Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy, was first created during the 9th century AD as a small square in front of St. Mark’s Basilica. A canal and dock that initially separated this small space from the palace was filled in 1174, and was bricked over in 1294. It wasn’t until 1735, nearly one thousand years after the square initially came to be, that the stones which now cover the square were placed.
The Piazza San Marco began humbly, but became the largest public square in the city, and known as “the drawing room of Europe,” a title given, it is believed, by Napoleon.
With such a lengthy and auspicious history, it is not surprising there are stories and fascinating tidbits throughout the Piazza San Marco. And here, I want to share with you my favorites to seek out if you are fortunate enough to visit:
Two Patron Saints of Venice
There are two large granite columns that greet you as you enter the Piazza San Marco from the Grand Canal (center of the above photo). These columns are topped by the two patron saints of Venice. The more western column (to the right in the photo) is St. Theodore, who was the patron saint of the city before St. Mark. He is depicted holding a spear, and with a crocodile to represent the dragon he is said to have killed. The second column (left in the photo) holds the Lion of Venice, a winged lion, the symbol of St. Mark. It is between these two columns that public executions were held, and apparently gambling was legal in this spot on slow execution days.
The Doge’s Two Pink Pillars
If you are standing between the Doge’s palace and the Campanile, look up at the long balcony of the palace. There, two pink pillars on the first floor of the loggia, are made of Verona red marble to contrast with the rest of the white ones. The Doge would stand between these pillars to officially witness public executions that would occur between columns of San Marco and San Teodoro. At times the body of the executed would be placed at these two pillars after the execution to serve as a harsh reminder to those tempted to break the laws of Venice.
Such was the case with the traitorous Doge Marino Falier. Doge Marino Falier, was the 55th Doge of Venice. Within months of being elected Doge, Marino Falier attempted to seize power from the ruling aristocrats. Falier was beheaded for this betrayal. In fact, within the Doge’s Palace, the Hall of the Great Council is encircled with portraits of all of the past Doge around the top of the walls. However, Falier’s portrait has been painted over with a black shroud, and remains that way until this day. They were really not happy with him.
St. Mark’s Basilica Murals
As I mentioned above, Saint Theodore was the original patron saint of Venice. However, once St. Mark’s body arrived in Venice, Theodore lost his hold as the primary saint of the city. But the real story here, is how St. Mark’s body got to Venice.
The story goes that St. Mark’s body was originally located in Alexandria. In 828AD, two Venetian merchants went to Alexandria and convinced the priests of St. Mark’s there in Alexandria to let them take the body back to Venice. The thinking was that Alexandria had been having repeated conflict with the Saracens in the area, and they were afraid harm might come to the body of the saint. So, the priests agreed to let the merchants take the body.
So, the merchants took the silk shroud from St. Mark, wrapped some lesser saint in it, and left that body in his place. The next hurdle? How do we get a Saint’s remains out of Alexandria, past the Saracens? Well, the Saracen’s are muslim, and consider pork unclean. So… we’ll just put the body in this chest here, and then dump a bunch of pork and cabbage on top! No faithful Saracen is going to go digging through that! They safely walked the chest out of the city, loaded it onto a ship, and brought it back to Venice.
The mosaics within the arches of St. Mark’s Basilica depict scenes from the adventure of stealing St. Mark’s body and bringing it to Venice. The photo above is of the mosaic that is often described as “Welcoming St. Mark’s body to Venice.” That’s particularly awesome when you look close enough to see the one guy holding his nose. Yep. Put a body in a chest, cover it with pork and cabbage, then sail it on over the Venice. I bet that thing is pretty ripe!
On a more serious note, another mosaic worth mentioning is the one farthest to the left. It is is the oldest and shows the facade of the basilica as it appeared in the 13th century, and depicts the doge, priests, and people bringing the saint’s sarcophagus into the basilica.
St. Mark’s Bronze Horses
The history of these four horses is a bit of a mystery. One theory is that they were created by the famous Greek, Lyssippos, in the 4th century BC. But that has been thrown into doubt by recent research suggesting they were are actually of Roman origin.
Their fact that they once crowned the racetrack in Constantinople is definite, though whether they resided in Constantinople from the 9th century AD, or how much early isn’t clear. What we do know is that in 1204 AD, Constantinople was taken by the Crusaders, and the horses were sent to Venice and to adorn St. Mark’s Basilica.
