Piazza San Marco or St. Mark’s Square is one of the world’s most beautiful architectural complexes and probably the most famous place in Venice. Since medieval times, it has been the center of Venice. Its huge open space is dominated by an exotic Veneto-Byzantine church. It was also 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.
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. 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.
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.
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 an underground drainage system.
The pattern connected the central portal of the Basilica with the center of the western opening into the piazza. The design was laid out by Venetian architect Andrea Tirali. 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.
On both sides of the piazza are the Procuratie buildings, which housed the procurators of San Marco. The buildings around the Piazza, anti-clockwise from the Grand Canal, are the Doge's Palace, St. Mark's Basilica, St. Mark's Clock tower, the Procuratie Vecchie, the Napoleonic Wing of the Procuraties, the Procuratie Nuove, St. Mark's Campanile and Logetta and the Biblioteca Marciana.
St. Mark’s Square was the heart of Venice in its glorious heyday as a Seafaring Republic. If you have only a single day in Venice, spend it in or around the square, as some of the city’s major attractions, including St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, are centered here or nearby.
Throughout the year, tourists flood into the Piazza to see these sites. If you can visit early in the morning, you may have the Piazza to yourself, with perhaps a few pigeons for company.
The Piazza is best seen at daybreak, at dead of night, or in deep midwinter. A daytime visit in the summer may prove something of an endurance test. But the Piazza nevertheless remains an unmissed sight.
The best approach is by foot from the west end of the Piazza or the vaporetto # 1 will drop you at Vallaresso or San Marco, just a couple of minutes’ walk. Take time to look around the Piazza, with its arcades and the clock tower, before going up the Campanile for the great cityscape and an overview of the Piazza.
Then head for the interior of the Basilica, being sure to go up to the Loggia overlooking the Piazza before you enter the church itself. Once inside the church, you can’t backtrack. After this, stroll through the Piazzetta down to the water’s edge to take in the panorama over the Bacino di San Marco to San Giorgio Maggiore and the mouth of the Grand Canal, before settling at a café table for an unforgettable, and certainly pricey, drink in one of the world’s great city settings.
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