Piazza San Marco: The Drawing Room of Europe

February 4, 2010 at 3:42 am (Katie Sahiar Dubey, Travel)

 Perhaps without exception everyone visiting Venice heads for the Piazza San Marco, St. Mark’s Square. It’s the only space to be called Piazza in Venice and is literally, the ‘heart of the city’. For every important occasion in the life of their city, Venetians converge on the square. One of the most astounding urban spaces of Europe, Napoleon is said to have called it ‘The drawing room of Europe’. Getting to Venice was a very important occasion of my life too and so first thing in the morning my sister and I headed to the quayside.  After some confusion that was sure to ensue due to our Italian and their English, we finally got on to an anchored vaporetti ready to leave for stations along the Grand Canal, one of which was definitely the Piazza San Marco.

The vaporetti being the local water transport was soon tightly packed, more like a Mumbai BEST bus. We stood by the railing to get some air. As the boat moved away from its moorings and began to pick up speed, Venice unfolded exactly like a picture-postcard. The palaces of the rich, all set along the water’s edge facing the canal, their uniform size and highly ornate decorations were breathtaking even though we could only get a fleeting look.  Boats that served as personal vehicles were moored to the landing of each palace. Quite a few churches were also pointed out to us as we moved past. The vaporetti halted at the San Marco station and we clambered out along with a whole horde of American tourists, distinguishable by their nasal twang. Following the crowd we walked along, crossed several bridges and finally came to the tall column that marked the square, the Campanile or clock tower. Words are entirely inadequate to express the feelings that chase each other when you stand at the base of the Campanile like an ant beside an elephant and look out on the colossal expanse in front of you; a trapezium in fact running 175 meters in length. The space is enclosed by magnificent buildings — the most stunning being the Basilica de San Marco, Doge’s Palace and the Basilica’s campanile, which stands apart from it. 

Travel is nothing if not a slice of history re-lived! I stood at the far end of the square gazing at the opulent and exquisite St. Mark’s Basilica through my camera screen while maneuvering to fit it into my frame. It was rather frustrating as people moved around in front of the camera, children careening around jostled me and while I waited for my moment to click, a rather strange story wafted through my mind.

St. Theodore was the original patron saint of Venice when it rose out of the marshes and established itself on the 118 islands by the Adriatic Sea. Protected by the sea and its waterways it was able to grow into a wealthy trading nation. Then, it needed a major saint in the league of Peter and Paul, to enhance its prestige. A legend relates that, St. Mark when travelling through Venice had seen a vision. An angel had declared his final resting place to be Venice. Eight hundred years after he was buried in Alexandria, two merchants took it upon themselves to bring the saint home. They sailed to Egypt, bribed the guardians of St. Mark’s tomb in Alexandria, removed his body and replaced it with that of St. Claudian. They concealed St. Mark’s body in a basket, carried it to the harbour and took it aboard a Venetian vessel. Unfortunately, the powerful odour emanating from the body roused suspicions. Port officials came aboard to investigate. The merchants shrewdly placed chunks of pork over the body and the Muslim soldiers recoiled from it. The Venetian merchants triumphantly sailed away with their priceless treasure – a saint for their city. Arriving safely in Venice the body was accepted officially as that of St.Mark’s and the Doge arranged for it to be buried again with the appropriate ceremony. 

