‘She would go to the piazza from where the doges had once set out to wed the sea with rings’.*
Like Miss Garnet, we headed first for the piazza. It seemed the natural place to begin. A public space so grand that no other square in the city was thought fit to bear the name – all the others are campi or if they are tiny, campielli. Over the following weeks we were pulled back again and again. We watched as sunlight lit the mosaics on the Basilica and tourists picked their way over the board-walks during aqua alta. We saw the campanile play hide and seek when the mist rolled in from the lagoon; we supped at Caffe Florian and Levano, attended concerts, and midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Seemingly we did it all, yet we could not get enough.
I remember my first sight of the domes of San Marco, approaching from a narrow side-street – where all was confusion, brightly lit shops, a press of people, compression – to the white-tiled basilica, breathtaking in it’s exuberant gaudiness; there was nothing retiring about this beauty. A conglomeration of carvings and arches, mosaics and columns, marble and stone. A giant lock-up for stolen goods. The four bronze horses on the loggia, the two square pillars, and the Tetrarchs (the four knightly looking figures on the corner) on the south facade, were all taken from Constantinople. The Pitera del Bando, a stumpy column of porphyry in front of the Basilica, was taken from Acre in 1258. Even the body of St. Mark himself was nabbed from Alexandria in 828. It’s a sort of scrapbook of the crusades. Hauntingly beautiful in a strange way; rather like the ugly sister dressed up for the ball – a little indecent, but impossible to avert the eyes.
The piazza has always been overcrowded, and always full of foreigners. It was used by traders – there was a slave market here until the end of the ninth century – in the sixteenth century there were butchers and grocers, moneylenders, notaries, freak shows, masques, jugglers, puppeteers, sweet-sellers, and fortune-tellers. Nowadays, there are Indian men with wan smiles who hold out red roses to holiday-makers, a digital photo booth, and stalls selling T-shirts (‘I love Venice’, and ‘Universita Venezia’), masks and fridge magnets. There used to be public executions, usually simple beheadings, but one morning in 1405, citizens awoke to find three men buried alive, head down, between the granite columns on the Molo. There were bull baitings and pig hunts, and even ceremonial gun salutes until it was found that their vibrations were loosening the precious mosaics of the Basilica. Nowadays it’s only the orchestras of the cafés, competing for customers, that create a wall of sound.
There used to be as many as twenty cafés on the piazza. Casanova is rumoured to have stopped for a drink at one of them as he made his escape from the Doges Palace. The soft lights of Caffe Florian, glowing under the sottoportici are indeed enticing and the ‘Chocolate Casanova’ delicious – chocolate shavings atop mint green milk, atop steaming rich chocolate. So decadent. So costly.
But that’s San Marco – it’s all about Venetian pride and the glory of La Serenissima. Her history and achievement woven into every brick, column and adornment. ‘La Vecia’, the old woman who saved one of the Doges from the rogue noble Bajamonte Tiepolo, is still leaning out of her window above the Sottoportego del Cappello. She’s been there since 1310. A date on the ground marks the spot where her mortar hit and killed Tiepolo’s standard bearer, causing him to panic and run back to the Rialto. And it’s not just the great moments in history that are commemorated. Look carefully at the capital of the fat column of the Ducal Palace – the seventh from the Piazza corner. It tells a moving story of a young couple, starting with a lover seeing his mistress at a window, courting her, their first kiss, their wedding, the birth and childhood of their son, and finally the child’s death. All of life is here.
The bronze horses on the loggia have overlooked it all for 800 years – give or take a few. A story tells that once, long ago, their eyes were precious rubies, and superstitious Venetians swore that at night, the horses would descend and gallop up and down the piazza, whinnying and looking for that which they’d lost. It’s still thought to be bad luck to walk under the aforementioned columns on the Molo. Look carefully at the fourth column along on the waterfront side of the Palzazzo Ducale, and you will see the area around it’s base is worn slippery and thin – they say by the footsteps of prisoners hoping desperately for a reprieve – all they had to do was place their hands around the column and edge around it without slipping onto the flagstones – and they were free to go. Today, tour guides ask hapless members of their group to test the theory and you’ll see them stumbling and laughing, swearing it’s impossible. ‘Even a child can’t do it’, laughed Catherine, from Free Venice Tours.
Fact or fiction? It hardly matters. To stand on the piazza is to stand at the heart of Venice, to feel her story; to hear her history, to drink it in.
*p 20 ‘Miss Garnet’s Angel’. Sally Vickers.