“Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.”
Napoleon may or may not have called the Piazza San Marco “the finest drawing room in Europe” but whether he did or he didn’t it doesn’t really matter because it is indeed one of the finest squares in all of Europe.
San Marco or is the principal public square of Venice where it is generally known just as ‘the Piazza’. All other urban spaces in the city (except the Piazzetta) are called ‘campi’ (fields). The Piazzetta (the ‘little Piazza’) is an extension of the Piazza towards the lagoon in its south east corner and the two spaces together form the social, religious and political centre of the city.
All visitors to Venice are drawn first to the self aggrandisement of San Marco where they compete with thousands of pigeons to find a seat or a column or a piece of pavement stone to sit and rest and admire the elegant and indulgent magnificence of the place.
The Piazza is dominated at its eastern end by the great church of St Mark where the whole of the west façade with its great noble arches and marble decoration, the Romanesque carvings around the central doorway and, above all, the four horses which preside over the whole piazza as potent symbols of the pride and power of Venice; such a symbol of power that Napoleon, after he had conquered Venice, had them removed and shipped to Paris.
We visited the church and climbed to the balcony where the replica horses look down on the geometric patterns of Istrian stone and the tables and chairs of the famous cafés, Quadri and Florian set out, alongside others, with neat precision all around the perimeter.
Next door in the Piazzetta is the Doge’s Palace with Gothic arcades at ground level and an elaborate loggia on the floor above and a long queue of people waiting for their turn at the ticket office. We joined this and enjoyed the sun as the queue moved slowly past and around the street vendors and the ladies selling bags of grain for feeding the birds. The Palace is a museum now and we took the route through the rooms where great works of art were displayed and then crossed the Bridge of Sighs to reach the old Palace prisons on the other side of a canal.
Opposite the Palace, standing free in the Piazza, is the red brick Campanile of St Mark’s church constructed in 1173, last restored in 1514 and faithfully rebuilt in 1912 after the collapse of the former campanile on 14th July 1902. Apparently, on that day, Venice woke up in the morning to a pile of rubble where they were used to seeing the tower and we hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself today because we took the lift to the top of the bell tower and were rewarded with stunning views over all of the city and the islands of the lagoon.
The cafés in San Marco are notoriously expensive but as we had already spent a small fortune on a gondola ride it seemed mean not to choose a table at the Café Florian and listen to the three piece orchestra whilst sipping an overpriced glass of beer. Luckily not all of Venice is this expensive and for evening meal we discovered a reasonably priced pizza restaurant just off the piazza on the Piazzetta dei Leoni just a few metres from the square.
Due to a number of interconnected and complicated environmental reasons Venice is slowly sinking and at various times is prone to serious flooding and for this reason the doors of all of the shops and cafés around the square are protected by water boards which are quickly put in place when a flood is imminent. This is called the Acqua Alta, the ‘high water’, from storm surges from the Adriatic or heavy rain and it is quick to flood. Venice is slowly slipping into the sea and it will be a tragic moment when the final tower sinks and emits a little belch of “ciao!“
Water pouring into the drains in the Piazza runs directly into the Grand Canal and this normally works well but, when the sea is high, it has the reverse effect, with water from the lagoon surging up into the Square. The most dramatic floods are recorded on the brickwork of the Campanile and it was a bit disconcerting that some of the high water marks were way above my head.
A flooded Piazza is a bit of a nuisance of course so the city has a solution to this which is to erect elevated wooden boardwalks whenever the flooding occurs and one evening to get across the square we had to take this elevated route back from our chosen restaurant on the east of the Piazza to our hotel on the west.
At night, when all of the day trippers have left and the cruise ships have moved on San Marco is a different place and, when it isn’t flooded, the Istrian stone reflects the gentle moonlight into the dark and mysterious shady corners behind the columns of the covered pavements and with no street vendors, pigeons or thousands of tourists it was nice to wander slowly through the square and into the Piazzetta next to the Grand Canal and watch moon beams dancing on the lagoon and listen the rhythmic slapping of the water against the quayside and the rows of gondolas tied up for the night.