In my An Ode to Venice series, I’ll be posting pictures and information about my favorite places in Venice, including those that figure into The Violinist of Venice.
For my third An Ode to Venice post – which I know has been a long time coming! – I’ll be talking about what is arguably the center of Venice, Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square.
One of Venice’s most recognizable and famous landmarks, Piazza San Marco was called at one time “the most elegant drawing room in Europe”. In many ways the center of public life in Venice, this largest public square in the city was where people congregated to meet one another, to do business, and for civic and religious holidays, among other things. The picture above was taken from the balcony of the Basilica di San Marco, which dominates the square, along with its campanile or bell tower.
Just to the right of the Basilica one can see a corner of the massive Doge’s Palace, the home of Venice’s elected duke as well as the seat of Venice’s government: the palace, which faces the lagoon, also houses the chambers where meetings of the Grand Council, the Senate, and the mysterious Council of Ten took place in Venice’s heyday as an oligarchic republic.
During the seasonal flooding – caused by tides – that Venetians call acqua alta (literally “high water”), the square can be under several feet of water – including the floor of the Basilica and other nearby buildings. The acqua alta typically occurs most often in the winter, though it can happen at other times of the year as well based on the weather. The first time I went to Venice (in mid-May), there had been a big thunderstorm with heavy rain the day before, and the square had flooded. By the time I got there, there were still some big puddles, but nothing extreme.
Today the Piazza San Marco is perhaps Venice’s most densely populated tourist site. Just as it was once where native Venetians would congregate, today it is something of “home base” for tourists, as it contains many of the city’s biggest attractions. There are vendors selling souvenirs every few feet, and cafes rings the piazza’s edges, including the famous Caffe Florian, one of the world’s oldest caffes. In its day it was a hangout for the likes of Giacomo Casanova, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens. The coffee and food is ridiculously expensive, but it’s worth the experience, in my opinion.
How this location figures into The Violinist of Venice: Piazza San Marco is where Adriana and Vivaldi go for Carnevale entertainments in chapter 25, and indeed the square was host to numerous festivities during Venice’s annual Carnevale, when the populace went about in masks for months at a time, parties happened in every house and on every corner, and all sorts of scandalous and debauched behavior occurred. Later in the novel Adriana returns there with her friends for Carnevale again, at a very different time in her life.