The section of Venice enclosed by the lower loop of the Canal Grande – a rectangle smaller than 1000m by 500m – is, in essence, the Venice of the travel brochures. The plush hotels are concentrated here, in the sestiere of San Marco, as are the swankier shops and the best-known cultural attractions of the city.
“The finest drawing-room in Europe” was how Napoleon described its focal point, the Piazza San Marco – the only piazza in Venice, all other squares being campi or campielli. Less genteel phrases might seem appropriate on a suffocating summer afternoon, but the Piazza has been congested for centuries. Its parades, festivities and markets have always drawn visitors, the biggest attraction being the trade fair known as the Fiera della Sensa, which kept the Piazza buzzing for the fortnight following the Ascension Day ceremony of the Marriage of Venice to the Sea; nowadays the Piazza is the focal point of the Carnevale shenanigans. The coffee shops of the Piazza were a vital component of eighteenth-century high society, and the two survivors from that period – Florian and Quadri – are still the most expensive in town.Read More
The Basilica di San Marco
The Basilica di San Marco
The Basilica di San Marco is the most exotic of Europe’s cathedrals, and no visitor can remain dispassionate when confronted by it. Herbert Spencer loathed it – “a fine sample of barbaric architecture”, but to John Ruskin it was a “treasure-heap … a confusion of delight”. It’s certainly confusing, increasingly so as you come nearer and the details emerge; some knowledge of the history of the building helps bring a little order out of chaos.
According to the legend of St Mark’s annunciation, the Evangelist was moored in the lagoon, on his way to Rome, when an angel appeared and told him that his body would rest there. (The angel’s salute – Pax tibi, Marce evangelista meus – is the text cut into the book that the Lion of St Mark is always shown holding.) The founders of Venice, having persuaded themselves of the sacred ordination of their city, duly went about fulfilling the angelic prophecy, and in 828 the body of St Mark was stolen from Alexandria and brought here.
Modelled on Constantinople’s Church of the Twelve Apostles, the shrine of St Mark was consecrated in 832, but in 976 both the church and the Palazzo Ducale were burnt down. The present basilica was finished in 1094 and embellished over the succeeding centuries. Every trophy that the doge stuck onto his church (this church was not the cathedral of Venice but the doge’s own chapel) was proof of Venice’s secular might and so of the spiritual power of St Mark.
Of the exterior features that can be seen easily from the ground, the Romanesque carvings of the central door demand the closest attention – especially the middle arch’s figures of the months and seasons and outer arch’s series of the trades of Venice. The carvings were begun around 1225 and finished in the early fourteenth century. Take a look also at the mosaic above the doorway on the far left – The Arrival of the Body of St Mark – which was made around 1260 (the only early mosaic left on the main facade) and includes the oldest known image of the basilica.
From the Piazza you pass into the vestibule known as the narthex, which is decorated with thirteenth-century mosaics of Old Testament scenes on the domes and arches; The Madonna with Apostles and Evangelists, in the niches flanking the main door, date from the 1060s and are the oldest mosaics in San Marco.
The Loggia dei Cavalli
A steep staircase goes from the church’s main door up to the Museo di San Marco and the Loggia dei Cavalli. Apart from giving you an all-round view, the loggia is also the best place from which to inspect the Gothic carvings along the apex of the facade. The horses outside are replicas, the genuine articles having been removed inside. Thieved from the Hippodrome of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, the horses are probably Roman works of the second century – the only such ancient group, or quadriga, to have survived.
The interior’s mosaics
With its undulating floor of twelfth-century patterned marble, its plates of eastern stone on the lower walls, and its four thousand square metres of mosaics covering every other inch of wall and vaulting, the interior of San Marco is the most opulent of any cathedral. One visit is not enough – there’s too much to take in at one go, and the shifting light reveals and hides parts of the decoration as the day progresses; try calling in for half an hour at the beginning and end of a couple of days.
The majority of the mosaics were in position by the middle of the thirteenth century; some date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and others were created as recently as the eighteenth century to replace damaged early sections. Some of the best are the following: on the west wall, above the door, Christ, the Virgin and St Mark; in the west dome, Pentecost; on the arch between the west and central domes, the Crucifixion and Resurrection; in the central dome, Ascension; and in the east dome, Religion of Christ Foretold by the Prophets.
From the south transept you can enter the Sanctuary where, behind the altar, you’ll find the most precious of San Marco’s treasures – the Pala d’Oro (Golden Altar Panel). Commissioned in 976 in Constantinople, the Pala was enlarged, enriched and rearranged by Byzantine goldsmiths in 1105, then by Venetians in 1209 (to incorporate some less-cumbersome loot from the Fourth Crusade) and again (finally) in 1345. The completed screen holds 83 enamel plaques, 74 enamelled roundels, 38 chiselled figures, 300 sapphires, 300 emeralds, 400 garnets, 15 rubies, 1300 pearls and a couple of hundred other stones.
Tucked into the corner of the south transept is the door of the treasury, installed in a thick-walled chamber which is perhaps a vestige of the first Palazzo Ducale. This dazzling warehouse of chalices, icons, reliquaries, candelabra and other ecclesiastical appurtenances is an unsurpassed collection of Byzantine work in silver, gold and semiprecious stones. Particularly splendid are a twelfth-century Byzantine incense burner in the shape of a domed church, and a gilded silver Gospel cover from Aquileia, also made in the twelfth century.
