The next leg of my art-history study abroad journey brings us to the island of Venice, Italy; where we’ll be staying for a few days, and I couldn’t be more thrilled! I went on a whirlwind tour of Italy back in 2015, and while Venice was my favorite place in the whole country, I felt like I only scratched the surface of the floating city. Thankfully, with a few days planned here, there should be plenty of time to explore every corner of the island. Today I started my mission to explore all of Venice by spending the whole day in what is arguably Venice’s top destination- Saint Mark’s Square.
“Why did you spend all day in this one place you buffoon?”, you may be asking. Well, there’s over a dozen things to do Saint Mark’s square alone, and since I had an amazing day here in this little patch of Venice, here’s a rundown of how you too, can spend an entire day in the main square of one of the coolest cities on earth!
As we skipped across the lagoon on our first vaporetta (a Venetian water taxi) from Italy’s mainland to Venice, our professor warned us about the serious flooding that Venice has been experiencing due to rising tides. Apparently, when the city floods with up to a few feet of water, you have to hop across the square on tabletops and chairs to get from one place to another!
As curious as I was to see what that kind of flooding would look like, we thankfully never saw more then a few puddles bubbling up from the ground when the tide rose.
Saint Mark’s Basilica
Like most other Italian piazzas, the main feature of Saint Mark’s square is its Basilica. This Basilica is especially famous because it holds the bones of Saint Mark the evangelist (one of the Bible’s authors).
It also looks way different from the Italian churches of Tuscany. Instead of white marble accented with red and green that I’d come to expect, Saint Mark’s is pale gold with several blue domes with spires rising from the top. I honestly thought it looked more like a mosque at first.
At the top of the facade is a golden winged lion statue standing in front of an indigo starry background, with Saint Mark himself, in gold, on the very top. Apparently, the winged lion is a symbol of both Saint Mark and Venice.
Unfortunately, Saint Mark’s Basilica is another church where you can’t take photos while inside. They even made the distinction between photos and selfies to get the point across.
The interior of the basilica is very dark as there aren’t many windows. Instead, most of the light comes from dark red and bronze lamps that hang low from the ceiling. The church itself is built in the shape of a greek-cross, but it’s a bit hard to navigate due to the large altar-area in the middle chamber, and to several areas being roped off. This made it so that you often had to wait in lines to get from one area of the church to the next.
The most notable feature of the Saint Mark’s basilica is probably its mosaics. While it was a good choice financially, seeing as the nearby Murano island could produce all the glass tiles they would need, it apparently took awhile for the mosaics to be permanently completed because Venice’s humid environment kept the clay ceiling (that keeps the mosaic tiles in place) from drying.
I shuffled in line through the four different chambers of the cross shaped church, trying to ingrain it in my memory since I couldn’t take photos. Saint Mark’s isn’t overwhelmingly full of art though (most of that is in the treasury), so I was able to sit in one of the pews and enjoy the cool, dark space.
In addition to the church itself, Saint Mark’s also has a treasury and a viewing deck that can be visited for an additional fee. I didn’t do either, but if you have, please tell me about it!
Saint Mark’s Campanile
If you skip out on climbing the viewing deck at Saint Mark’s basilica, you can still get amazing (and probably better) views of Venice from its insanely tall bell tower, Saint Mark’s Campanile. It’s so tall, in fact, that I wasn’t able to get a picture of both the church and the bell tower in it, it was too long to fit in the frame!
I didn’t climb the bell tower this time, but I am determined to next time I visit!
The Clock Tower
One of Saint Mark’s square’s most iconic pieces of architecture is its Clock Tower. Kind of a boring name for something so unique in my opinion, as it was the first part of the square that caught my eye. It’s one of Europe’s unusual astrological clocks, and has a deep indigo face with the 12 zodiac signs radiating out for each hour in gold. I had fun finding my sign- yay pisces!!!
You definitely want to visit the clock tower at the turn of the hour, because a mechanical statue in the shape of a little man rings the bell just for you! 🙂
Caffé Florian on the Procuratie
Perhaps one of the more dignified things to do in Saint Mark’s square is to visit the world’s oldest cafe- Caffé Florian. It’s one of the shops tucked into the square’s Procuratie, which are the stores, restaurants, and offices that surround and look out onto the square.
