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 Essential Architecture-  Venice

Piazza of San Marco


Venetian architect Andrea Tirali


Venice, Italy


Piazza originated in the 9th century, paved in the late 13th century


Italian Rennaisance


bricks laid in a herringbone pattern


piazza Outdoor space
  Piazza San Marco with the Basilica, by Canaletto, 1730, looking just as it does today
  The Basilica's facade and the Doge's Palace facing the Piazzetta by Canaletto, 1740s.
  View of the Piazzetta in the 16th century, after Cesare Vecellio.
Piazza San Marco, often known in English as St Mark's Square, is the principal square of Venice.

A remark often attributed to Napoleon (but perhaps more correctly to Alfred de Musset) calls the Piazza San Marco "the drawing room of Europe." It is the only great urban space in a European city where human voices prevail over the sounds of motorized traffic, which is confined to Venice's waterways. It is the only urban space called a piazza in Venice; the others, regardless of size, are called campi.

As the central landmark and gathering place for Venice, Piazza San Marco is extremely popular with tourists, photographers and pigeons.

The Piazza originated in the 9th century as a small area in front of the original St Mark's Basilica. It was enlarged to its present size and shape in 1177, when the Rio Batario, which had bounded it to the west, and a dock, which had isolated the Doge's Palace from the square, were filled in. The rearrangement was for the meeting of Pope Alexander III and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

The Piazza has always been seen as the centre of Venice. It was the location of all the important offices of the Venetian state, and has been the seat of the archbishopric since the 19th century. It was also the focus for many of Venice's festivals.


Piazza San Macro
The Piazza is dominated by the Basilica, the Doge's Palace and (illustration, left below), and by the Basilica's campanile, which stands apart from it.

The buildings around the Piazza, anti-clockwise from the Grand Canal, are the Doge's Palace, St Mark's Basilica, St Mark's Clocktower, the Procuratie Vecchie, the Napoleonic Wing of the Procuraties, the Procuratie Nuove, St Mark's Campanile and Logetta and the Biblioteca Marciana. Most of the ground floor of the Procuraties is occupied by cafés, including the Caffè Florian and Gran Caffè Quadri. The Correr Museum and the Museum of Archaeology are located in some of the buildings of the Piazza. The Venetian Mint lies beyond the Biblioteca Marciana on the riva or bank of the Grand Canal. The last of these buildings were completed under Napoleonic occupation, although the campanile has since been rebuilt.


The Piazza was paved in the late 13th century with bricks laid in a herringbone pattern. Bands of light-colored stone ran parallel to the long axis of the main piazza. These lines were probably used in setting up market stalls and in organizing frequent ceremonial processions. This original pavement design can be seen in paintings of the late Middle Ages and through the Rennaissance, such as Gentile Bellini's Procession in Piazza San Marco of 1496.

In 1723 the bricks were replaced with a more complex geometrical pavement design composed of a field of dark-colored igneous trachyte with geometrical designs executed in white Istrian stone, similar to travertine. Squares of diagonally-laid blocks alternated with rectangular and oval designs along broad parallel bands. The squares were pitched to the center, like a bowl, where a drain conducted surface water into a below-grade drainage system. The pattern connected the central portal of the Basilica with the center of the western opening into the piazza. This line more closely parallels the façade of the Procuratie Vechhie, leaving a nearly triangular space adjacent to the Procuratie Nuove with its wider end closed off by the Campanile. The pattern continued past the campanile, stopping at a line connecting the three large flagpoles and leaving the space immediately in front of the Basilica undecorated. A smaller version of the same pattern in the Piazzetta paralleled Sansovino's Library, leaving a narrow trapezoid adjacent to the Doge's palace with the wide end closed off by the southwest corner of the Basilica. This smaller pattern had the internal squares inclined to form non-orthagonal quadrilaterals.

The design was laid out by Venetian architect Andrea Tirali. Little is known about Tirali's reasoning for the particulars of the design. Some have speculated that the pattern was still used to regulate market stalls, or at least to recall their former presence in the square. Others believe the pattern may have been drawn from oriental rugs, which were a popular luxury item in this trading center. The overall alignment of the pavement pattern serves to visually lengthen the long axis and reinforce the position of the Basilica at its head. This arrangement mirrors the interior relationship of nave to altar within the cathedral.

As part of the design, the level of the piazza was raised by approximately one meter to mitigate flooding and allow more room for the internal drains to carry water to the Grand Canal.

In 1890, the pavement was renewed "due to wear and tear". The new work closely follows Tirali's design, but eliminated the oval shapes and cut off the west edge of the pattern to accommodate the Napoleanic wing at that end of the Piazza.


Piazza San Marco in December
Piazza San Marco in December

The Piazza San Marco is the lowest point in Venice, and as a result during the acqua alta the "high water" from storm surges from the Adriatic, or even heavy rain, it is the first to flood. Water pouring into the drains in the Piazza runs directly into the Grand Canal. This is ideal during heavy rain, but during the acqua alta it has the reverse effect, with water from the canal surging up into the Square.

The Piazzetta

The part of the Piazza between the Doge's Palace and the Biblioteca Marciana, Jacopo Sansovino's Library, is the Piazzetta dei Leoncini. It is open to the lagoon at the mouth of the Grand Canal, and is known for the columns of Venice's two patrons, Marco and Todaro, that stand by the water's edge: on them are the lion of Saint Mark and the statue of Saint Teodoro of Amasea, "Santodaro" to the Venetians, who is standing on the sacred crocodile of Egypt. Theodore of Amasea is less well known than the Evangelist: he burned down a temple of Cybele as an act of Christian piety and was martyred for it. These columns constituted the official gateway to Venice; when there were no official guests in the city, gambling was permitted in the space between the columns. It was also the site of executions in the city.

Since 1480, three ships' masts have faced the waterfront. The banner of St Mark is flown from them on feast days.

Across the expanse of water (the Bacino di San Marco) is the Punta della Salute to the left of Baldassarre Longhena's "Santa Maria della Salute." The Dogana di mare ("customs House") has given its name to every Italian customs shed, much as Venice also had the original Arsenal.


Janson, Alban & Thorsten Bürklin. (2002). Auftritte Scenes: Interaction with Architectural Space: the Campi of Venice. Basel: Birkhauser. ISBN 3764365854 
Lien, Barbara. (May 2005). The Role of Pavement in the Perceived Integration of Plazas: An Analysis of the Paving Designs of Four Italian Piazzas. unpublished M.S. thesis. Washington State University Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture. PDF 
Norwich, John Julius, Tudy Sammartini, and Gabriele Crozzoli (1999). Decorative Floors of Venice. London: Merrell Publishers. ISBN 1858941083 
Puppi, Lionello. (2002). The Stones of Venice. New York: Vendome Press. ISBN 0865652457 
Williams, Kim. (1997). Italian Pavements: Patterns in Space. Houston: Anchorage Press. ISBN 0965526828