None other than Napoleon nominated the Piazza San Marco in Venice the “reception room of Europe”. In addition to the cathedral, there are a number of famous buildings and palaces along this magnificent square, where tourists compete with pigeons for a spot.
Piazza San Marco Venice
The Piazza San Marco began its existence in a relatively modestfashion, as a small tree-covered square in front of St. Mark’s Basilica. We are talking about the 9th century and the now world-famous basilica was then little more than a small chapel that was part of the Doge’s Palace.
At that time there still used to be a narrow canal (the Rio Batario) between the palace and the square, which was, however, closed in 1174. In 1267 the enlarged Piazza San Marco was paved with bricks in a herringbone pattern. In 1735, these bricks were exchanged for a more complicated motif designed by the architect Andrea Tirali. The pattern also indicated exactly where the market merchants of the Procuratie Vecchie were to place their stalls.
The Piazza San Marco is the only square in Venice that is referred to as a piazza. All other squares are called campo. The word campo really means “field”. Before Venice became a city, each little island had a central field where animals were kept and vegetables were grown.
The pigeons in the square may be picturesque, but they also cause a lot of damage to the mosaics on Saint Mark’s Basilica. Therefore, it is nowadays forbidden to feed them.
What to see
The main attraction in the square is the Basilica of San Marco. This church was built in 1071 by order of the Doge Domenico Contarini and is built according to a mixture of western and eastern architectural styles. The enormous Campanile di San Marco is separate from the church itself.
The Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) is the second notable building flanking the Piazza San Marco. It was built in the 15th century and is typical of the Venetian Gothic architectural style.
The three other buildings framing the square are together known as the Procuratie. The Procuratie Vecchie are the 12th century buildings where the city’s procurators used to live and work. Obviously, wherever there are Procuratie Vecchie, there also need to be Procuratie Nuove. Toward the end of the 17th century more offices needed to be added. Nowadays the building is the seat of the Archaeological Museum of Venice and of the Correr Museum.
On the Piazzetta San Marco (a tiny square between the Doge’s Palace and the Biblioteca Nazionale di San Marco) there are two columns honoring the patron saints of Venice, Saint Mark and Saint Theodorus of Amasea. Together the columns form a kind of entrance gate to the city. In the square itself, criminals used to be tarred, a custom that lasted until the mid-18th century.