RELIVE THE RENAISSANCE IN VENICE’S CENTRAL HUB.
The best way to arrive in the St Mark’s Square, the pulsing heart of Venice, has always been by boat – and today, the ferry trip is still a great travel experience. Despite the crowds and the feral pigeons that occupy the square, we can easily imagine what landing in the piazza might have been like in the late Renaissance, when Venice was at its height of opulence. Back then, the approach was a dazzling explosion of color: the palazzos that lined the Grand Canal were new and gleaming with fresh paint, golden flourishes and fine marble statuary. The waterfront was jammed with extravagantly-decorated galleys loaded with cargos from Asia, Egypt, Spain, Britain, even Iceland. Travelers would step onto dry land more or less where the ferry stop is today, and first enter the Piazetta or “little square” of San Marco. They would carefully skirt the two columns erected in 1100s – Venetians were superstitious about walking between them, since criminals had once been strung up here.
And just like today, visitors would have been almost overwhelmed by the splendid structures that encircled them, a competing mix of Gothic, Romanesque and Byzantine styles, all adorned glittering mosaics and the spoils of Venice’s military conquests. Even the square’s name, San Marco, refers to a brazen theft: the bones of Saint Mark were pilfered from Egypt by merchants in the 9th century AD and buried in the Basilica. Thus, setting Venice up as one of Europe’s top pilgrimage sites and guaranteeing the city a steady tourist income. And the piazza has always been rather chaotic. A Renaissance traveler would be confronted by armies of merchants selling Oriental silks and Red Sea pearls. Perfumed courtesans strolled arm in arm with their eminent admirers and, if one was lucky, a traveler might glimpse one of the three most famous Venetians, the painter Titian, the architect Sansovino or the ribald writer Pietro Aretino rushing to one of their bacchanalian parties.