Venice

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, invaders began to sweep down into Italy. Many people fled to the lagoons in what was to become Venice where the invaders could not reach them.

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In time, several communities grew up on the lagoons. According to history, Venice was officially born on March 25th, 421 A.D. Boats could easily enter the Venetian post, and the city became an important trading center. Today, Venice is a thriving city known for its canals, beautiful architecture, and rich history.

The Doge’s Palace

The Doge’s Palace was built in 1340 in traditional Gothic style and has served many purposes over the years. Originally, it served as the home of Venice’s Doge, or chief magistrate. At the same time, it also housed a prison, offices for Great Council members, and courts of law. 

Over the years, the palace was damaged by several great fires. Different parts of the building reflect the different styles that were popular when different restorations were carried out. This is why you’ll see examples of both Renaissance and Mannerist architecture throughout the palace.

The Basilica

To the left of the Doge’s palace, you can access St. Mark’s Square directly from the water. Walking along the eastern end of the square, you arrive at the most famous church in all of Venice: St. Mark’s Basilica. 

The domes and turrets towering above you are classic examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. These structures, as well as the gold mosaics found throughout the church, were meant to show off Venice’s great wealth. After touring the church, you won’t be surprised to learn that it was nicknamed Chiesa d’Oro, or the Church of Gold.

The Bell Tower

One of the most beloved and famous symbols of Venice—St. Mark’s Campanile, or bell tower. The original bell tower was built in 1514. It collapsed in 1902 and was rebuilt in 1912. Look closely and you’ll see a golden weathervane depicting the archangel Gabriel standing at the belfry’s peak. Just beneath the belfry is a carved image of a winged lion, which is the symbol of St. Mark and of Venice.

Gondolas

A gondola is a flat-bottomed boat designed to move easily through the narrow canals of Venice. Gliding on the water in one of the city’s gondola taxis, you’ll see that the boat is controlled by one person, the gondolier, who stands at the rear of the boat.

Canal

As you make your way through Venice, you’ll notice that many people get around along waterways called canals. As Venice was built upon a lagoon, traveling along canals in water buses or taxis makes sense. The Grand Canal is the main and most important canal of the city. 

The Stone Bridge

The Rialto Bridge as it stands today was designed by Antonio da Ponte and completed in 1591. The bridge’s design is usually credited to Antonio da Ponte, who certainly oversaw the bridge construction, but some architectural historians believe it was designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi.

In 1514, the rebuilt bridge was seriously damaged by a fire and rebuilt once again—only to collapse only 10 years later! At that point, it finally occurred to city officials that a stone bridge was the way to go. It sits precisely at the dividing line between Venice’s San Marco and San Polo districts.

Like many structures in Venice, it is made from highly durable stone brought into Italy from Istria in what is now Croatia. The bridge crosses the canal with a single span, or arch. It is lined on either side with shops and covered by a portico supported by stone columns.

The Buildings

The same fire that damaged the Rialto Bridge in 1514 also destroyed many buildings along the San Polo side of the Grand Canal. These buildings, which were later rebuilt, included pallazos, or palaces for the wealthy and a mint where coins were manufactured.

Along a few stretches on either side, a narrow walkway separates the buildings from the canal, but most buildings extend right up to the water. Today, this area, with its many shops and restaurants, is a thriving commercial district catering to the many thousands of tourists who visit Venice every year.

Boats

Venice is famous for its gondolas, but look around and you’ll quickly notice that the canals are filled with many different types of boats in all shapes and sizes. Think of all the types of vehicles that use the roads in a big city: delivery trucks and trucks carrying freight, moving vans, construction vehicles of various sorts, ambulances and fire trucks, taxis and buses, family cars, etc.

Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Franciscan monks came to Venice soon after the death of Saint Francis in the early 1220s. To help the friars build a church of their own, the Doge Jacopo Tiepolo gave them an empty lot of land in the San Polo district.

The church you see today is not the original. The first church was finished in 1338, but almost immediately the friars decided to replace it with a larger structure. That larger church did not appear immediately—it took over a century to complete!

This second church, believed to have been designed by Fra Scipione Bon, was built in the Italian Gothic style. You may think that the exterior of the church is rather plain. This appearance was created on purpose to reflect the Franciscan ideal of simple living. 

However, the inside of the church is beautifully decorated and houses several masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture and painting.
 

The Bell Tower

Behind the church’s main building you’ll see the church’s campanile, or bell tower. Standing 69 meters high, this bell tower is the second tallest in Venice. The tower was designed Jacopo Celaga, and its construction was completed by Celaga’s son Pietro Paolo in 1396. 

The belfry where the bells hang has three lights, or openings, on each side and is topped by a stone balustrade and an octagonal drum.
 

St. Mark’s Square

St. Mark’s Square is the largest square in Venice and also the location of many of the city’s important government offices. Many consider St. Mark’s Square to be the very heart of the city, and it is used as a central meeting place by Venetians and tourists alike. 

Standing in the center of the square, you’ll find yourself surrounded by landmark buildings including St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, and the Campanile.

St. Mark's Basilica

Face the north side of St. Mark’s Square and you’ll see St. Mark’s Basilica. This building was the Doge’s chapel until 1807 and then became the seat of the Archbishop. While the main structure was completed around 1071, the church’s decoration has been added to over the years.

The overall goal was to make the basilica as beautiful and grand as possible. For example, the altarpiece is called the Pala d’Oro, or Golden Pall, because it is made of a panel of gold and jewels.

The Campanile

Standing like a brick giant in the southwest corner of St. Mark’s Square is St. Mark’s Campanile. The tower is 98.6m-high. If you find yourself in the piazza at noon you’ll hear the midday bell ring. The campanile has been damaged by lightning several times over the years. A lightning rod was finally installed in 1776.

The Doge’s Palace from the Square

As Venice is built upon water, buildings often decay and need to be rebuilt. The Doge’s Palace is no exception. Though you won’t see any major signs of decay because, in the late 19th century, the Italian government put into effect a major renovation. In 1923, the building was turned into a museum run by the City Council. In 1996, the palace became an official Civic Museums of Venice site.

The Piazzetta San Marco or St Mark's Little Piazza

As you stroll through the square toward the lagoon, you’ll come to a smaller square in the south east corner. This section is known as the Piazzetta, meaning “Little Piazza.” These two areas have always been a place where people meet for social, political, or religious gatherings. 

The Bridge of Sighs

In the late 16th century, the prison that was originally located in the Doge’s Palace was moved into a new building on the other side of the Rio di Palazzo, or Palace River. In the early 17th century, a bridge was built to connect the two buildings. 

The Prisons

The original prison was in the Doge’s Palace, on the right as you look up at the bridge. Cells on the ground floor—the Pozzi, “wells” in English—were dark and damp. Cells on the top floor of the palace were familiarly known as the Piobi, meaning “leads,” because the roof directly above them was covered with slabs of lead.

Lead is a great conductor of both heat and cold: reportedly, the Piombi were sweltering in summer and freezing in winter. The New Prison across the canal was not necessarily built to provide more comfortable quarters for its “guests.” 

Presumably, as Venice grew, so did the number of crimes and criminals, and the Venetian Republic simply needed more prison space.

The Bridge

The bridge is made of white limestone and is an example of Baroque architecture. Viewing the bridge from the canal below, you’ll see several carved faces along the bottom arch. Each face reflects a different emotion.

There are two small windows with hand-carved stone bars on either side of the bridge. Legend has it that as prisoners crossed the bridge to their cells they would let out a long, sad sigh as they got their last look at freedom through the windows.

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