We were warned that a seat and coffee at Caffé Florian would be 80 euros, but we figured we could cut that cost significantly by drinking while standing up at the espresso bar like the locals do. Plus, we decided we couldn’t miss out on drinking coffee at the same place as Mozart had!
So my friend and I looked carefully under the menu, realized that hot chocolate (cioccolata in tazza) was the cheapest item on the menu (at 15 euros standing price), and made our was into the old caffé. As we made our way towards the coffee bar, we passed through several elegant rooms full of expensive looking furniture, which made me nervous about touching anything. We also wandered up a creaky staircase that turned out to be a bathroom, where a refined looking old woman stood. I think she was a bathroom attendant. Fancy!
Finally, we turned up at the bar and ordered hot chocolate in the best (most accurate) italian we could muster. The man working there was very nice, and poured us two dainty tea cups of cioccolata in tazza. We stood there taking tiny sips and (politely) raving about how good it was. The cocoa was thicker than I’d ever had, and tasted like rich, melted dark chocolate. A few minutes of sipping later, the barista told us that we could have a seat in the small room. I think he could tell my friends and I were worried about the cost, because he told us not to worry about it with a wink and a smile.
So we settled into a set of plush, red velvet chairs and enjoyed our drinks at the world’s oldest cafe.
Finally, when it was time to pay the check, I was shocked to find that our bill was 5.3 euros instead of 15! How lucky! This is just another example of people’s kindness and generosity in the wonderful wonderful country of Italy.
The Doge’s Palace
If the orange-and-white checkered walls adorned with layers of lacy-looking arches looks familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve seen the replica at Epcot in Disney world! (that was how I recognized it anyway)
This beautiful piece of Italian architecture is the Doge’s Palace, a governing building that used to be the home of the Doge, who served as the ruler of the former Venetian Republic.
Although it no longer functions as a political seat, the Doge’s palace has been structurally preserved, and you can explore its richly different chambers full of Venetian artifacts, as well as the dungeons below.
Yep, there are DUNGEONS!
Getting lost in the prisoner’s dungeons was my favorite part of my visit to the Doge’s palace, even if I got lost down there for like half an hour.
Columns of San Marco and San Todaro
As you begin to exit Saint Mark’s square towards the Doge’s palace, you’ll probably notice 2 giant columns rising up in the middle of the path, one topped with a statue of Saint Theodore (San Todaro), the other with the Lion of Venice (San Marco).
Though they are beautiful works of art, whatever you do, DO NOT walk between the two columns!
According to Venetian legend, criminals used to be executed between the Columns of San Marco and San Todaro while facing the square, and so walking between them is said to bring you TERRIBLE luck.
Five years ago, I got lost from my group, walked between the pillars without knowing any better, and may have inadvertently caused a tornado that flooded our hotel, but that’s a story for another day.
Other Works of art in Saint Mark’s Square
One of the many reasons that Venice is a hub for art historians is that it contains lots of stolen art, or ‘spoila’ that has been taken from all over the world (hundreds of years ago).
Most of these spoila can be found in pillars and the capitals that sit on top of them, like the Pillars of Acre decorated with swirling vines and acanthus leaves. If you look closely, you can also spot an indigo pillar on the Basilica di San Marco’s facade, probably taken from Instanbul during the Crusades. Some of the spoila are a little more obvious, like the four horses or the russet-red Tetrarchs, a byzantine sculpture carved from dark porphyry that sticks out of the church’s pale facade like a sore thumb.
While definitely morally dubious, I think all of the spoila in Saint Mark’s square is neat because although it makes the whole square a seem a little mismatched, it’s kind of like looking through an I-Spy book because there’s little details that you notice each time you visit.
Now I wanna hear from you guys, what’s your favorite building, monument, or spoila in Saint Mark’s square? Have you had a personal experience with the cursed Columns?
Tell me all about your travels in Venice in the comments below, I love to read them! 🙂
Where did I come from?: Seeing Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna
Where am I going?: Island hopping in Venice!