Founded in 829, St. Mark’s church served as a shrine to house the stolen body of the saint and as a private chapel for the Doge, the ruler of Venice. This little church designed on the pattern of a Greek Cross burned down, but over its ashes rose the magnificent Basilica de San Marco. Byzantine architecture with mixed interior styles, it was consecrated in 1094, though additions and expansion to the building continued.  Enlarged on the north and south it still followed the Greek Cross plan with its most outstanding feature being the vaulting of the five domes built in brick instead of the customary wood to provide a base for the ceiling mosaics. By the 13th century, the domes were covered with towering external cupolas roofed in lead and surmounted by onion-shaped lanterns. By the ordinance of 1075, each returning ship was obliged to furnish it with some precious object. The beautification of the exterior continued until the mid-fifteenth century when it was finally rounded off with the addition of crockets, pinnacles and statues making it the breathtaking monument that we were gawking at. The interior presents vast cavernous spaces lit by narrow windows in the five domes and gilded expanses of mosaics, which cover an area of almost 8,000 square meters. The walls are lined with eastern marble and at the centre of the nave is a beautiful large Byzantine chandelier of delicate hand-painted crystal hanging like a precious pearl, while the floor has 12th century paving with geometric patterns and some beasts and birds filled in. It was all too overwhelming and difficult to absorb in the crush of the crowd. I managed to find some corners to retreat into from where I could gaze without interruption. Soon enough a security guard politely urged me to move on and so having done the entire ground floor, my sister and I emerged into the golden sunshine of the square again.

That was a lot of art and history for one morning. We wandered around doing the mundane – street shopping which seems to be the same everywhere. T-shirts with basilica prints, scarves, peak-caps and knick-knacks; food stalls, glassware, shoes, and ice-cream; just name it. We haggled for some purses, but the guy wouldn’t budge. Of course he wouldn’t with the Americans around! 

So we moved on around the basilica. By the side of the church, narrow alleyways are lined with shops and street cafes. Suddenly, I was riveted to a shop window through which a whole lot of grotesque shapes with eye-holes looked at me. A shudder wracked my body, but I continued to look on fascinated. Then, was able to identify some of the masks: ghosts, clowns, bird beaks and others. I thought of the movie Amadeus. The scene, where the composer Salieri, wearing the scary death mask, asks Mozart to write a requiem, swam before me.

Venetian masks are made of papier-mâché and are exquisitely hand-crafted. Mask-making is done by master craftsmen of whom there are just a handful in Venice and carnival time brings out their best. 

Unrivalled master of trade 800 years ago, Venice generated enormous wealth. It became the most extravagantly beautiful state on the continent. Wealth generated insecurities and people developed a custom of concealing their identity. Secrecy was the pragmatic solution for a small city in maintaining its citizen’s privacy. Then again, the masks served as social-levelers keeping every citizen on a level-playing field. State inquisitors and spies, who questioned citizens, were answered without fear of retribution through the mask! Morale of the people was high – with no faces, they were the voices of their city. Masks became part of daily life and a highlight of the carnival in Venice that takes place in February each year. It celebrates the victory of the republic over the Patriarch of Aquileia in 1162. By the 17th century, the Carnival of Venice had become a regular destination for tourists from Northern Europe, especially the Grand Tourists: young aristocratic men who spent a year or more visiting the cultural highlights of Italy.

I continued to follow my stream of thoughts until my sister gave me a rough nudge and we got going again and finally found ourselves at the rear of the church. Here a podium supported weary tourists who were obliged to share the space with garrulous pigeons.  Exhausted after several hours on our feet without respite, we too found space among the numerous tourists to settle down for a while and share some of our sandwich with the pigeons queuing up near us. As I looked around, strains of the old song There’ll be joy, there’ll be fun, there’ll be seasons in the sun floated through my mind and there will be lots of golden sun with spring in the air. The old aristocrats of Europe, people of leisure and adventurous travelers will all be making a beeline to Venice. When the date changes to February 5, Venetian clocks will swivel back to the 12th century and usher in the 800-year-old carnival. Ten days of fun with sheer abandon will follow. Morality dumped into the Grand Canal. Revelers will flock to Piazza San Marco, to be outnumbered by the pigeons that claim the square in perpetuity. Obscured by masks, the signature costume of Venice, there will be uninhibited frolicking, gambling and every other indulgence. Fantasies buried in the box of respectability will jump out seeking fulfillment. Art will come alive with festivals of music, dance, theatre, painting and so on. Gondola racing and all manner of entertainment will be available to satisfy the myriad appetites of the floating populace. It’s the chance of a lifetime. If you are traveling, find your way to Venice in February.     

– Katie Dubey


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