Venice Explorer: St. Mark’s Piazza

We’re continuing our Venetian tour with a trip St. Mark’s Square or as the Italian’s say ‘The Piazza San Marco.

Arguably the heartbeat of Venice, The Piazza is helmed by the glorious St. Mark’s Basilica on one end and lined with intricately designed Venetian archictecture spanning over 1000 years of history.

Napoleon, who unfortunately took control of Venice in 1797 during his conquest of Europe, is said to have called The Piazza “The Drawing Room of Europe…”

In truth for centuries this was one of the most important political, economic and cultural sites in Europe. Today it is one of the most beautiful and historic sites in Europe, drawing visitors from all corners of the earth to enjoy a day in this serene and noble place.

The Piazza and neighboring piazzetta’s (little piazzas) that connect St. Marks and adjoining neighborhoods is so jam packed with history, architectural ingenuity and unrivaled beauty that one blog post can only scratch the surface.

In today’s adventure we’ll feature ‘The Piazza’ walking tour highlights, as well as fun facts about this extraordinary place.

  • St. Mark’s Square is one of the lowest spots in Venice and one of the first sites to flood in the city. Venice has a unique water filtration system (MOISES) to deal with flooding, but if the water levels aren’t high enough you’ll just have to navigate the ‘Acqua Alta’ or High Water.
    • There are boardwalks in St. Mark’s so you don’t have to get drenched…or you can wear a pair of rainboots (Wellies) and blissfully enjoy your morning stroll in the water
    • Usually the waters recede by lunch time. Venetians go with the flow.
Acqua Alta in January – St. Mark’s Piazza (tables are set up for lunch either way)

Our Tour:

The enclosed Piazza is over two acres wide.

  • Fun fact: St. Mark’s Piazza and adjoining piazzettas is the only Piazza in Venice. Similar enclosed public squares are called Campi (Field)

The Piazza is dominated on the east end by St. Mark’s Basilica. The Piazza is flanked by historic government office buildings, Clock Tower, a museum, cafes and The Campanile (Bell Tower).

  • The Doge’s Palace (Ducal Palace is attached to St. Mark’s as well.

It start’s with St. Mark’s…

  • St. Mark’s Basilica is a jewel of Byzantine and Romansque Gothic that inspires the spirit with it’s intricate mosaics. St. Mark’s is the burial place of several saints, including it’s namesake St. Mark.
  • The basilica is still an active parish and you can participate in the Mass…
  • Tours of the basilica run most days…for information click here to visit the official site. There are also private tour guides that offer ‘skip the line’ tickets and tours. I recommend City of Wonders based on experience, but I would recommend researching different options
  • Stay tuned to American Nomad as we’ll be taking an in depth tour of St. Mark’s Basilica soon.

There are several ways to The Piazza – via water or land. Many enter the square near the clock tower or by the Correr Museum, which used to be the location of the resplendent San Geminiano Church. This church faced the opposite end of St. Mark’s Basilica on The Piazza and was considered one of the prettiest churches in Venice until Napoleon demolished it in 1807.

While Napoleon did not spend much time in Venice, he did expect to have opulent royal quarters during his time in the city. The church was destroyed to build royal lodging for Napoleon. Royal architect (an Italian) Giovanni Antoli designed the current Napoleonic structure – which now houses a wonderful museum – The Correr Museum.

  • History, Venice was an independent republic for 1100 years before Napoleon put an end to Venetian self-rule in 1797. Venice was eventually under The Austrian Hapsburg Empire for some time, which most Venetians detested.

Stop One:

  • Correr Museum: A treasure trove of Venetian art and history. I’ve listed highlights below:
    • Canova Rooms – dedicated to famed Neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova, who was the son of a Venetian stonemason. He was a master of the sentimental and ornate Rococo style of the late 1700s. He worked in Rome and throughout Europe. He was a court sculptor in Paris for Napoleon
    • The Government Offices
    • Artwork by Venetian masters like Tintorello, Bellini and Carpacchio
      • I was blessed to see a Carpacchio exhibit in DC with some of his paintings from Venice
    • Exhibits about Venice and the sea
    • To plan your visit click here

Stop Two: The Old Offices

  • Facing St. Mark’s as you step out of The Correr Museum, on the left you’ll see an ornate line of Renaissance column-and-arch style buildings. Known as the Procuratie Vecchio, these offices were constructed by the procurators of Saint Mark, the second-highest dignitaries in the Republic of Venice. The buildings were closed to the public for 500 years as they were used for government business. The space is being converted into a public area for exhibitions.

