Piazza San Marco – or St. Mark’s Square – is one of the most visited sights in Italy. Millions of tourists flock to the iconic square to explore the Basilica of Saint Mark, wander the Halls of Doges Palace and sip Bellinis in one of the most picturesque spots on the island. Measuring 176 m (590 ft) and 70 m (230 ft), the square was built in the ninth century. It’s also the only piazza in Venice. There are 135 smaller public squares throughout the city but, besides the Piazzale Roma, they’re all referred to as ‘Campo’. Looking to find out more about this famous square? Here are a few interesting facts about Piazza San Marco.
Interesting Facts About Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy
1. It’s the lowest point in Venice
Everyone knows Venice is built on water but did you know that Piazza San Marco is the closest you can get to it? The square sits around 90 cm above sea level, supported by 100,000 wooden piles. Unsurprisingly, the square is extremely prone to flooding and always the first part of the city to get wet, with water pouring through the drain holes in different parts of the square. At several points throughout the year, the square is totally submerged in water.
Aqua Alta, the phenomenon that sees Venice temporarily flooded when the sea levels rise over 90 cm, generally takes place in wintertime.
2. Napoleon was a fan
Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797. Around the time, he allegedly described San Marco Square as “the world’s most beautiful drawing room”. While this comment is strictly hearsay, we can all assume he was impressed square. The first thing he did when he assumed power was to steal all of the gold and precious stones, sailing them off to France as a galley for prisoners. He rebuilt most of the western side of the square and his stepson also built a magnificent palace. This was neglected for over a century before it reopened in 2012. For many, the palace serves as a reminder of the man who ended the glorious republic of Venice.
3. You can’t eat in the square
There are quite a few rules when it comes to taking a trip to San Marco Piazza. According to the Città di Venezia’s website, you can get slapped with a 100 to 200 euros fine for consuming food or drink in the square. It’s also forbidden to sit down on banks and foundations, monuments, bridges, steps, puteals and high-water walkways.
Plenty of tourists have learned the hard way. In 2019, police fined a pair of backpackers 950 euros and asked them to leave the city for brewing coffee on a portable stove on the steps of the city’s historic Rialto Bridge.
4. The Bell Tower is newer than you think it is
Looming over the city at 323 ft (98 m), you can’t miss Venice’s most famous bell tower. Constructed in the ninth century, the tower was built to keep sight of approaching ships and to protect the city from invasion. It also acted as a landmark – much like the Statue of Liberty – to guide Venetian ships safely back to the harbour. The belfry and spire were added in the twelfth century and in the fourteenth century, the spire was guilded. Historically, the bells have always been used to mark the beginning, pauses and end of the work day.
But the version you’ll visit today was actually rebuilt in the twentieth century. In 1902, the entire tower collapsed. Thankfully, due to its isolated position, it didn’t do too much damage to the surrounding buildings – a corner of the Marciana Library was destroyed and one of the Basilica’s columns was badly damaged. The custodian’s cat was fatally injured too. Following a global fundraising initiative, spearheaded by international newspapers, Venice was able to rebuild the iconic watchtower.
5. The Basilica has a few secrets
The original structure was built to house stolen relics. Legend has it that two Venetian merchants, Tribunus and Rusticus, managed to steal the body of Saint Mark (the square’s namesake) from monks in Alexandria, Egypt, in 828 AD. According to the story, they managed to sneak him past the Muslim guards by hiding him under layers of pork in a barrel. During the voyage back, a storm almost drowned them, but Saint Mark appeared to the captain and instructed him to lower the sails. The ship was saved. You can see the whole story on a 13th century mosaic above the left door as you enter the Basilica.
The evangelist’s remains are believed to be in a venerated tomb in the church. However, in the past decade, a controversial new theory has been put forward that the Venetians didn’t steal the great evangelist after all but instead brought back with them one of the most famous warlords in history – Alexander the Great.
6. There was once another church on the square
Once upon a time, a small church called the San Geminiano Church stood on the Museo Corner. Built in 1557, it was part of Jacopo Sansovino’s original redesign of the Piazza San Marco. Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson, destroyed the church in 1807 to build his own palace. There’s still a plaque for Jacopo Sansovino, who was buried in the church, at the entrance of the Museum.
Tintoretto famously painted a beautiful altarpiece called ‘Angelo che predica Santa Caterina d’Alessandria del suo martirio’. It was saved before the church was destroyed and in the twentieth century David Bowie for a while. Today, you can see it at Rubens House in Antwerp.
7. Look closely at those macabre columns
Take a look at the Palazzo Ducale and you’ll notice that there are two pink columns surrounded by white columns. It’s no accident, the doge used to announce death sentences here. The pink colour likely represents blood. If the criminal was an aristocrat, he’d be hanged right between the two columns and left there for a few days as a warning to Venetians.
Given its history, a common superstition tells that you shouldn’t walk through the two columns because it will bring you bad luck. The Venetians refer to it as ‘trovarsi tra Marco e Todaro’. We don’t need to be told once.