Renaissance Venice – The Piazza And Piazzetta

We have already obtained some introduction to L Renaissance Venice in our examination of the Doge’s Palace, where we have seen the transitional Gothic stage in the Porta della Carta, and much developed Renaissance work in the great court-yard. In strictly chronological order, it is true, we ought next to take San Zaccaria, and the façade of the Scuola di San Marco, as examples of the rise of Renaissance architecture in Venice. For convenience sake, however, it will perhaps be best to say here the rest of what is necessary about the great group of buildings which surround the Piazza and Piazzetta. These are the real focus of Venice, old or new, and the visitor will naturally wish to know all about them before pushing his enquiries into remoter quarters.]

The Northern Side of the Piazza is formed by a long and somewhat monotonous line of uniform buildings, known as the Procuratie Vecchie. These were the official residences of the nine Procurators of St. Mark, the principal officers of the Republic after the Doge. The lower portion of the great wing thus described was erected in 1496 by Pietro Lombardo ; the upper portion was added in 1519 by Bartolommeo Buon the younger. This straight range of building, with its open arcade and continuous lines of round arches, may be regarded as highly characteristic of the simplicity and directness of the early Renalssance.

Adjacent to it is the much more ornate Clock-Tower at its east end, near St. Mark’s. This was erected in 1496, probably from designs by Antonio Rizzo, of Verona. Its arch gives access to the Merceria, the principal shopping street of Venice, which winds hence tortuously to the Rialto Bridge. Here, as late as the reign of Charles II., Evelyn, accustomed only to the small mercers of London, saw stuffs exposed for sale which astonished him by their extraordinary variety and richness. The upper floor is occupied by a great gilt clock, showing the signs of the zodiac, and with the hours numbered from I. to XXIV., in the Italian fashion. Above it is a gilt figure of Our Lady with the Child, and the gilt lion of St, Mark, on a blue starry background. On the summit stand two bronze men-at-arms, who strike the hours with their hammers—a childish wonder. The whole effect of the Clock Tower is garish and unworthy of the position.

Now, (neglecting for the moment the other sides of the square,) proceed into the Piazzetta, to examine the Libreria Vecchia, the noble building which forms its west side, worthily balancing the front of the Doge’s Palace. This triumph of Renaissance art was begun by Sansovino in 1536; it consists, below, of an open loggia ; above, of a continuous arcade with embedded columns. The parapet is adorned with numerous (inferior) statues. The caryatides at the main doorway under the arcade are by Alessandro Vittoria. Symonds justly remarks that one cannot regard this noble, light, and sumptuous building without echoing the praise of Palladio, that nothing more beautiful of its kind had been erected in Italy since the days of ancient Rome. It marks the second or triumphant stage of the Venetian Renaissance. The decorated character of the fine arcade, with its sculptured figures over the arches, and its festoons of flowers and fruit, may be well contrasted with the stern simplicity of the slightly earlier Procuratie Vecchie. Observe, too, how the idea of two more or less open ranges of arches, one above another, is directly inherited by Venetian Renaissance from Venetian Gothic and Venetian Romanesque.

Next, proceed round the corner of the Piazzetta on to the Moto or lagoon front, in order to inspect the façade of the Libreria Vecchia towards the lagoon. The building once contained the splendid library of the Republic, begun by a legacy from Petrarch, and largely added to by Cardinal Bessarion. This glorious Library, combined with the magnificent Aldine editions of the classics, serves to remind us that in the 16th century Venice was one of the capitals of learning, as well as the unrivalled capital of commerce.

To the L. of the Library on this side stands the sombre building of the Zecca, or ancient Mint, also erected by Sansovino, though in a much severer and heavier style, in 1536. The ground floor is now occupied by the P. and O. Steamship Company. The upper floors have somewhat stern windows, divided by interrupted Doric and Ionic columns, in the first and second stories respectively. The zecchino, or sequin, derives its name from this building.

This will also be a convenient time to visit the Campanile, or bell-tower of St. Mark’s, which (as usual in Italy) stands detached from the church, just opposite the Porta della Carta. The first bell-tower on this site was built in 888 ; the present Campanile was probably erected in 1329. The marble top was added in 1417 ; and this was crowned, just a century later, with a gilt Renaissance figure of an angel, 16ft. in height. In 1540 Sansovino added at its base the beautiful and much criticised little late-Renaissance portico, known as the Loggetta, which was used as a waiting-room for the nobles outside the Doge’s Palace, and later as a guard-house. It has fine bronze gates, (later, 1750) and beautiful emblematic small bronze statues, from L. to R., of Peace, Mercury, Apollo, and Pallas, by Sansovino. (Peace brings commerce, arts, and learning to Venice.) The reliefs above (by Geronimo da Ferrara) represent Venice enthroned between her lions, as Queen of the Adriatic and of the sea, with sea-gods wafting to her the wealth of the nations : at the sides, Jupiter, symbolising her dependency of Crete, and Venus, symbolising her other dependency of Cyprus. These reliefs are very characteristic of the later Venetians’ proud sense of their own maritime importance.

