There’s no motorized vehicles — other than boats — allowed in Venice. So the bus deposited us at a terminal near the train station and we approached center city Venice by water taxi. “Our hotel is next to the Piazza San Marco,” said Silvana the Guide. “You couldn’t sleep closer to the piazza unless you were a monk.”
The Piazza San Marco is the main public square in Venice and home to the Basilica San Marco. We got off the boats where the Piazzetta, a side extension of the Piazza, meets Canale di San Marco.
At the landing were the columns of St. Mark and St. Theodore. The columns were brought from Tyre, in Lebanon, in 1125, and once served as the main “gates” into Venice. Silvana said: “Don’t walk between the columns. It’s where they executed people. It’s unlucky to walk there.”
Welcome to Venice.
St. Theodore was the patron saint of Venice up until the 9th century, when Venetians stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist — I know, again with the body snatching — from St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt, seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope, and made Mark the patron saint of Venice. Mark wasn’t even from Venice, but the theft was political maneuvering by the Roman Catholic Church against the Coptic Orthodox Church, of which St. Mark was the founder.
On the east (left in the photo above) side of the Piazzetta is the Doge’s Palace (which will get a post of its own later) and in the Doge’s Palace is a prison. So the Piazzetta was a convenient place of execution. They apparently hung people between the two columns, as a warning to the public to behave while in the city of Venice. Like a Venetian version of heads on London’s Tower Bridge.
We scurried around the columns and followed Silvana like ducklings through the Piazzetta, between the Doge’s Palace and the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana across from it.
The Biblioteca has the most “significant” manuscript collection in Italy, started in 1468, when Cardinal Basilius Bessario donated his books for a public library. The building came after, designed by Renaissance Florentine sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino circa 1537. A 1603 law required that all books printed in Venice be held at the library and it now holds over a million books and manuscripts. It’s surrounded by restaurants. Because that’s where you want your irreplaceable objects to be — in the midst of all those fire-breathing kitchens.
The Piazzetta opens to the Piazza San Marco, anchored by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mark’s. St. Mark’s started as a chapel for the Doge’s Palace in the 9th century. The current building is circa 1063. More on St. Mark’s later.
The piazza also contains a 1912 bell tower. There was a 10th century lighthouse on the spot, until it toppled over in 1902. I’d climbed to the top on a previous visit — I don’t know how many steps but it’s 323 feet tall — but there’s an elevator now and I’m unsure whether visitors are required to use the elevator or can still climb if they choose. There’s a lovely view from the top on a clear day.
There’s also an amazing 15th century clock tower with two figures that strike a hammer on a bell every hour on the hour. And twice a year, on Epiphany (January 6) and Ascension Thursday (39 days after Easter), an angel and the three Magi come out of the doors marked VII (beneath the winged lion of Venice in the photo below), bow to the statue of the Madonna and child, and go back in through the door marked 5. The numbers mark the time: I took the photo at 7:05 am.
We took a left in front of the basilica. The rest of the buildings around the square hold restaurants and shops on the bottom and government offices on top, except that the Museo Correr (more on that later, too) occupies the Napoleonic wing on the east side. The buildings on the north (right) side are the oldest and built circa 1500 and the buildings on the south are 17th century.
We passed through a portal on the east end of the piazza and Silvana stopped. We had, as my GPS would say, reached our destination.