Venice – Piazza Di S. Marco

WE have considered the Church of S. Mark as the type and the flower of Byzantine Venice; we have taken the Palace of the Doge as the perfect symbol of the Gothic city; we shall now turn to the great Piazza, which in its various parts contains them both, as the type and indeed the sum of the Venice of the Renaissance. That it is, and something more. For though, as we have it today, it may be said, and truly, to be of the Renaissance, we must not forget that it was always, even in the earliest times, even in the Byzantine city, the heart and centre of Venice, and that it remains so still even in our day, when Venice has shrunk once more, it might seem, to this group of buildings on th€ Rivo Alto.

The Piazza di S. Marco, in fact, is not merely the centre of modern or of mediaeval Venice ; in many ways it is Venice herself. It not only contains the most famous and the most splendid buildings of the city the Church, the Palace, the Government offices, the Library, the Bell Tower, and the Clock Tower of Venice but it is the universal meeting place am he principal gateway of the calli, the canals, the lagoons, and the sea. All that is meant by the word Venezia is in truth there summed up and expressed.

These considerations would lead us to regard it, eve] though we did not know it, as the most famous Piazza ii Italy and in the world ; the most famous and perhaps the most beautiful. Not one of the spacious Piazzas we know so well in Rome, in Florence, in Siena, in Milan, or in Naples can be compared with it either for renown or for beauty; and as we tell over their names we have to admit that, after all, they are of no importance beside the Piazza of S. Mark. Even in Rome, where it would seem we might surely expect to find something at least to compare with it, there is, in fact, nothing; for the Piazza di S. Pietro is a mere vestibule to S. Peter’s Church, and has very little to do with the life of the city ; the Piazza Venezia is only a cul de sac, and moreover a ruin, while the Piazza Colonna is just a gap in the Corso, the Piazza di Spagna a wilderness of strangers. There is no Piazza in Rome which may be said to be the centre of the city, or, to sum it up and in fact to stand as a symbol for it in the imagination of mankind, as the Piazza of S. Mark does even today sum up and symbolize Venice.

The beautiful Piazza, thus so famous, may be said to consist of four parts—the Piazza proper, the Piazzetta, the Molo, or quay, and the Piazzetta dei Leoni. Let us take them in order.

Of all the many ways of approaching the great Piazza, that is surely the commonest which brings the traveller through more than one quiet and half deserted campo the Campo di S. Maria Zobenigo and the Campo di S. Moisè, for instance past the fantastic façade of the latter church into the dark and narrow street that suddenly leaves him amid a group of heavy columns under a splendid arcade, whence before him stretches far away the great Piazza in all its beauty of order and light, to the great admiration of all who have ever beheld it. Before him, but still a long way off, across that great and beautiful square, rises the Cathedral of S. Mark, with its many domes and gilded balls and crosses, its façade precious with mosaics, splendid with gold, sumptuous with various marbles, which changes so exquisitely with every mood of the day, and before it the great flagstaffs, where on a Sunday float the tricolour standards of Italy that have displaced the crimson banners of S. Mark. To the right, before the church, soars the Campanile once more, in all its sober majesty, hiding, as it was meant to do, the Piazzetta and the western façade of the Palace, and to the left of the church opens the Piazzetta dei Leoni, where stands the Episcopal Palace, and further still to the left rises the fantastic clock tower under which runs the principal street of Venice. Such is the noble spectacle before us ; but what of the Piazza itself ?

The northern (left) side of the great square is formed by the long and beautiful line of buildings, the Procuratie Vecchie, which formed the official residence of the Procurators of S. Mark, the chief officers of the Republic. The lower part of this building with its open arcade was built by Pietro Lombardo in 1496, the upper by Bartolommeo Buon the younger in 1519, while the whole is closed towards the Piazzetta dei Leoni by the clock-tower which Rizzo of Verona built in 1496. The southern (right) side of the Piazza is formed by the Procuratie Nuove, built in 1584 by Scamozzi as further offices for the Procurators. This building, too, is arcaded towards the Piazza and now forms with its various parts on the Grand Canal the Palace of the King of Italy in Venice, after having served a like purpose for the Emperor of Austria.

