You are now entering Piazza San Marco. This is the true heart of Venice, which Napoleon called “the most elegant drawing-room in Europe”. If you face the Basilica, behind you stands the Museo Correr, entirely dedicated to Venetian history; to your immediate right are the Procuratie Vecchie, the former offices of the Republic’s administration with an arcade of shops and the Café Quadri, once patronised by the Austrian occupiers of Venice. To your right are the Procuratie Nuove, also former office buildings, under which you will find the Café Florian, the favourite of Venetian patriots during the Austrian occupation.
Founded in 1720, the Cafè Florian is the oldest cafè in the world. Almost 300 years old, the history of the city seems to run through this cafè; at one time or another, all of Europe’s famous personalities have stopped to enjoy a coffee here, from Goethe, Rousseau, Byron, Dickens to the locals Guardi, Canaletto, Goldoni and of course Casanova. No surprise that this was Casanova’s favourite place given that it was the first Cafè in the city to allow entry to women. Indeed, famous not only for its unique history and location, Florian has always been a place of innovation and forward-looking ideals. It was here in fact the idea of a Café-live orchestra was invented, as well as the plan to start the first Biennale Art Exhibition in the late 1800s’, and it was here, in 1848, that the Venetian patriots first declared the city’s independence from the Austrians.
Campanile and Loggetta
The Campanile – Bell Tower – rises 325 feet – 99 metres – above the Piazza, making it the tallest building in Venice. The original tower collapsed in 1902, fortunately killing no one apart from the custodian’s cat. The mayor decided to rebuild it “exactly where it was, how it was”. You can enter through the loggetta base, built in the 16th century by Jacopo Sansovino, which had to be restored after the tower collapsed. You can take a lift to the top, where you can enjoy a unique panoramic of the city, lagoon, and on a clear day, the Alps.
Basilica of San Marco
The Basilica of San Marco is Venice’s jewel in the crown. The cathedral evokes the blending of East and West that is at the heart of Venetian character. More oriental than European, the architecture, the decoration and the atmosphere of ancient sanctity span both the centuries and the styles of Mediterranean civilisation. Originally built to house the body of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice, which was smuggled from Alexandria in 828. Started in the 9th century, the basic building dates from the late 11th century and the many domes from the 13th. Much of the decoration, external and internal, was plundered by or presented to Venice during its time of supremacy, most notably the four guilded horses of the 4th century AD above the main door, which were looted from Constantinople during the Crusades and stood on the façade for 600 years, when they stolen for a brief period by the French in the 19th century. These are copies, however, as the originals are kept inside for preservation. The Byzantine golden mosaics in the vaults you see are merely a taster of the astonishing richness lying inside, most famously the incomparable Pala d’Oro, or Golden Pall.
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