. La Piazza was later divided by a canal (Rio Batario) separating it from the palace, resulting in its current form.
- Basilica San Marco, the crowning glory of La Piazza: The top sight in the square is the official cathedral of Venice, the magnificent, Byzantine Basilica San Marco or St. Mark’s Cathedral. It is known for its western –eastern architecture featuring stunning mosaics in gold, carvings, marble and other Byzantine art, hence the nickname “Church of Gold.” Its other fabulous features are its five Islamic-looking, onion-shaped domes and the four prancing horses gilded with copper.
- Piazzetta Giovanni XXIII – the Little Piazza: This smaller piazza, known as Piazzetta dei Leoncini or the Lions Square having two stone lions guarding its courtyard, is located between the Library and the Palace of the Doge. This piazza is also called Piazzetta Giovanni XXIII in honor of the Venetian Pope. It is linked to the big square forming the spaces considered as one huge space.
- Palazzo Ducale: Just nearby is the Gothic Doges’ Palace, the one-time headquarters of the rulers of Venice built in the early part of the 15th century. It has two columns that serve as entrance to the Palace and the Piazzeta – St. Mark and St. Teodoro of Amasea – facing the waterfront/lagoon.
- The Campanile: This is the bell tower, a separate structure from the Basilica first built in the 9th century. The prominent features of the tower include a golden weather vane at the top and its five bells. These are rung for different reasons at different times during its history – to mark the noon break, end of the working day, end of a session of the council, or to announce an execution.
- Torre dell’Orologio: On the north side of the Piazza is this spectacular clock tower. It was hailed to be the most multifaceted astronomical clock in existence built in the 15th century by father and son Gian Paolo and Gian Carlo Ranieri, of Reggio Emilia. It is located on the north side of the piazza. Aside from the 24-hour clock, it also features the zodiac and the phases of the moon.
- Procuratie Vecchie and Procuratie Nuove: There are colonnade buildings enclosing the Piazza on the three sides – the Procuratie Vecchie and Procuratie Nuove. The former held the residence and the offices of the Procurators of St Mark’s, the highest state officials of the Republic next to the president. The ground floor spills into arcades and cafes. The prominent colonnade continues to the southern wing as the Procuratie Nuove housing Museo Correr (Correr Museum), and an erstwhile royal palace occupied by the French and later, by Austrians when they occupied the city.
- Caffé Quadri and Caffé Florian: The ground floor of the colonnade structure houses shops including the Caffé Quadri on one side and Caffé Florian on the opposite side. As you pay for the history/legend, view and the ambiance, the prices are extremely high. Check the prices before getting too comfortable and making an order.
- Ala Napoleonica or Napoleonic Wing. This was obviously rebuilt by Napoleon Bonaparte. This is located on the west end of la Piazza; the arcade spills to this area.
- The bane of the square: The Square is also known for its pigeons. While it rendered character and uniqueness to La Piazza, it has damaged the delicate artworks, particularly the mosaics, on St. Mark’s Basilica and its neighboring structures bordering the piazza. Numerous attempts were made in the past to drive away the pigeons, but they were futile. Today, feeding the pigeons is strictly forbidden.
Despite the enormity of the space and stunning architectures of the edifices around the square, La Piazza has maintained its intimate ambiance for centuries with its cafés and music. No wonder Napoleon called it “The Drawing Room of Europe.” By the moonlight, it magically transports you to another time replete with its own kind of musical background. During the day, it invites you to watch the comings and goings of people.
To save time and money, consider buying Select Italy’s San Marco Square Pass. This lets you visit four major attractions plus one bonus museum tour. These are valid up to three months after pick-up.