The western end of the Piazza, facing the church, is a much later addition to the square. It is called the Nuova Fabbrica, and was built in 1810 by Napoleon as additional offices and to connect the Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove.

This work of Napoleon brings us straight to realize the fact that the Piazza of S. Marco by no means always appeared as we now see it. It is obvious that even in the eighteenth century, much more in the fifteenth, it was very different from what it appears today ; and, indeed, it differed very greatly.

The island on which the Piazza is built was in the earliest time, long before the Venetian Confederation founded itself on the Rivo Alto, known as Morso that is to say, lasting or tenacious, probably on account of its stability in contrast with the other mud flats of the lagoon. It was early divided by a channel or canal called Batario, crossed by a bridge called the Malpassi, beside which stood as early as 564 a church dedicated to S. Teodoro, which nearly three hundred years later was either supplanted by or incorporated in the Church of S. Mark. On the other side of the Batario stood the Church of S. Gemignano, dating from about the same time. The open space, or Piazza, in which, divided by the Batario, these churches stood, was then little more than a clearing about half the size of the present Piazza; it was covered with grass and surrounded, or at any rate largely shaded, by trees, and for this reason was called Brolo (the Park). Early in the tenth century this park was protected and closed by Doge Pietro Tribuno (912) against the pirates by a fortified wall which ran from the present Campo di S. Maria Zobenigo to the Riva degli Schiavoni on the sea side of the Piazza. It was not till two hundred years later that the Piazza was enlarged practically to its present size, the Batario filled in, and the Church of S. Gemignano pulled down and rebuilt where the Nuova Fabbrica now stands. Before 1173 the great place was enclosed completely by a colonnade, and in that year the sea wall was demolished.

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1264, the Piazza was paved for the first time with tiles. By 1382 it was found that the water in the main channel had risen, and the Piazza was much subject to flood. In that year it was raised and repaved, as it was again in 1590. This work of raising and building up the Piazza was again repeated in 1722, when it was first paved with stone, and thus under these continual heightenings the steps that led 0riginally up from the Piazza to the doors of S. Mark’s disappeared, so that today it is actually necessary to step down from the Piazza into the church, and this although the whole pavement of the square is sloped from the Nuova Fabbrica down to the great façade. It will be noticed too that the shape of the Piazza is not rectangular, but that it is narrower at the Nuova Fabbrica than at the façade of the church. In this it is like all the Venetian palaces, which are broader on their canal front than on the side in the street, and this is, no doubt, a contrivance for the sake of light and beauty.

As late as the fifteenth century trees remained in the Piazza, and their roots were found as well as the remains of three former pavements in the excavations for the foundations of the new Campanile in 1903. At the end of the quattrocento, as we may see in Bellini’s picture of the Procession in the Piazza, now in the Academy, the hospital of Doge Pietro Orseolo was then standing. It adjoined the Campanile, and seems with other buildings to have connected it to the arcade on the southern side of the Piazza. These other buildings were certainly offices of the Procuratori, and since they spoiled the appearance of the square they were pulled down with the hospital in 1582, the latter being removed to the Campo S. Gallo. There the Procuratie Nuove, as has been said, were built, but further back. The Campanile was in this new building left isolated. It seems to have been about this time that shops began to appear in the Piazza under the older arcade; they now, as every traveller knows, have usurped every building in the place.

Nearly eighty years before the demolition of the hospital, the old Church of S. Gemignano was pulled down, in 1505, and rebuilt, only to be pulled down again by Napoleon in 1807, when the Nuova Fabbrica was erected.

Let us now consider the buildings and so forth in the Piazza, and first the three flagstaffs. Up to the time Bellini painted his picture their pedestals were simple and in wood, but almost immediately after, in 1505, these were destroyed, and those we now see in bronze, the work of Alessandro Leopardi, were substituted. The staffs bore three splendid banners representing, it is said, Venice, Cyprus, and Crete.