If I do not dwell at length upon such noble Renaissance works, it is not because they are not worthy of close attention, but because, being comparatively modern in idea and treatment, they need little explanation. They are Mythological, not Christian, embodying frankly pagan ideas.

[The Campanile is ascended, not by a staircase, but by a continuous winding inclined plane, easy to mount, and tolerably well-lighted, though sadly malodorous. Admission 15 c. per person ; always open. I advise you only to ascend it after you have seen all Venice, when you will be able to recognise the various churches or palaces, and so derive more pleasure from the view from the summit, The buildings of the city are well seen, but none of the canals. The outlook from the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore, how-ever, is still finer and more characteristic, and the ascent is much cleaner.]

From the Campanile you may proceed to observe the three great flagstaffs which stand in the Piazza in front of St. Mark’s, and from which once floated the standards of the three great Dependencies of Venice—Cyprus, Crete, and the Morea, now replaced by that of the kingdom of Italy. (On festa days the crimson flag of St. Mark’s, with the winged lion in gold, and the frayed edges, which flaps from the flagstaff of the Basilica itself, contrasts well with the crude and gaudy modern hues of the Italian tricolour.) The *bronze bases of these flagstaffs are splendid specimens of Renaissance casting, by Alessandro Leopardi, the sculptor of the great statue of Colleoni which we shall see hereafter. They were erected (1505) under the Dogeship of Leonardo Loredan, as their inscription states. The central base has exquisite medallions with the Doge’s profile, obviously taken from the beautiful portrait by Giovanni Bellini, now in the National Gallery in London. The relief’s beneath, on all three flagstaffs, are symbolical of the maritime supremacy of Venice : on the centre one, the Republic carries Justice where she goes, and is followed by Peace, Commerce, and Plenty. The winged lion of St. Mark upholds the wooden shafts.

The South Side of the Piazza is formed by the Procuratie Nuove, which were added by Scamozzi in 1584 as additional residences for the Procurators of the Republic. Before that date the site on which they stand had been occupied in part by the old church of San Geminiano, while a row of ancient houses spread to the west from the base of the Campanile. (The shape and arrangement of the Piazza at this time are well shown in a famous picture by Gentile Bellini in the Academy, Room XV.) Scamozzi erected his building on the site of the (demolished) old church in order to continue the architecture of Sansovino’s Libreria Vecchia on this side of the enlarged square. As the new building would have looked low and squat, however, if continued along so large an area at the same level, he added an upper story to the design. (That is why I have brought you here in this apparently capricious order.) This poor later Renaissance work has neither the simplicity of the Procuratie Vecchie nor the graceful and ornate beauty of the Libreria ; it well indicates the gradual modernisation and vulgarisation of the Renaissance ideals. The first ten windows on the side towards the Library have figures on the pediments, evidently suggested by Michael Angelo’s Night and Morning, but of little artistic value. The western portion of the building, no doubt for reasons of economy, is less richly decorated. At the present day, the Procuratie Nuove, the Libreria, and the Zecca, have been united inside to form (artificially) the Royal Palace, which was the Emperor of Austria’s, and is now the King of Italy’s, official residence when in Venice. Its pretty garden, at the rear of the Procuratie, faces the lagoon. The Palace contains a few works of art, which, however, you had better leave unseen till you have visited everything else noticed in this volume.

Till the Napoleonic occupation, the west end of the Piazza was occupied by the new church of San Geminiano, erected by Sansovino, (who was buried in it,) in place of the old one, as well as by a few other unimportant buildings. But in 1810 Napoleon pulled down Sansovino’s church in order to erect in its place the connecting arcade and mass of buildings still known as the Nuova Fabbrica. This, though adapted to a certain extent to the prevailing tone of the architecture of the Piazza, has decorations in the insipid pseudo-classical style of the First Empire. It was added in order to contain the grand staircase for the rambling palace formed by Napoleon out of the older buildings.

The visitor will thus see that the edifices which surround the Piazza and Piazzetta, (including St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace,) are of very different dates, and that they represent almost every successive phase of Byzantine, Gothic, early Renaissance, high Renaissance, late Renaissance, and modern architecture. Fortunately, however, they do not include any rococo building.

The Piazza is much wider at its eastern than at its western end, but the architecture has been cleverly arranged as far as possible to conceal this inequality. It is instructive to compare the present shape and the present buildings with those shown in Bellini’s picture. I need hardly add that the shops which now occupy the ground-floors of this magnificent suite of republican palaces are a purely modern invasion. In the great days of Venice, the Piazza and Piazzetta were entirely given up to the offices of the State and the residences of the chief magistrates of the Commonwealth.

Spend as much of your time as possible in and about the Piazza. Remember that nothing in Venice can compare in importance with St. Mark’s, the Doge’s Palace, and the buildings that flank them. Do not waste on minor churches precious hours that might be given to these most beautiful and instructive monuments.