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Notes on the Geography of Italy: Venice: St. Mark's

The Piazza San Marco and the buildings around it, especially the basilica and Doge's Palace, are the cultural heart of Venice and the logical place to start looking around. They're also Ground Zero for anyone interested in John Ruskin's ideas about architecture and freedom, which he explained in The Stones of Venice (1851-3).

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There are several approaches to the piazza; this one is the crowd-bedevilled Riva degli Schiavoni, "Slav landing." Gondolas-for-hire (try fifty Euros for a half-hour) now line the shore, along with docks for the vaporetti, or water buses. The view here is east, with St. Mark's behind the camera.

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Turning around and looking at the piazetta: The building is the library of St. Mark's, known more formally as the Sansovino Library or Libreria Sansoviniana; it houses the Biblioteca Marciana; behind it, the Giardinetti Reali. The granite columns came to Venice in the 12th century and were set upright in 1172. The nearer one has a bronze Lion of St. Mark but originally probably had a chimera, perhaps Chinese. The farther column has a statue of St. Teodoro, standing on a dragon.  Teodoro was the first patron saint of Venice, before St. Mark, but the statue is a pastiche--head of Mithridates, torso of Hadrian, plus aliquot parts.  Even so, the real composite is in St. Mark's, and this one is a copy.  For that matter, Teodoro's column is a copy: the original is in the courtyard of the Doge's palace.  Even the lion, dropped and broken in Paris in 1815, has been patched together.  Moral of the story: it's tough, being an Italian antiquity.

  "Where are the people," you ask?  Answer: in bed early this July morning.

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The Sansovino Library is on the left.  The archangel Gabriel is set as a weathervane at the top of the campanile; just above the belfry are winged lions.  Completed in 1173 but modified in 1514, the campanile collapsed in 1902 but was rebuilt by 1912 with the same angel, restored.

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Looking back towards the water.  The Sansovino Library, finished in 1590, takes its name from its architect, Jacopo Sansovino, whose influence can be seen in all the buildings lining the piazza.  David Watkin describes it as "the first fully classical building in Venice in which the orders were correctly used." Palladio, Watkin further says, called it "the richest and most ornate building that has been put up, perhaps, since the time of the ancients."

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A view of the piazza, taken from the basilica. The square measures 576 by 269 feet.  That's a bit over three acres, but the space feels bigger than that.  The paving--trachyte with marble trim--was laid in 1722 and partly relaid after rioters in 1848 tore sections up in their determination to find something to throw at Austrian troops.   The buildings are known collectively as the Procuratie, because they were the residences of the procurators of St. Mark, the ranking officials after the Doge. On the left is the Procuratie Nuove, completed in 1640 as an extension of the Sansoviana library. The building on the right is the Procuratie Vecchie, completed in 1172 but rebuilt in 1526, after a fire.  At the far end of the piazza is the Ala Napoleonica, or Napoleon Wing, completed in 1807 with a great ballroom upstairs.  Napoleon wanted to make it, along with the new procurate, his Italian palace, and for a time it sported a large letter "N." Ownership passed to Victor Emanuel III, who gave it to the state.

The tables mark the cafes where bands play at night to small crowds of appreciative tourists. Not all Venetians are charmed, however.  Giulio Lorenzetti, whose authoritative Venice and Its Lagoon was published in 1926, wrote of the piazza that "the only jarring note, an alien fashionable idea, are the insupportable cafe orchestras that never give one a moment's respite."

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We've backtracked to the Riva degli Schiavoni.  The Libreria Sansoviniana is still on the left, but on the right now is the gothic Doge's Palace--the "Parthenon of Venice," in Ruskin's admiring phrase.  It consists of three wings around a courtyard; the Basilica of St. Mark's forms the fourth side.  This facade, facing the water, was finished in 1404. Upstairs is the immense Hall of the Greater Council.  The ground-level pillars were once higher but have sunk into the muck.

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The long facade of the Doge's Palace, with the basilica of St. Mark on the left.  The far end of the palace-the last seven columns--is a bit older than the nearer part, which includes on the loggia a pair of red columns, where death sentences were announced. The red stump at the corner of St. Mark's was used for non-lethal announcements.

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A detail of the long facade.  There are two arcades, the lower one deeper: the top floor, in other words, has more space than the floor below, which has more space than the ground floor.  Above the quatrefoil roundels there's the famous wall of pink Italian marble interlaid with white limestone from the Istrian Peninsula, just across the Adriatic.  The central window with its balcony was added in 1536; the figure above it is Justice--a key symbol in the ideology of this trader's heaven. The asymmetrical windows at the upper-right would have charmed Ruskin, who wrote that "in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of the surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry."  In this case, the two small windows mark part of the secret administrative headquarters of the Republic, housed on a fourth floor whose existence was masked not only by hidden doors but by a facade suggesting that the building had only three.

