Plaza de San Marcos
La Plaza de San Marcos is the heart of Venice and is used as the point of reference by most visitors to the city. This is where the most important events in Venice take place. Its origin dates back to the 9th century. On the esplanade leading to San Marco used to stand a lighthouse, two small churches and a large garden given by nuns to the community in the 9th century so that they may build the seats of the government: the Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. The Plaza as you see it nowadays was redesigned and enlarged in 1177, following a major flood.
Houses and arcades, called “Procuraties”, surround the square. They are namedafter the Procurators under the Venetian Republic, who used to live and work in these buildings. There are two types of Procuraties: the Old Procuratie and the New Procuratie. It is worth mentioning the Clock Tower, which dates from the 15th century and is one of the most famous architectural masterpieces in Venice. It is situated on top of the arch that marks the beginning of one of the busiest streets, and main shopping areain Venice, la Merceria. The enamelled and gilded astronomical clock indicates the lunar phases and position of the sun in the zodiac, as well as the time. Above the clock is a Madonna and Child.
It is worth walking around the square and under the arcades, looking at the expensive shops and having a coffee or a hot chocolate in one of the most historic cafés such as el Quadri, although prices are high. At one end of the square you can admire the Campanile, or Bell tower, which was inaugurated in 912, and is 98 meters high. It is worth climbing to the top as from there you can admire a wonderful view of Saint Mark’s Basin, an area of water between the Canal del Lido, La Giudecca and the Grand Canal.
Basílica di San Marcos
Two Venetian merchants built the Basilica in the year 828 to house the remains of St Mark the Evangelist brought back from Egypt.
In 976, the original building was completely destroyed by a fire in which perished the only persons who knew where St Mark’s remains were kept. The building that you can see nowadays dates from 1094, when the new church was consecrated; miraculously one of the pillars crumbled and Saint Mark’s remains were rediscovered. They have been stored in a crypt since.
The interior of the basilica is based on a Greek cross and is decorated with marble and precious gems from the east. Gems were also used for the mosaics, which adorn the interior, and to give a striking effect of gold and resplendent colours to the domes and vaults.
The main facade is made of five main portals closed by bronze-fashioned doors. The main door is la “Puerta de Fiori”, which has a bas-relief of the Nativity. The altarpiece, la Pala de Oro, a treasure and masterpiece of Byzantine craftsmanship is preserved inside the Basilica. The bronze horses, which were brought back from Constantinople, are also preserved in the basilica.
The Doge’s Palace
Next to the Basilica di San Marcos, you can admire the majestic Doge’s Palace, which has been restored several times. The most extensive restoration took place after two fires in 1574 and 1577. The Doge’s Palace was the residence of the Doge, el dux, and the seat of the Venetian government, as well as the venue for its law courts, and the city jail until the fall of the Republic in 1797.
The palace is the most important example of gothic art in Venice. Decorated with pink and white marble, its façade is truly impressive when the sun illuminates it. Inside, you can admire a wonderful courtyard where the main facade is in the renaissance style with an extraordinary sculptural decoration and series of arches. To one side of the Palace, the Bridge of Sighs spans the canal; it owes its name to the laments of the convicts who saw Venice for the last time as they crossed it.
The Bridge of Sighs
Until the second half of the 16th century, the prisons were situated in the Doge’s Palace. The new prisons were then built in front of the Doge’s Palace, on the other side of the canal, and the Bridge of Sighs was built in 1602 to link the Doge’s Palace with the new jail. The name of the Bridge of Sighs comes from the prisoners who used to sigh as they passed over the bridge when they were taken to prison. The prison cells were located in cold and narrow underground tunnels, where one can still breathe the atmosphere of the past. Some of the cells were made of metal, others of wood; all were under sea level.
Theatre La Fenice ("The Phoenix")
The theatre was built between 1790 and 1792. The auditorium consists of five rows of boxes. The theatre is decorated with a dazzling abundance of gold and silver, as well as brightly coloured plates and medallions, which can distract spectators a little during the shows. According to the tradition of Italian theatres, it was possible to eat, play and entertain guests whilst watching a play at la Fenice. A fire razed the theatre to the ground in 1996 and what you see today is the result of the reconstruction that took place in 2003 according to the traditional Venetian construction techniques.
