What could be more ordinary than a public square in Europe? Every country is filled with them. Yet, ah, there are few to compare to Piazza San Marco. One could easily spend an entire vacation in Venice taking in its many wonderful sights. Even apart from the famed Basilica di San Marco, there are a dozen fascinating things to see.
Just the opportunity to stand in this ancient square will attract many visitors. The sights of the Basilica, the Campanile, the Doge’s Palace and more are their rewards. Unlike many public squares in Europe, there is no traffic or auto noise to mar the experience.
The piazza began life as nothing more than an open space outside the now-replaced church in the 9th century. Enlarged and reshaped to its present three-sided area by the late 12th century, it rapidly became the meeting place of rich and poor, grand and humble. All-important offices of the Republic were located here. All the major festivals were held here.
One of the more delightful sights is the Doge’s Palace. As the name suggests, the Palazzo Ducale di Venezia was the palace of the Doge of Venice, a leader of the government. Constructed during the 14th century, it incorporated several innovative features, such as a series of arches on the lower story, with the heavier sections above. Now a museum, there are paintings inside by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and other famed artists of the period.
The Bridge of Sighs is nearby. This bridge led to a 1600-era prison but gained its present name from the poet Lord Byron in the 19th century. The thought was the prisoners would sigh at the loveliness of Venice before seeing it for the last time as they entered the Doge’s prison. Legend has it that two lovers who kiss in a gondola under the bridge at sunset will enjoy eternal love.
Another sight in the square is the Campanile, the belltower of St. Mark’s. The present Campanile di San Marco was completed in 1912, designed as an exact replica of the earlier structure that had collapsed ten years earlier. It had stood for nearly 500 years. Both a bell tower for the cathedral and a military watchtower from the 10th century, it alone would make a visit here worthwhile. The roof catches the warm Venice summer sun and radiates it out across the entire square.
Torre dell’Orologio or the Moors’ Clocktower is still another outstanding sight in Piazza San Marco. Completed in 1499, it does much more than provide the time to local citizens. It adds immeasurably to the beauty of the area. With its five bays and two giant bronze figures it remains one of the city’s most glorious public works. The clock contains a series of concentric dials that tell the time, the zodiac sign and the phases of the sun and moon.
There are so many things to see in this one part of Venice alone that visitors can be thankful for the nearby Cafe Florian. Serving visitors and locals alike since 1720, the coffee will be just what you need to have the energy to see everything that St. Mark’s square offers.