Piazza San Marco
Square in Venice
Piazza San Marco, or St Mark’s Square, is the principal public square of Venice, Italy, where it is generally known just as la Piazza (“the Square”). All other urban spaces in the city (except the Piazzetta and the Piazzale Roma) are called campi (“fields”). The Piazzetta (“little Piazza/Square”) is an extension of the Piazza towards San Marco basin in its south east corner (see plan). The two spaces together form the social, religious and political centre of Venice and are commonly considered together. A remark usually attributed (though without proof) to Napoleon calls the Piazza San Marco “the drawing room of Europe”.
The square is dominated at its eastern end by St Mark’s Basilica with its western facade with its great arches and marble decoration, the Romanesque carvings around the central doorway and, the four horses which preside over the whole piazza and are such potent symbols of the pride and power of Venice that the Genoese in 1379 said that there could be no peace between the two cities until these horses had been bridled; four hundred years later, Napoleon, after he had conquered Venice, had them taken down and shipped to Paris.
The Piazzetta dei Leoncini is an open space on the north side of the church named after the two marble lions (presented by Doge Alvise Mocenigo in 1722), but now officially called the Piazzetta San Giovanni XXIII. The neo-classic building on the east side adjoining the Basilica is the Palazzo Patriarcale, the seat of the Patriarch of Venice.
Beyond that is St Mark’s Clocktower (Torre dell’Orologio), completed in 1499, above a high archway where the street known as the Merceria (a main thoroughfare of the city) leads through shopping streets to the Rialto, the commercial and financial centre. To the right of the clock-tower is the closed church of San Basso, designed by Baldassarre Longhena (1675), sometimes open for exhibitions.
To the left is the long arcade along the north side of the piazza, the buildings on this side are known as the Procuratie Vecchie, the old procuracies, formerly the homes and offices of the Procurators of St Mark, high officers of state in the days of the republic of Venice. They were built in the early 16th century. The arcade is lined with shops and restaurants at ground level, with offices above. The restaurants include the famous Caffè Quadri, which was patronized by the Austrians when Venice was ruled by Austria in the 19th century, while the Venetians preferred Florian’s on the other side of the piazza.
Turning left at the end, the arcade continues along the west end of the piazza, which was rebuilt by Napoleon about 1810 and is known as the Ala Napoleonica (Napoleonic Wing). It holds, behind the shops, a ceremonial staircase which was to have led to a royal palace but now forms the entrance to the Museo Correr (Correr Museum).
Turning left again, the arcade continues down the south side of the Piazza. The buildings on this side are known as the Procuratie Nuove (new procuracies), which were designed by Jacopo Sansovino in the mid-16th century but partly built (1582–86) after his death by Vincenzo Scamozzi apparently with alterations required by the procurators and finally completed by Baldassarre Longhena about 1640. Again, the ground floor has shops and also the Caffè Florian, a famous cafe opened in 1720 by Floriano Francesconi, which was patronised by the Venetians when the hated Austrians were at Quadri’s. The upper floors were intended by Napoleon to be a palace for his stepson Eugène de Beauharnais, his viceroy in Venice, and now houses the Museo Correr. At the far end the Procuratie meet the north end of Sansovino’s Libreria (mid-16th century), whose main front faces the piazzetta and is described there. The arcade continues round the corner into the Piazzetta.
Opposite to this, standing free in the piazza, is St Mark’s Campanile (1156–73 last restored in 1514), rebuilt in 1912 com’era, dov’era (“as it was, where it was”) after the collapse of the former campanile on 14 July 1902. Adjacent to the campanile, facing towards the church, is the small building known as the Loggetta del Sansovino, built by Sansovino in 1537–46 and used as a lobby by patricians waiting to go into a meeting of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace and by guards when the council was sitting.
Across the piazza in front of the church are three large mast-like flagpoles with bronze bases decorated in high relief by Alessandro Leopardi in 1505. The Venetian flag of St Mark used to fly from them in the time of the republic of Venice and now shares them with the Italian flag.
Visiting Piazza San Marco