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal, or “Canalazzo” to the Venetians, is the main canal in Venice and divides the city in two parts. It constitutes the main route of communication in Venice and all along can be found the most important buildings in Venice. Most of the buildings used to belong to the rich patrician merchants families. Here were built the houses called “fondaco” (house-warehouse), as they housed both the warehouse and living quarters of the merchants (one of the most famous is the Fondaco of the Turks). Near the Rialto Bridge, the most famous of the four bridges on the Grand Canal, palaces were built for trade as for example la Ceca. Throughout history, this canal has been the busiest waterway plied by vaporettos, water taxis, and gondolas. The best way to enjoy the majestic buildings that can be seen on both sides of the Grand Canal is a ride in a gondola, best of all with a loved one. The other three bridges on the Grand Canal are: the Accademia bridge, the Scalzi bridge and the bridge of Constitution.
Every year, on the first Sunday of September, the Historical Regatta takes place on the Grand Canal and attracts a large number of typical Venetian boats.
Rialto Bridge and market:
Initially, the Rialto Bridge was the only bridge to connect the two banks of the Grand Canal. The bridge consists of two inclined ramps with a row of typical Venetian shops on each side, and lead up to a central portico (covered but open on both sides). Historically the bustle and trade of the city have been concentrated here. The Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the four bridges, which span the Grand Canal. In this area you can find the Rialto market, which was set up in the 11th century and gave the area great economic importance. Workshops and market stalls selling gold, fabrics and spices were concentrated here. Banks and maritime insurance companies were also based here.
It is one of the palaces with the finest architecture in Venice in general and on the Grand Canal in particular. Worthy of note are the gildings (hence its name) and decorative elements made of marble. It houses the famous painting “San Sebastiano” (1490) by Andrea Mantegna.
Arsenale (Venetian Arsenal)
This was the centre and the heart of Venice’s maritime power. The Arsenal dates from the 12th century and was for centuries the largest and most important shipyard and naval depot in Europe. Nowadays, it houses the Venice Naval History museum.
Customs Point (Punta della Dogana)
From Customs Point, you can enjoy wonderful views over the whole of Saint Mark’s basin. This is where the customs were located in the 15th century and their role was to inspect all the merchandise arriving in Venice.
Santa María della Salud
The Church of Santa Maria della Salud was built on a site previously occupied by a monastery to give thank to the Virgin for ridding Venice of the plague in 1630. Located near Customs Point, it offers panoramic views over the majestic Saint Mark’s basin. Also worth noting are its impressive main staircase, its entrance and white cupola. The architect Baldassarre Longhena designed it and with its elegant white marble it represents the best of the baroque style. This church was built to thank the Virgin for freeing Venice from the plague. The day of the Virgen della Salud is celebrated here every 21st November; on that day, the Venetians go to church in great numbers to pray.
San Giorgio Maggiore
This church is situated on the island of San Giorgio, in front of the Plaza de San Marcos. It was built between 1566 and 1610 according to Andrea Palladio’s design and housed Venetian Benedictine monasteries. Note the perfect proportions of its interior, typical of Palladio. In the church you can see important works of art and paintings such as the “Last supper” by Tintoretto.
The church of San Moise’ is one of the oldest churches in Venice and its construction goes back to the 8th century. The original building was made of wood, and it was then rebuilt in stones according to Moisé Vernier’s wishes, who gave his name to the church. It burnt down in 1105 and was later reconstructed in the Byzantine style, with gothic elements. The church was restored again in 1632 following another fire. The façade was completed in 1668.
Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari
This church is situated in the “sestiere” (district) of San Polo and its history is linked to the first monks, followers of St Francis of Assisi. The construction, which started in 1340 on the site of an old church, lasted a long time, and thus combined various architectural styles, with an abundance of elegant and refined contrasts, which greatly contribute to the beauty of this magnificent church. The dimensions of the church are extraordinary, as are the works of art that can be admired inside, such as la “Asunta”, 1516, by Tiziano.
Iglesia de San Zaccarías
This church is situated in the “sestiere” de Castello and was built between 1444 and 1515. In addition to the gothic style, there are elements of Renaissance architecture. One of the most famous paintings in the church is the “Holy conversation with the Saints”, by Giovanni Bellini.
Church Del Carmine
The Church of Santa Maria Assunta, or del Carmine, was started in 1286 and was not finished until 1348. The church is situated in the “sestiere” (district) of Dorsoduro in Venice. The facade combines Gothic and Byzantine elements.
Church Del Redentore
The church is situated on the island of la Giudecca, and was built between 1577 and 1592 according to Andrea Palladio’s plans. The church was built to celebrate the end of the plague of 1576, which is why la Festa del Redentore is celebrated here on the third Sunday of July. This church is characterised by its elegance and classical style.
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