Looking for some Venice secret places? Before visiting St. Mark’s Square I researched any Venice hidden gems, and found some right in plain sight! Read on to know what to look for as you explore Venice’s most famous piazza.
Granite Entrance Columns of Saint Mark’s Square
Our quest for Venice hidden gems starts right at the entrance to Piazza san Marco. The traditional entrance to Piazza San Marco was the water. So, if you look to the side of the square near the water, where the gondolas are lined up, you will see two tall granite columns. These two columns are topped by the two patron saints of Venice. One is St. Theodore, who was the patron saint of the city before St. Mark. He holds a spear with a crocodile to represent the dragon he is said to have killed. The second columns holds a winged lion, the Lion of Venice, the symbol of St. Mark.
These seem like a grand and symbolic welcome to arguably the most grand square in Europe. (After all, it was supposedly Napoleon who called St Mark’s Square the “drawing room of Europe.” These were given to Venice by Constantinople for the city’s help during the second crusade.
But the Venice secret tidbits here? It is between these two columns that public executions were held. It’s easy to imagine the Doge and other city officials standing on the long balcony and presiding over the public spectacle.
Extra Tidbits about the Columns of St. Mark’s Square
The part I find most interesting is that when the columns weren’t being put to uses as the execution spot, the space was used for… gambling! Ok, that doesn’t seem so shocking, you have to understand the back story. At the time this was put in place, gambling was entirely illegal in Venice. Only one very resourceful man managed to legalize it, in this one spot, with the blessing of city officials. When it came time to actually erect these columns in the square, it was found to be a much more difficult task than anticipated. So when Niccolo Barattieri, an engineer of Venice, came through with a solution and the columns stood proudly, he asked one little favor. To be able to run gambling tables between the columns. And it was granted. That’s one entrepreneurial engineer.
There is also a story that there were supposed to be three columns standing here, not two. However, when the columns were being delivered, one fell overboard and disappeared in the Venice lagoon, never to be seen again. There have been projects funded to search for the lost third column, but so far it hasn’t been found. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll have to update this with the story of the third column – a true Venice hidden gem!
Doge’s Palace Two Pink Columns
If you are standing withing the square, looking at the two granite columns I just described above (with the lagoon behind them): Look to the Doge’s palace to your left, and up at the second floor balcony. You will notice there are actually two columns that are a pinkish color instead of the white of all the rest. This is the next of our Venice hidden gems.
No, this wasn’t a ‘oops’ moment, or a decorative choice. These pillars on the first floor of the loggia are made of red Verona marble to stand out. The doge would stand between these pillars to officially announce and/or witness the aforementioned 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 also, apparently in the case of aristocrat’s executions. It is believed that such was the case the traitorous Doge Marino Falier, 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.
Venice Secret Place at Your Feet: Stone Booth Markers
Let’s give your neck a break for a minute, and instead of looking up, look down. Look at the actual stone work you are walking on in the Piazza San Marco. Notice the white pattern worked into the stones? (It’s easier to see it in the morning or night when you’re not trying to make it out through the crowds!) This is not a decorative touch, those it definitely also serves that purpose.
Over the centuries St. Mark’s went from a canal, to filled in with dirt, to brick paved in a herring bone pattern. Then the bricks were replaced by stone from 1722AD – 1735AD. The distinctive lines of white marble built into the design were put in my Andrea Tirali. These are actually assigned spots of merchant stands that would be put up during special fairs! If you are determined you can still see, near Caffe Quadri, one stone that still reads calegheri, Venetian for “shoemaker.”
Venice Hidden Gem: St. Mark’s Basilica Murals
The murals within the archways on the front of the Basilica San Marco are not just beautiful, but educational as well. And humorous – at least I think so. This is a wonderful Venice hidden gem, right there on the front of the Basilica!
The mosaic on the far left is the oldest of the mosaics. Examine it closely and you will see what the façade of the bacilica looked like in the 13th century. It shows the doge, priests, and people bringing Saint Mark’s sarcophagus into the basilica.
But my favorite is the mosaic on the far right. Look closely and you will see two men opening a basket, while the turbaned man beside them holds his nose! This mural is depicting a scene in the epic tale of how two venetians “rescued” the body of St. Mark from Alexandria. The story goes like this:
The Story of the “Rescue” of St. Mark
While Emperor Leo V had forbidden all trade with Muslims, two Venetian merchants, Buono and Rustico were conducting this forbidden business in Alexandria. While there, they visited the church of St. Mark, which held the saint’s body. While in conversation with Greeks their, the Greeks expressedtheir worry that there were plans to rob the Christian churches. Of course, everyone was worried what would happen to the body of St. Mark should this happen! Buono and Rustico, helpful men they were, suggested that maybe saving the body of the Saint from such a fate, and taking it to Venice would be the wisest course of action.
The Greeks at this point got cold feet. What if disturbing the saint’s body offended the saint in some way? It was at this point that the Venetians explained two reasons this wasn’t a problem. First, St. Mark had actually, on his way to Aquileia, docked at the Rialto and it was here that an angel told him his body would one day rest. (I mean, this is the first anyone had known of such a story, but details.) Second, the saint would only allow them to steal the body if the saint was in agreement. So, as long as they pulled it off, there’s no reason to worry. Logical.