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We're come around 180 degrees to the other side of the palace now, a side that fronts on a small but heavily used canal.  The palace was severely damaged by fire in 1574, and Palladio urged its demolition.  Sansovino argued to the contrary and prevailed.  Nonetheless, a Renaissance wing was added on this back side, and with it came the Bridge of Sighs, barely visible at the top.  Notice how subsidence has flooded and rotted the palace doors.

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The Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri), built about 1600, connects the Doge's Palace with the New Prison (Prigioni Nuove or Paglia). It's a tourist favorite, but Baedeker has no truck with it: "Too much sentiment need not be wasted on the Bridge of Sighs, as the present structure--that 'pathetic swindle' as Mr. Howells calls it--serving merely as a means of communication between the Criminal Courts and the Criminal prison, has probably never been crossed by any prisoner whose name is worth remembering or whose fate deserved our sympathy." He does sound a tad harsh.

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The view from the bridge back to the Riva della Schiavoni and the Ponte della Paglia.  Ruskin says that that name, the "bridge of straw" probably comes from the straw once sold here. It's a busy place today, which raises the question: "How many tourists can fit on the Ponte della Paglia?" Certainly a couple of hundred, and that's no joke.

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We're up on a balcony in the basilica and looking over an edge of the sunny piazza, as well as the shaded piazetta.  The horses are modern copies of the only extent ancient quadriga, four horses harnessed to a chariot.  The original was shipped here after Venice captured Constantinople in 1204.  You could say they were coming home, because they probably began their lives in Rome.  In Constantinople they had overlooked the hippodrome.

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The real horses are just inside the basilica. Napoleon took them to France, but they were returned, then taken to Rome in the First World War.  They were removed again during the Second World War, returned, then finally brought here in 1979. They're commonly said to be bronze but are actually an unusual alloy of copper, silver, and gold.

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The basilica was  built in 1063-94 on a Greek-cross plan, with four arms of equal length. The whole structure is "incrusted," to use Ruskin's word.  He meant that the builders faced a brick building with richer materials collected from afar. There was no shortage of such stuff, because an ordinance of 1075 required all ships landing in Venice to bring a gift for the church. We're standing above the atrium and looking down an axis of three domes, each with telltale windows: the first is over the nave; the second, over the transept; the third, over the presbytery.  The walls strike modern visitors as merely profusely decorated, but in a time when few could read, the walls, in Ruskin's phrase, were the poor man's Bible. 

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Most of the basilica's columns came from what is now Turkey; their materials include marble, porphyry, alabaster, and jasper.

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Imperial porphyry was always the rock of choice.

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More of that rare porphyry, here in the sculpture known as the four tetrarchs. Diocletian, Maximilian, Constantius, and Valerius ruled the Roman Empire jointly from 285, and the figures may represent them.  In any case, they were made in Egypt in the 4th century and brought here as more booty. Did you ever see such cozy kings?

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We're at the far end of the Doge's Palace, the corner where the long facade meets the water.  This is what Ruskin called the Fig-tree Angle, from the leaves clothing Adam and Eve.  "This early sculpture of the Ducal Palace, then, represents the state of Gothic work in Venice at its central and proudest period., i.e. circa 1350.  After this time, all is in decline."

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A sign of that decline.  This is Ruskin's Judgment Angle, showing the Judgment of Solomon.  Ruskin criticizes the leaves as not reflecting "truth to nature."

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Ruskin argued that you could judge the freedom of a society's workmen by the buildings they made and thus, by brave extension, could assess the freedom in a society from its architecture.. "The degree in which the workman is degraded may be thus known at a glance, by observing whether the several parts of the building are similar or not; and if, as in Greek work, all the capitals are alike, and all the mouldings unvaried, then the degradation is complete...if as in Gothic work, there is perpetual change both in design and execution, the workman must have been altogether set free." There are 36 capitals on the two palace facades, and Ruskin saw freedom in their variety: "There is no end to the fantasy of these sculptures." This one shows craftsmen: mason, goldsmith, cobbler, carpenter, and so on.

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The ages of Man: infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, manhood, age, decrepitude.

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Months of the year, with flowers in spring, cherries in June, grapes in September.

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Compare those capitals with the cookie-cutter Procuratie Vecchie.  Ruskin acknowledged the greatness of the titans of the Renaissance, but he says that their standards of perfection were imposed on everyone, with terrible consequences.  "Imperatively requiring dexterity of touch, they gradually forgot to look for tenderness of feeling; imperatively requiring accuracy of knowledge, they gradually forgot to ask for originality of thought." He continues: "perfection is not to be had from the general workman, but at the cost of everything,--of his whole life, thought, and energy.  And Renaissance Europe thought this a small price to pay for manipulative perfection."

The ground floor of the building is prime rental space for tourist-related businesses, but what about upstairs?  Until 1992, at least, the upper floor was occupied by an insurance company, the Assicurazioni Generale.

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Makes you look at the Renaissance from a new perspective: Ruskin acknowledged that his ideas had grim implications for his own time, as they do for ours.

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