But the great treasure of the Piazza was the famous Campanile, which came to so tragic an end in July, 1902. The Campanile seems always, even in the earliest times, to have stood where it fell. Tradition tells us that its foundations were laid in 888 in the time of Doge Pietro Tribuno, but the tower does not seem to have been really begun till 1148. From that time onward it was continually under repair—not apparently from any weakness in the foundation, but rather from some fault in the brick used. In the year 1329 we read that the Campanile was “renewed at the hands of an architect called Il Mantagnana.” In 1400 it was burnt during the festa of Doge Michele Steno, and in 1417 it was struck by lightning and the upper part, which was of wood, was totally destroyed. It was rebuilt of stone, but was struck again in 1490, and restored in 1515, when the golden angel was placed on its summit to guard it. Various misfortunes befell it of a minor character, but on 23 April, 1745, it was again very seriously damaged by lightning. A drawing by Canaletto, now at Windsor, shows us how great was the damage done, for the tower is there seen under repair. The angle of the Campanile facing the clock tower of S. Mark’s was ripped out from top to bottom, and the Loggia of Sansovino, of which we shall speak in a moment, was damaged by the débris. This must have shaken the whole structure, and probably contributed to the tragedy of July, 1902.

That tragic day, when the Campanile rather subsided than fell, will never be forgotten by any who witnessed it. The whole of Venice seemed, to be assembled in the Piazza, and very many were weeping. Men wrung their hands in frantic helplessness while the noblest tower in Italy sank, as it seemed, into the sea, weary with age. The excavations which were undertaken previous to the rebuilding, now happily nearly completed, and the scientific examination of the débris have shown that it was no insecurity in the foundations that brought the Campanile down, but rather the great old age of the bricks, many of which were little more than dust, blown through and through by the sea wind.

Happily the Campanile is now practically rebuilt happily : for to think of Venice without the Campanile of S. Mark is to us all almost an impossibility. It was not the Piazza alone that the famous bell tower dominated, but all Venice too, across whose silent ways that bell, sounded by the watchman on the summit every quarter of an hour by day and night, seemed like an assurance of safety, of our civilization, of Europe, and our Faith. For it was, of course, first and fore most a belfry, and the great bells, that to some extent doubtless contributed by their vast weight to the fall, were the sweetest and noblest voices in Venice. That belfry that Buono made in 1510 was a beautiful open loggia of four arches on each face, which overlooked all Venice and the islands and might be seen from Asolo; for the height of the tower was very great, 323 feet on a base of 42 square feet. And it had even to the merest tourist a value, if only for remembrance, that after all too few things nowadays may claim. For four hundred years and more not one of our countrymen has visited Venice without being astonished at its beauty. John Evelyn, for instance, writes thus in his diary, concerning his visit to Venice in 1645 :

” Having fed our eyes with the noble prospect of the island of S. George, the galleys, gondolas, and other vessels passing to and fro, we walked under the cloisters on the other side of this goodly Piazza, being a most magnificent building, the design of Sansovino…After this we climbed up the tower of S. Mark, which we might have done on horseback, as ’tis said one of the French kings did, there being no stairs or steps, but returns that take up an entire square on the arches 40 feet, broad enough for a coach. This steeple stands by itself without any church near it, and is rather a watch-tent in the corner of the Piazza … on the top is an angel that turns with the wind and from hence is a prospect down the Adriatic as far as Istria and the Dalmatian side, with the surprising sight of this miraculous city lying in the bosom of the sea in the shape of a lute, the numberless islands tacked together by no fewer than 450 bridges.”

We must not leave the Campanile without mentioning the chebba, or cage, which was suspended from a wooden pole thrust from one of the windows half way up, towards the Piazzetta. Here delinquent priests were exposed, and we have record of one in the fifteenth century who had been in the cage for a year and was still alive.

Beneath the Campanile, on the side facing the Palace, in 1540 Sansovino built a loggia where the Procuratori might wait in the shade the result of deliberations in the Senate or the nobles amuse themselves. It was a beautiful building, in keeping with the Libreria Vecchia, and it will be rebuilt, for it was destroyed when the Campanile fell, with the old stones.

The Loggia and the Libreria Vecchia bring us into the Piazzetta. This beautiful square, opening out of the Piazza at right angles and going down to the Molo and the sea, has also been raised and built up, as the Piazza has been, and this explains the stunted appearance of the lower pillars of the Piazzetta façade of the Palace. It contains two major treasures the columns of S. Theodore and S. Mark towards the sea, and the Libreria Vecchia, which closes it on the west.

