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Piazza San Marco

In New York, every tourist has to visit Times Square. In London, Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus vie for the visitor's attention. In Paris, the vacationer is expected to give at least a passing glance to the Place de la Concorde.

The equivalent tourist magnet in Venice is the Piazza San Marco, better known to Anglophones as St. Mark's Square. It differs from its foreign counterparts in two major respects: (1) It's more attractive, and (2) It hasn't been corrupted by the automobile.

Piazza San Marco Venice Italy

A public space for people

In The Companion Guide to Venice, Hugh Honour describes the Piazza San Marco as "beautiful at all times of day or night and all seasons of the year. It is one of the few delicate works of architecture that can absorb a bustling vulgar crowd without loss of dignity; a great city square which retains a feeling of animation when there are few people in it."

Jan Morris, the noted travel writer who lived for several years in Venice, writes:

 "The great Piazza of St. Mark's is at its very best on a hot day early in summer, when visitors from the four corners of the earth are inspecting its marvels, and Venice is one great itchy palm."

Morris adds:

"The patterned floor of the Piazza is thick with pigeons, and two or three women at little trestle stalls are invitingly rattling their packets of maize... On every step or balustrade, on the ledges around the base of the Campanile, on the supports of the two columns of the Piazzetta, around the flagstaffs, beside the little porphyry lions--wherever there is a square foot of sitting space, hundreds of young people have settled like birds, spreading their skirts and books around them."

(Note: These passages are taken from Morris's The World of Venice, which is indispensable background reading for any Venetophile.)

Napoleon called the Piazza San Marco "the finest drawing room in Europe." That description may have been a little off-base--there's no ceiling, and where's the sofa?--but the fact remains that St. Mark's is a far nicer place for sitting and schmoozing than the average living room or hotel lobby.

What's more, the square is bordered by historic buildings and represents the focal point of Venice's water transport system. Toss in pigeons and outdoor caff�s, and you've got a spot that Thomas Coryate described as "the fairest place of all the citie" in 1611--the year when the King James Bible was first published.

Not a square at all

"St. Mark's Square" is a misnomer, as the accompanying photo suggests. Those slanting arcades aren't just the result of false perspective; the "square" is actually a trapezoid. Its shape, which flares outward from its enclosed end, makes the Piazza appear even more spacious when viewed from the Ala Napoleonica (the arcaded building at the top of the photograph).

The piazza was laid out in the 11th Century, when its area was divided in half by a canal near the caf� tables in the picture. A century later, the canal was filled in, creating the basic shape that exists today.

A major building project got underway in the 16th Century, and new stone paving replaced the old bricks in the early 1700s. The geometric patterns of Istrian stone add to the illusion of depth, although they've also been used to mark the locations of traders' stalls at various times. (In Venice, a city of traders, art and commerce have long enjoyed a peaceful coexistence.)

Next page: What to see in the piazza


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