The Venice Trilogy – II: San Marco

There is only one ‘piazza’ in Venice, or so the Venetians would tell you. Every piazza other than San Marco is a ‘campo’, because nothing stands the comparison with the Piazza of San Marco, where Venice showcases its grandiosity.

As you approach San Marco in the vaporetto (water bus), you are greeted with the façade of the Palazzo Ducale (The Doge’s Palace) and, next to it, two columns, like two beacons guiding you into the Piazzetta that precedes the bigger Piazza. On one of the columns stands the old St. Theodore, and on the other, the winged lion of San Marco, who ‘replaced’ St. Theodore thanks to…a crime?
Yes, theft. It was in 828 that two merchants from Venice bribed the guardian of St. Mark’s tomb in Alexandria and stole away his cadaver. A mosaic on the main façade of the Basilica shows an Arab holding his nose in disgust, as the two merchants showed him their ‘cargo’ of chopped pork (under which they hid the saint’s cadaver). Received as heroes in Venice, the city celebrated the arrival of the saint in style: finally, Venice had its apostle, just like Rome!

Once inside the Basilica, one is immediately bedazzled by the Byzantine style golden mosaics of the ceiling and the cupolas, a scene all-too-familiar for those who visited Hajia Sophia in Istanbul. The Pala d’Oro (the Basilica’s Byzantine gold retable) is encrusted with close to 2000 gems! (yes, you read that right). It obviously lures all the visitors away from the real masterpiece: the incredible marble floor with its richly colored mosaic. On the upper floor, the famous bronze horses (4 horses that once stood at the Hippodrome of Constantinople before being sacked during the Fourth Crusade) are on show in the ‘museum’. The upper floor offers nice views of the Basilica, and the open air gallery is the perfect place to enjoy panoramic views of the Piazza and the Piazzetta.

In the Piazza, the Napoleonic Wing stands at the far end, across the Piazza from the Baisilica. On both sides of the Piazza, the monumental Procuratie Vecchie and Procuratie Nuove offer the perfect backdrop to the busy square. The name comes from the procurators, once an important organ of the Venetian administration.

The Doge’s Palace is the ‘pearl’ of the Piazzetta. Its Gothic façade is no less impressive than the patio inside, famous for the Staircase of the Giants and for the Doge’s Chapel. Once inside the halls of the Palace, one is ‘besieged’ by epic paintings by the likes of Tintoretto and Veronese. Scenes from the Battle of Lepanto are among the most spectacular works. As we crossed the Bridge of Sighs, we could peer through the windows for a view of the Lagoon. The fresh breeze heralded the end of yet another wonderful day in la Serinissima.

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