The two columns with their capitals, among the most beautiful in the world, are spoil of war. They were brought to Venice by Doge Domenico Michiel after the fall of Tyre under the sword of Venice in r 127, and were set up here fifty years later by a certain Lombard, Niccolô Barattiere, who as a reward for his skill in engineering claimed to keep a gaming table between them. The keeping of such tables was contrary to Venetian law, but his request was granted, and the monopoly thus established was only destroyed in 1529. But from the fourteenth century the public executions were made here : possibly to discourage the gamblers, though from what we know of such things that seems an unlikely result. Upon the western pillar is set a statue of S. Theodore standing upon a crocodile. In his left hand is an unsheathed sword, on his right arm is a shield, and this, says Francesco Sansovino, is a symbol of the Republic, who “exerts her strong arm for defence and not for attack.” S. Theodore, a favourite saint of the Eastern Church, was a Syrian soldier who in his youth suffered martyrdom under Maximinian. Narses, who visited the lagoons in 553, built where S. Mark’s now stands, as is said, a chapel in his honour, and thus made him the earliest patron of what was afterwards Venice. The Lion of S. Mark which crowns the other capital is a work of the fifteenth century, though the wings are modern. The Book, in which were of old inscribed the words Pax tibi Marce, was defaced in Napoleon’s time, and some revolutionary legend substituted concerning the so called “Rights” of man. And it was said that the Revolution had compelled even S. Mark to turn over a new leaf. But Venice was then dead, and Napoleon was able to steal the Lion for the Invalides. It came back, with Nero’s bronze horses, when England had broken him at Waterloo. The pillars are the most characteristic of all Venetian monuments : similar shafts were erected in all the cities that came under Venetian rule.

Before 1529 the site of the Libreria Vecchia was filled with inns. In that year they were cleared away, and in 1535 Sansovino began to build the beautiful Renaissance Library we see today with its arcade. Ten years later, however, a good part of it fell suddenly, and Sansovino found himself in prison, from which he was rescued by the efforts of Pietro Aretino. In 1570, however, when he died, the building was still incomplete, and Scamozzi was employed to finish it, which he succeeded in doing in 1582.

The Piazzetta originally extended only a few feet beyond the two pillars, but in 1285 the Molo was built, which now extends from the Ponte della Paglia to the garden of the Royal Palace, and the sea was thrust back. The Ponte della Paglia connects the Molo with the Riva degli Schiavoni and crosses the Rio del Palazzo, and is so called, it is thought, because the boats laden with straw moored there or there held their market. It is a work, as we see it, of the nineteenth century. The great treasure of the Molo, however, is the Zecca, or Mint, which adjoins the Libreria and faces the sea. This beautiful Palace was built by Sansovino in 1536 on the site of a building which, used for the same purpose, dated back to 938. Here the gold ducat called the Zecchino was coined as far back as 1284. Only gold was coined in this place, other mints being used where silver or mixed money was coined. Beyond the Zecca now stretch the Royal, once the Imperial, gardens. Before 1340 this space was used as a yard for building galleys, and in 1238, the disastrous year of Curzola, fifteen were built and launched there, close by a lion’s den where twenty years later two cubs were born. In 1350 the site was cleared and public granaries were there erected, in which, or rather in prisons erected for the purpose within, the Genoese prisoners after Chioggia were confined. These granaries were not demolished till 1808, when the gardens were made.

There remains but one of the four parts of Piazza di San Marco still to examine, the Piazzetta dei Leoni, so called from the two lions in red marble by Giovanni Bonazza which Doge Mocenigo placed here in 1722. It was originally, I fancy, a vegetable market, and the only thing notable in it is the great well head, which is said to cover the deepest well in Venice. At the end is the Palazzo Patriarchale, a building for the most part of 1837, and poor at that ; part of it originally belonged to the Doges. Close by is the very old and now dismantled Church of S. Basso, built in the eleventh century, burned in the fire of 1105, rebuilt and again burned in 1661, to be once more rebuilt and finally closed in 1810. It is now a sort of Opera for S. Mark’s, and part makes a charming antiquity shop.