The Piazza San Marco is the principal public square in Venice. It is the only true Piazza, all other urban squares are called campi. The Piazza San Marco blends the religious, political and cultural aspects of Venice, and is a symbol of Venice’s power and dominance as a great empire. It has been called “the drawing room of Europe” by Napoleon.
The Piazza was a medieval gathering place that was first constructed under Doge Sebastiano Zaini. During the 4th crusade and later in the 13th century, riches such as marble and pillars for the Piazzetta were brought back from the Ottoman empire to adorn Venice. The two great granite columns in the Piazzetta are thought to have been erected around 1268. In the late 13th century, the west facade of St. Mark’s was embellished by mosaics and tiles from Constantinople, including the “Four Horses.”
The Parts of the Piazza San Marco:
- St. Mark’s Basilica
- Campanile of St. Mark’s Basilica
- The Piazza
- The Piazzetta dei Leoncini (Piazzetta Giovanni XXIII)
- The Clock Tower (Torre dell’Orologio)-(1499)
- Church of San Basso (closed)
- Procuratie Vecchie (Old Procuracies)- (1520)
- Ala Napoleonica (Napoleonic Wing)
- Procuratie Nuove (New Procuracies)- (1580)
- The Loggetta- (1537-46)
Notable Landmarks, Sculpture, Architecture Around the Piazza
The Clock Tower
The Clock Tower of the Piazza San Marco is a Renaissance structure at the entrance to the Merceria, or the main street which linked the political and religious centres with the commercial and financial centres. At the top of the tower are two great bronze figures which strike the hours of the bell. The are known as the “Moors” due to their dark bronze color. One figure is old while the other is young to show the passing of time. There is also a sculpture of the winged lion of Venice against a blue background with gold stars.
In a niche below the winged lion, there is a gilded statue of the Madonna and Child seated on a throne, flanked by Roman numerals on a blue background.
Below is the grand clock face within a circle of marble and engraved with Roman numerals. The signs of the zodiac surround the perimeter of the clock, and all date from the 1490’s.
The Columns of the winged lion of Venice and St. Theodore
On the Piazza San Marco, there are two monumental columns adorned with sculpture that represent the power of Venice. The first is the column representing St. Theodore of Venice, who was the first patron saint of the city. This is the western column. It depicts St. Theodore with his shield and spear, standing watch over Venice, and guarding the empire from possible invaders. He is also depicted with a crocodile, which is an allusion to the dragon that he is said to have slain.
The second of these massive columns is the eastern column bearing the winged lion of Venice. The stout winged lion is most likely sculpture that was brought back from Turkey to adorn Venice.
These columns depict the richness and the power of Venice. They also add to the stateliness of the Piazza. The columns are thought to have been erected around 1268.
The Porta della Carta
The Porta della Carta is the ceremonial entrance to the Palace. Designed in the fine Italian Gothic style around 1438 by Bartolomeo and Giovanni Bon. The figure of Venice as Justice presides over the arch, casting her fair judgement to all those below. The head of Doge Francisco Foscari, along with a lion were below the figure of Justice, but have been replaced, their originals having already been destroyed. The statues on the sides of the gateway represent the cardinal virtues of Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Charity.
“The Four Tetrarchs”
On an outside corner of the basilica of St, Mark, there are four antique figures carved in porphyry out of a hard red granite. The are known as the “Four Tetrarchs” and are thought to represent the four joint rulers of the Roman Empire, appointed under Diocletian. There is also convincing evidence that they may also represent the four sons of the Emperor Constantine, who were praised for their cooperation upon his death.
Originally the “Four Tetrarchs” were located in the Philadelphion, or the Palace of Brotherly Love in Constantinople, where a missing foot from one of the Tetrarchs has been found,
The Pillars of Acre
The Pillars of Acre are from the Church of St. Polyeuktos in Constantinople, most likely taken by the Venetians during the fourth crusade in the year 1204. When the ruins of the Church of St. Polyeuktos were excavated in the 1990’s, identical columns matching these were found.
The Pietra del Bando
Known as the “Proclamation Stone”, the Pietra del Bando is a great circular stone of red porphyry. Official proclamations used to be read from the stone and it has been suggested that it may have formed a part of the column on which the “Four Tetrarchs” stood, since they have been found to be made from the same material.
Huse, Norbert. The Art of Renaissance Venice, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice, New York City: Alfred A. Knopf Inc, 1982