Long before the tourists arrived, Venice’s sestiere of San Marco was the city’s lively center – its religious, commercial and political hub from where the Venetian Republic gloriously reigned for centuries. Once called the world’s most beautiful drawing room by Napoleon, Piazza San Marco is Venice’s most impressive piazza (and its only one for that matter, since other squares in this city are merely campi).
But explore beyond the realm of the shimmering Piazza’s grand monuments and museums and you won’t be disappointed. From the famed theater La Fenice and the Riva del Carbon near the Ponte Rialto to the low-key church squares and bustling shopping districts, San Marco is an animated quarter.
Today, this highly trafficked district is one of colorful contrasts, where elegant boutiques and kitsch souvenir shops are neighbors, sophisticated ladies sport rubber boots to greet the aqua alta and travelers rub elbows with celebrities at exclusive cafés and masquerade balls.
Sightseeing in San Marco
Basilica di San Marco
Shortly after St. Mark’s body was smuggled to Venice from Alexandria, Egypt in 828, the first church of St. Mark the Evangelist was consecrated in his honor. By 1094, a new church was built on the foundations of the earlier one and was consecrated when St. Mark’s body was placed in a tomb beneath the high altar. Modeled after a basilica in Constantinople, Venice’s sumptuous basilica known as the Chiesa d’Oro was constructed on a Greek cross plan with five cupolas, an impressive example of Byzantine architecture.
Over the course of many centuries, modifications were made to the original church, with columns, statues and mosaics added to enhance its opulence. The best time to visit the basilica is around midday when more than 9,600 square yards of golden mosaics adorning the vaults, walls and cupolas are resplendent. The Byzantine mosaics depict stories from the Old and New Testaments and the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary and St. Mark. Be sure to visit the Pala d’Oro, the gilded altarpiece sumptuously ornamented with pearls and precious gems, and the Tesoro, where treasures from Constantinople and other relics are on display. Free guided tours with a Biblical reading related to the basilica’s mosaics are held between Apr and Oct, Mon-Sat at 11 am. See the schedule in the basilica entrance for tours in English.
Basilica di San Marco - Galleria e Museo
Established in the late 19th century, the basilica museum’s collection consists of liturgical vestments, fragments of mosaics, wool tapestries depicting episodes of the Passion of Christ and Persian carpets, but the crowning jewel is the quadriga, the four original bronze horses brought from Constantinople to Venice. The museum allows visitors access to the Loggia dei Cavalli where you can look out onto the Piazza San Marco.
The city’s tallest bell tower was originally constructed in the 12th century, then rebuilt in the 16th century with a loggia by Jacopo Sansovino and rebuilt again after collapsing in 1902. The brick tower that once served as a lighthouse opens onto some of the most breathtaking views of the city and surrounding lagoon.
Built between the 14th and 16th centuries on the foundations of a ninth-century fortress, the Gothic-style Doge’s Palace served as the doge’s residence and seat of political power for the Venetian Republic until the fall of La Serenissima in the late 18th century. The palace’s salons are richly decorated with gilded stuccowork, sculptures and frescoes by many of Venice’s masters, including Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, Bellini, Palma il Giovane and Tiepolo. Don’t miss the two magnificent stairways, Scala dei Giganti and the Scala d’Oro.
In the Napoleonic Wing of St. Mark’s Square, the Museo Correr was established in honor of Teodoro Correr, who left a sizeable collection to the city in 1830. The museum includes neo-classical rooms with sculptures by Antonio Canova, an art gallery with paintings by Venetian masters like Lorenzo Veneziano, the Bellini family and Carpaccio, as well as many documents, prints, drawings and photographs that shed light on Venice’s history.
On the north side of Piazza San Marco, two bronze Moors strike the hour atop Venice’s famous 15th-century clock tower. Just above the archway leading to the Mercerie shopping district is the complex clock mechanism in gold and blue enamel.
Palazzo Contarini dal Bovolo
In Venetian dialect, bovolo means snail shell, which is what the spiral staircase built in the late 15th century on the exterior of the palace looks like. Climb the stairs of the cylindrical staircase above the courtyard for a magnificent view over San Marco’s rooftops.
The eccentric Spaniard Mariano Fortuny converted the Gothic palazzo (once owned by the noble Pesaro family) into his residence and workshop for photography, textiles, set-design and painting. The 15th-century palazzo now houses a museum with a collection of his works. At publication time the museum was closed for restoration.
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