The rest of the Basilica
Back in the main body of the church, there’s still more to see on the lower levels of the building. Don’t overlook the rood screen’s marble figures of The Virgin, St Mark and the Apostles, carved in 1394 by the dominant sculptors in Venice at that time, Jacobello and Pietro Paolo Dalle Masegne. The pulpits on each side of the screen were assembled in the early fourteenth century from miscellaneous panels (some from Constantinople); the new doge was presented to the people from the right-hand one. The tenth-century Icon of the Madonna of Nicopeia (in the chapel on the east side of the north transept) is the most revered religious image in Venice; it used to be one of the most revered in Constantinople.
The Palazzo Ducale
The Palazzo Ducale
Architecturally, the Palazzo Ducale is a unique mixture: the style of its exterior, with its geometrically patterned stonework and continuous tracery walls, can only be called Islamicized Gothic, whereas the courtyards and much of the interior are based on Classical forms – a blending of influences that led Ruskin to declare it “the central building of the world”. Unquestionably, it is the finest secular building of its era in Europe, and the central building of Venice. The Palazzo Ducale was far more than the residence of the doge – it was the home of all of Venice’s governing councils, its law courts, a sizeable number of its civil servants and even its prisons. All power in the Venetian Republic and its domains was controlled within this one building.
At the head of the network was the doge, the one politician to sit on all the major councils of state and the only one elected for life; he could be immensely influential in policy and appointments, and restrictions were accordingly imposed on his actions to reduce the possibility of his abusing that power – his letters were read by censors and he wasn’t permitted to receive foreign delegations alone. The privileges of the job far outweighed the inconveniences though, and men campaigned for years to increase their chances of election.
The Porta della Carta and courtyard
Like the Basilica, the Palazzo Ducale has been rebuilt many times since its foundation in the first years of the ninth century. The principal entrance to the palazzo – the Porta della Carta – is one of the most ornate Gothic works in the city. It was commissioned in 1438 by Doge Francesco Fóscari from Bartolomeo and Giovanni Bon, but the figures of Fóscari and his lion are replicas – the originals were pulverized in 1797 as a favour to Napoleon. Fóscari’s head survived the hammering, however, and is on display inside.
Tourists no longer enter the building by the Porta della Carta, but instead are herded through a doorway on the lagoon side. Once through the ticket hall you emerge in the courtyard, opposite the other end of the passageway into the Palazzo – the Arco Fóscari. The itinerary begins on the left side of the courtyard, where the finest of the capitals from the Palazzo’s exterior arcade are displayed in the Museo dell’Opera.
Upstairs, the route takes you through the doge’s private apartments, then on to the Anticollegio, the room in which embassies had to wait before being admitted to the presence of the doge and his cabinet. This is one of the richest rooms in the Palazzo Ducale for paintings: four pictures by Tintoretto hang on the door walls, and facing the windows is Veronese’s Rape of Europa.
The Sala del Collegio and Sala del Maggior Consiglio
The cycle of paintings on the ceiling of the adjoining Sala del Collegio is also by Veronese, and he features strongly again in the most stupendous room in the building – the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Veronese’s ceiling panel of The Apotheosis of Venice is suspended over the dais from which the doge oversaw the sessions of the city’s general assembly; the backdrop is Tintoretto’s immense Paradiso, painted towards the end of his life, with the aid of his son, Domenico. At the opposite end there’s a curiosity: the frieze of portraits of the first 76 doges (the series continues in the Sala dello Scrutinio – through the door at the far end) is interrupted by a painted black veil, marking the place where Doge Marin Falier would have been honoured had he not been beheaded for conspiring against the state in 1355.
Bridge of Sighs and the prisons
A couple of rooms later you descend to the underbelly of the Venetian state, crossing the Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs, to the prisons. Before the construction of these cells in the early seventeenth century all prisoners were kept in the Piombi (the Leads), under the roof of the Palazzo Ducale, or in the Pozzi (the Wells) in the bottom two storeys; the new block was occupied mainly by petty criminals. The route finishes with a detour through the Pozzi, but if you want to see the Piombi, and the rooms in which the day-to-day administration of Venice took place, you have to go on one of the “secret” tours.
Generally known as the Ala Napoleonica, this short side of the Piazza is partly occupied by the Museo Correr, an immense triple-decker museum with a vast historical collection of coins, weapons, regalia, prints, paintings and miscellanea. Much of this is heavy going unless you have an intense interest in Venetian history, though there’s an appealing exhibition of Venetian applied arts, and one show-stopping item in the form of the original blocks and a print of Jacopo de’ Barbari’s astonishing aerial view of Venice, engraved in 1500. The Quadreria on the second floor is no rival for the Accademia’s collection, but it does set out clearly the evolution of painting in Venice from the thirteenth century to around 1500, and it contains some gems – the most famous being the Carpaccio picture usually known as The Courtesans, although its subjects are really a couple of bored-looking bourgeois ladies. The section of the Correr devoted to the Museo del Risorgimento is largely given over to the 1848 rebellion against the Austrians; it’s often closed.