These were considered such potent symbols of the pride and power of Venice that the Genoese said, in 1379, that there could be no peace between the two cities until these horses had been bridled! (Um, they are statues people, really?!) Later, Napoleon flush with his victory over Venice, took the horses down and had them shipped to Paris, but when Napoleon was defeated, they were returned.
Today the originals actually reside inside the basilica, and what you see here are copies. And even the originals are mostly copper, not bronze. But bronze sounds so much better.
Lion Statues of Venice
Off of the Piazza San Marco is the Piazzetta dei Leoni, beside St. Mark’s Basilica. In this little square are two 10th-century crouching red porphyry lions that were presented by Doge Alvise Mocenigo in 1722. They don’t have a deep, meaningful history, and they aren’t as valuable as many things in close proximity, but they are much beloved by generations of people who have visited St. Mark’s Square. As is obvious from the wear on these statues, they are practically an invitation to touch and climb on, and have a picture taken with. Go for it.
Stone Booth Markers
In 1174 the canal was filled in expanding St. Mark’s Square. In 1267, the ground was paved with bricks laid in herringbone pattern. In 1722-1735, the bricks were replaced by stone with distinctive lines of white marble designed by Andrea Tirali. But the designs are not just aesthetic decoration—they were laid out to indicate the assigned positions of the temporary vendor stands that occupied the square during special fairs. If you search, you can find, in front of the Caffe Quadri, one inlaid stone that reads calegheri, Venetian for “shoemaker.”
Napoleon’s additions to the Piazza San Marco
In 1797, Napoleon conquered Venice. Soon afterward, Napoleon sent to have the winged lions of Venice destroyed, and then carted away the four bronze horses, and the bronze lion atop the one column. He was set on possessing the symbols of pride and power in Venice.
Napoleon’s stepson, Eugene Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy, ordered the destruction of a church to make room for this building at the western end of the Piazza San Marco. This he used as an addition to his residence in the Procuratorie, the Napoleonic Wing. On the façade there is a line of statues depicting Roman rulers, and in the middle was supposed to be a statue of Napoleon in the form of Jupiter. Supposedly, this was so he could “look down on San Marco.” I don’t think anyone is upset that he died before he could see this particular tidbit through, and you can still see a blank spot there today.
Piazza San Marco’s Clock Tower:
Several houses were demolished to make way for this Torre dell’ Orologio, or clock tower, which was designed by Pietro Lombardo and inaugurated in 1499. Unique about this clock is the 24 hour face to the clock. When clocks became the primary measure of time over sundials, the first clocks were created with a 24 hour face, with the day beginning at sunset. Since counting up the 24 strokes of the clock’s chime actually led to a lot of miscounts and confusion, several iterations of clocks were tried before settling on our common 12 hour clock of today. But here, you can see what the early clocks looked like.
The clockworks, which were revised several times, caused the two “moors” to strike the bell with their hammers. The first “moor” is an old man, representing the past, and the second a young man symbolizing the present.
Venice’s Old Woman with a Mortar
I know, this isn’t technically in the square, but you’ll forgive me. This is one of those little details I love!
If you exit St. Mark’s Square by the clocktower, just a very short way outside the square keep your eye on the buildings on the left side. Watch between the ground floor and 1st floor levels, over the arch of an intersecting road, you will see the Old Woman with a Mortar pictured above.
This is the plaque dedicated to an old woman, referenced both as “Guistina” and “Lucia Rossi” in historical records. The story goes like this… Attempting to unseat Doge Pietro Gradenigo, the Tiepolo and Querini families gathered other aristocratic families under the leadership of Bajamonte Tiepolo. The attempt didn’t go well, and the rebels attempted to flee from the site of the battle in Piazza San Marco, to Rialto via this street.
Guistina/Lucia Rossi was watching all of this from her balcony. When the rebels attempted to flee, she dropped her heavy mortar, killing the standard-bearer of Bajamonte Tiepolo, and creating chaos allowing leaders of the rebellion to be captured! When the Doge honored her, the Old Woman requested, among other things, that her rent be fixed for herself, and her heirs in perpetuity, which was granted.
I always like to read of a spunky old broad.
Well, that’s all for today’s peek into Piazza San Marco. If you are wanting more of Venice, be sure to check out my post on The Scala Contarini Del Bovolo, or this look at a Romantic Private Gondola Ride. And if you drop your email in the field (top right of page for desktop and pad, under the comments if you’re on phone) you’ll receive the next posts right to your email.
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