Thus, the four men went to the tomb, took Saint Mark’s body, and put another in it’s place. They were almost given away by the saint’s “holy odor,” but were able to squire it away.
The final hurdle they faced was the mandatory inspection by the Muslim authorities in Alexandria. They demanded to inspect the large basket in which the saint’s body was hidden. But wiley Buono and Rustico had already planned for this – they had covered the body with pickled pork. Upon seeing the unclean meat, shut the lid, and fled. Buono & Rustico were on their way to Venice with the “rescued” St. Mark.
And this adventure is commemorated right there on the front of St. Mark’s Basilica for your entertainment.
St. Mark’s Basilica Bronze Horses
The bronze horses of St. Mark’s basilica are proudly arrayed above the entrance doors for all to see. Also called the Triumphal Quadriga, these statues were originally part of a horses and chariot statue. Mostly likely these horses were sculpted to top a triumphal arch or another grand building in Constantinople in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. In fact “four gilt horses that stand above the Hippodrome” that “came from the island of Chios under Theodosius II” was mentioned in writings of the 8th-9th century, and that could very well be these horses.
However, when Constantinople was sacked in 1204, they were taken to Venice as spoils of war. The heads of the horses were severed in order to remove them from Constantinople and transport them, so the collars you see today were added to cover the damage. They were installed at St. Mark’s in 1254.
These statues, spoils of war, became important symbols of Venice. They were 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.) Then, in 1797 when Napoleon marched into Venice, he had the horses taken down and shipped to Paris, a deep insult to the Venetian people (though one could argue the same thing Venice had done to Constatinople – such is the way with history).
After Napoleon was defeated the horses were returned to Venice in 1815 and re-installed at St. Mark’s. They were proudly displayed over the doors until the 1980s when they were taken down to protect them from growing air pollution. Now, the originals reside inside St. Mark’s Basilica, and these exact copies stand in place instead.
As you stand facing St. Mark’s Basilica, you will see a small piazzetta off to the left of the basilica. This is the Piazzetta dei Leoni. The “Leoni” in question are the two 10th century red porphyry lions placed in the midst of the square with no explanation. The most noticeable thing about the lions is the striking resemblance they bear to my children’s favorite stuffed animals growing up: They are worn, scraped, chipped as if they’ve been loved on for decades. And, in reality, that seems to be the main use of these lions. Placed in the square by Doge Alvise Mocenigo in 1722, it seems from the beginning they have been touched and climbed. There’s rarely a time you will see them without a child (and even the occasional adult) of every nation climbing aboard, hugging and petting.
In a time when so much is behind rope or glass and definitely “no-touch” – it’s endearing to have these two statues so thoroughly within reach. Give them a pat, take a selfie, let your child hug them. Just please don’t abuse the privilege so we don’t lose it!
Torre dell’ Orologio: Clock Tower
Along the northern side of the Piazza San Marco is the Torre dell’Orologio, or clock tower. This marvel of 15th century engineering was designed by Maurizio Codussi, begun in 1496, and inaugurated on February 1, 1499. Lengthy articles are written about all sorts of aspects of the clock and tower, there are a few points you can see from the Piazza San Marco that are worth noting.
First, take a look at the 24-hour clock face. As the transition from sundial to clock was occurring, the first clocks had a 24-hour face as this one does. To make the face more easily readable, and the chimes easier to count without losing track, clocks were soon changed to 12-hour. But, this is a beautiful example of the earliest clocks.
Second, take a look at the statues on top of the tower that chime the bell on the hour. These are known as “The Moors”. But, in actuality they were originally simply giant figures, size being necessary in order to be seen from a distance. However, the copper patina darkened over time, and “The Moors” nickname stuck. One of the figures is supposed to be young and the other old, signifying the passage of time.
Finally, if you look above the 24-hour clock face, you will see a statue of the Virgin Mary. On either side of her are panels displaying numbers. Roman numerals on the left display hours, and Arabic numbers on the right displaying minutes in 5 minute intervals. This is the very first digital clock!
Napoleon’s Wing & Missing Statue
In 1797, Napoleon conquered Venice. Soon afterward, Napoleon sent to have the winged lions of Venice destroyed, and the carted away the four bronze horses, and the bronze lion atop the column.
On the western side of the Piazza San Marco, Napoleon’s stepson, Eugene Beauharnais, Viceroy of Italy, ordered the destruction of Sansovino’s church. In its place, he built this building, which many consider dull by Venice standards, as an annex to his residence in the Procuratorie. The building is called the Ala Napoleonica, or Napoleonic Wing.
On the façade you will see a line of statues across the tops, meant to depict the Roman gods. Right in the center, there is a larger gap and more decorative backdrop for what seems to be a missing focal point statue. Which is exactly what is happening here! Napoleon intended to place a statue of himself there depicted as Jupiter, in order, he is reputed to have said, that he could “look down on San Marco.” Venetians are immensely gratified that he died before he could see it through, but you can still see a blank spot there today.
My favorite Venice Secret Place: Old Woman with a Mortar Plaque
I know, this isn’t technically in the square, but give me a little grace here. It’s a great story and my favorite little Venice hidden gem!
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, just between the ground floor and 1st floor levels. You will see this:
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 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! As a reward, the Old Woman requested, among other things, that her rent be fixed for herself, and her heirs in perpetuity, which was granted.
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