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The Heart Of Venice

[Venice - First Impressions]  [The Story Of Venice]  [The Stones Of Venice]  [The Painters Of Venice]  [The Heart Of Venice]  [St Mark's Church]  [The Doges' Palace]  [The Grand Canal]  [Some Venetian Churches]  [Venetian Islands]  [More Articles About Venice] 

( Originally Published Mid-1900's )

The Piazza di San Marco, the most wonderful square in the world, is approached by way of the Piazzetta, the entrance to which is guarded by two great granite columns. These columns, which were brought to Venice from Syria after the conquest of Tyre, were set up in 118o. Of the three columns which were transported to Venice, one fell into the sea beside the Molo and was never recovered, and the remaining two columns lay on the quay for many years while the Venetians tried to discover somebody who could set them up. An engineer from Lombardy volunteered for this work on the condition that he was allowed to set up gaming-tables between the two columns, and his offer was accepted. Two centuries later the gallows were also set up between the columns, and many a criminal expiated his crime between fra Marco e Todaro.

One of the columns bears St Mark's lion, and the other Theodore on a crocodile. Theodore, as already stated, was the first patron saint of Venice.

No other squares in the world can rival the Piazzetta and the Piazza di San Marco for architectural interest, for where else will you find a square surrounded by such magnificent examples of four great architectural styles? St Mark's is the loveliest of Byzantine churches, the Ducal Palace the noblest example of secular Gothic in Europe, the Procuratie Vecchie, which bounds the Piazza di San Marco on the north, is an excellent example of Byzantine Renaissance, and the famous Renaissance faqade of Sansovino's library on the west side of the Piazzetta is considered by good judges to be one of the finest buildings of the Roman Renaissance.

The contrast between Gothic and Renaissance architecture is, indeed, nowhere more clearly seen than in comparing the Gothic spirit in the carved capitals on the ground arcade of the Doges' Palace with the stiff formality and unimaginative correctness of Sansovino's library. If any of my readers honours my little book by carrying it with him through Venice I suggest that he should sit down for a moment beside the column of St Theodore and reread those passages which are quoted in the third chapter of this book, passages in which Ruskin sums up the spiritual contrast between Gothic and Renaissance architecture. And as he turns from the Ducal Palace to Sansovino's library he will, I imagine, find it difficult to dispute the essential justice of Ruskin's verdict.

We shall see a good deal of Sansovino's work in Venice, and with his library before us it may be as well to recall some details of his career.

Jacopo Sansovino was born in Florence in 1477, according to Vasari, but other authorities favour the date of 1486. His family name was Tatti, but he took the name of Sansovino from his first master, Andrea di Monte San Savino, who adopted him as a son. Andrea's fame has been eclipsed by that of his pupil, but he was none the less a very great artist.

Sansovino belonged to that distinguished group of Florentines who were equally interested in sculpture and in architecture. During the Florentine period of his career he was indeed more highly valued for his sculpture than for his architecture. Among other of his works may be mentioned the magnificent Bacchus in the Bargello, at Florence.

From Florence Sansovino passed on to Rome, where he enjoyed the patronage of Pope Julius II, and was associated with the architect Bramante and the artist Perugino. After the sack of Rome he fled and took refuge in Venice, where he was welcomed by the Doge and asked to restore the cupolas of St Mark's. His restoration was so skilful that he was appointed Senior Procurator and given a house with a salary, but his popularity did not avail when one of the arches of his library fell owing to the subsidence of the foundations. He was imprisoned as a bad workman, and did not regain his freedom until he had paid a heavy fine.

Benvenuto Cellini, who met Sansovino during one of his visits to Venice, has left us an unpleasant account of the great architect, who, Cellini tells us: never once ceased to boast at table of his own performances...I was so disgusted at this behaviour that I did not eat one morsel with appetite. I only took the liberty to express my sentiments thus: " O Signor Jacopo, men of worth act as such ; and men of genius, who distinguish themselves by their works, are much better known by the commendations of others, than by vainly sounding their own praises."

One hopes that the humour of the situationCellini, that Homeric braggart, rebuking other people for vainglory appealed to Sansovino. I suspect that Cellini attacked Sansovino because Sansovino had not received him with that respect for which he hungered. Certainly the Venetians did not share Cellini's opinion of their popular architect. Sansovino was a great friend of Titian's, and on one occasion when it was necessary to raise a large sum of money by taxation the citizens expressly exempted both Titian and Sansovino from this tax.

Now let us pass into the Piazza itself, for we can visit the Doges' Palace, which is the subject of Chapter VII, after we have taken our bearings in the Square of St Mark's. The arcade which runs round three sides of the square is occupied by shops, cafes, and restaurants. One of these restaurants, Florian's, boasts that it has never closed its doors day or night for more than a hundred years. In 1820 it had counted among its clients Byron, Goethe, Rousseau, Canova, and Dumas. Guardi's picture in our own National Gallery helps us to visualize Florian's early patrons.

St Mark's, which must have a chapter to itself, closes in the square on the east. On the north the square is bounded by the old Procuratie, in which lived the nine Procurators who ruled Venice under the presidency of the Doge. This building was built between the years 1480 and 1517 by Pietro Lombardi, and is in the style of the Byzantine Renaissance. The clock dates from 1499.

The square is closed in on the west by a very inferior building, the Atrio Fabbrica, which was erected in 1810, and on the south side by the Procuratie Nuove, which is now the Palazzo Reale. The greater part of this palace is now an historical museum, which is open to the public, and contains, among other interesting objects, drawings by Canaletto and Guardi, and that strange picture by Carpaccio which provoked from Ruskin the unaccountable rhapsody.

The most conspicuous object in the square is the Campanile, 325 feet high, which replaces the old Campanile that watched over the city for a thousand years and then quietly collapsed at half-past nine on the morning of July 14, 1902. Marvellous to relate, nobody was injured by the fall. The town council met the same day and decided unanimously that a new Campanile should be erected as rapidly as possible, "Dov'era com'era" ("Where it was and as it was ").

The Venetians were much attached to their old Campanile, and when the King and Queen visited Venice a year after it had collapsed in order to look at the site of this ancient landmark the crowd, so Mr Okey tells us, murmured sadly: "I Varda dove gera el nostro povere morto " ("They are going where our poor dead one lies").

The tower in its fall injured the beautiful Loggetta, which was erected by Sansovino in 1540, and which is adorned by bronze statues of Peace, Mercury (the finest), Apollo, and Pallas. The new Campanile is provided with a lift. The view from the summit is impressive, but a little disappointing, for one sees no traces of the famous Venetian canals, and the houses seem too high. On a clear day the distant view of the Tyrolean Alps is particularly beautiful.

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