09 July, 2006

45. Piazza San Marco

The only open space in Venice to merit the term 'Piazza' – the rest being simply 'Campi', or 'fields' – Piazza San Marco is the pigeon-infested heart of the city, the magnet that draws all visitors to it at least once whether they go anywhere else in Venice or not.

Napoleon called this square "the most elegant drawing room in Europe", and even though Napoleon himself did more damage to it than anyone else in its history, it still has a generous open spaciousness that is astonishing for a city where building land was more limited than any other in the world.

This view of the Piazza, from the loggia above the entrance to the Basilica, is the most dramatic and impressive angle to see it from. From the other end, looking towards the Basilica San Marco, the Piazza seems to be not so deep and more square, but from up here the square seems even longer than it really is. This is because the whole space is not an oblong with parallel sides, it tapers. The Basilica end is quite a bit wider than the other end so the effect of the perspective on your depth perception is exaggerated, creating the optical illusion of greater distance from one end and the contrary illusion from the other.

The magnificent buildings down the two long sides of the Piazza are the Procuratie Vecchie on the right, or northern side, and the Procuratie Nuove on the left. These were built as legal and political offices for the administrators of the republic. The 'Old' more Gothic building was constructed initially as a two story building in the 12th century, then rebuilt as a three-story block in the sixteenth century after a fire, while the 'New' more Classical block was not completed until 1640.

The less interesting smaller building spanning the width of the square furthest from the Basilica looks out of place in such elegant company, and it is. Originally both the Procuratie buildings had a wing which turned the corner at the western end, and in the space between the ends of the wings there was a small and very old church, which sounds like a much more appropriate arrangement than the one we have now. In 1810, Napoleon had all that demolished and replaced it with the much more boring ersatz classical 'Ala Napoleonica', supposedly just so that he could have a new ballroom – of all things.

Why is it that ruthless dictators like Napoleon and Hitler and Mussolini, who are so good at destroying buildings, delude themselves into thinking they are architectural experts when it comes to putting them up again?

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