Stop Three: The New Offices

Towards your right you’ll see the 15th century (1600) High Renaissance style of offices that are a little heavier and ornate. Here you’ll notice three times of columns: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian

  • This section is home to one of the most popular and historic coffee shops in Venice…Cafe Florian.
  • Cafe Florian served its first cup of coffee in 1720 and has been a mainstay since. Authors like Lord Byron and Charles Dickens frequented the cafe…After Napoleon’s conquest of Venice and subsquent Hapsburg rule, Cafe Florian remained anti-Austrian. It’s rival coffeeshops are located across the square. We’ll tour these cafes in detail in a future #destinationcoffee post

Stop Four: The Campanile – Bell Tower

  • At over 300 feet, it is the tallest building in Venice. This Campanile is actually a copy of the original, but is so well done you wouldn’t notice the difference.
  • The original Campanile was completed in 902 after a series of raids threatened the city. Almost every Medieval European city has a Belltower – used to warn of attack and also to remind people to get to church.
  • The original structure stood until it cracked and crumbled into rubble in 1902.
  • At this point many citizens contemplated modernizing Venice and moving away from the history, but fortunately they decided to rebuild a replica.
  • You can wait in line to take an elevator to the top for stunning views of Venice

Stop Five: The Sansovino Loggia

  • The balcony at the foot of the Campanile was designed by Jacopo Sansovino in the 1500s. Built betweent 1537-1549 to Sansovino’s plan, in 1569 it was altered slightly to be a sentry post for dockyard workers during the sessions of the Upper Council
  • Includes three great arches and composite order columns inspired by classical inspiration
  • Learn more here.

In the reconstruction of the Balcony in 1912, together with the Campanile, the original architectonic and decorative material was used as much as possible, but giving the greater dignity of marble facing to the two side facades which, since Sansovino’s day, had remained in plain brick.

Stop Six: Torre dell’Orologio – The Clock Tower

  • During the Renaissance a clock tower was a bragging right of all major cities. Venice wanted the best. They built the first ‘digital clock,’ with the time changing every few seconds.
  • Two bronze ‘Moors’ stand atop the Clock Tower. They were originally built in 1499 to look like Caucasian giants, but their metal darkened over the centuries.
  • At the top of every hour The Moors swing their giant clappers
  • The winged lion, symbolizing St. Mark and the city looks down over the city as a protector. He opens a book that reads “Pax Tibi Marce” or “Peace to you, Mark.”
    • Originally a Doge (Constitutional Monarch – elected) was kneeling before Mark, but Napoleon removed the statue
    • Doges are always seen kneeling as a sign of humility of service
  • Why St. Mark? The legend is that St. Mark stopped in Venice while in Itlay and was caught in a storm. An angel comforted him as St. Mark sought refuge on The Venetian Islands. This is apocryphal (not in scripture) but it is a cool story. St. Mark truly guards the city from St. Mark’s Basilica where he was ‘reburied’ from his original resting place in Alexandria Egypt
  • The clock comes to life twice a year, when the dials disappear when Three Magi and an Angel emerge on the Feast of the Navitity and the Ascension
  • The Blessed Mother is also on the Clock Tower

Underneath The Clock Tower is one of the entrances into the heart of Venice – ‘The haberdashery.’ This narrow street has lots of restaurants and shops.

facade of medieval st marks clocktower
Photo by ArtHouse Studio on

Stop Seven: Piazzetta (Little Piazza) and Doge’s Palace

We’ll be visiting The Doge’s Palace in an upcoming blog but here are a few facts.

  • This mini piazza connecting Saint Mark’s Basilica and The Doge’s Palace used to be closed several hours a day for ‘business’ and government dealings
  • The Doge’s Palace is an ornately decorated building that is the epitome of Venetian Gothic.

Stop Eight: The Bridge of Sighs

As beautiful as this bridge may appear (and it is often copied in other cities), this was actually a ‘death trap’

  • This was known as ‘The Prison’s Bridge’ until Lord Byron renamed it in the 19th-century
  • The bridge was the last view of sunlight and the outside world prisoners got to see before they entered the dank, dark prisons. According to legend they’d ‘sigh’
the bridge of sighs in venice italy
Photo by Anca Dorneanu on

Stop Nine: The Flagpoles

We’ll end our journey in front of St. Mark’s by the iconic flagpoles, which date to 1505 and were designed by Leopardi. These flag poles represent the three pillars of mercantile of ‘Strato da Mar.’

Venetian master painter Canaletto’s depiction of the three poles – this painting is public domain and found at The National Gallery in Washington
  • The French wanted to destroy the flags, but a quick thinking Venetian convinced The French the poles represented French Revolutionary ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality

Next time we’ll enjoy a #destinationcoffee break and then tour otherworldly St. Mark’s Basilica.

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