The square is made up of three connected squares; the Piazzetta Leoncini, the Piazzetta, the little square where the two columns stand, and the large square in front of San Marco: the Piazza. The main square was used for processions, while the Piazzetta was mainly used for political purposes. The space between the two columns was quite popular for staging executions. The largest part of the Piazza already had its arcades in the twelfth century, as can be seen in Gentile Bellini’s painting. Since then, little has changed about the square. Only the North side of the Piazza was rebuilt by Bartolommeo Buon because of a fire. This wing is now called Procuratie Vecchie. The procurators lived opposite the old procuratie. According to Vasari, Sansovino was the first one who wanted to make major changes to the entire square.
With the aid of doge Gritti, they started to clean up the square during the first year Jacopo Sansovino was proto (architect). Wooden stalls and even latrines could be found around the two columns. One could exchange money at stalls near the bell tower (campanile). Vegetable and meat stalls were also present. The buildings opposite the Ducale were dubious hotels and inns. Many cheese and salami shops were located along the lagoon where the Zecca is now located. Cleaning up this mess turned out to be a difficult and long-drawn-out affair. Do not forget that the stalls and shops (The Met c. 1565) made good money and also yielded quite a bit of tax money because of how bustling the area was. Some were in fact legal businesses and had acquired rights. Visitors like the Crusaders needed cheap hotels. Also, no open spots were available in the city during the 16th century, so where else would they go? After the decision was made to clean up the stalls around the columns, new vegetable stalls arose in front of the Mint. In 1531, the Supra decided to remove all stalls and stores from the squares. This was probably an idea by Jacopo Sansovino. But the sales brought in good money, so the illegal stalls often returned. It was a difficult and tough fight. The punishment was twenty-five lira, nothing compared to what was earned. In 1551, stand owners were threatened with fifteen days imprisonment.
The separation between the political (palazzo Ducale) and economic centres (Rialto) was nothing new. It was a very old Italian tradition that was revived by Alberti and Filarete. The separation was however not as pure, as shown by the story of the stalls. The Rialto also had some political elements. Jacopo wanted to fully restore the separation between the political and economic centres.
When Sansovino arrives in Venice in 1527, quite a number of buildings around the Piazza San Marco and the Piazzetta are in deplorable condition. At the same time, the economy began to thrive, a happy coincidence. Old Veneto-Byzantine buildings were still located on the south of the main square, Piazza, and on the west side of the Piazzatta. Now that the north side of the Piazza was restored, the old buildings looked quite abysmal in comparison. The procurators that lived here were constantly confronted with this problem. Furthermore, the maintenance of the old Veneto-Byzantine houses was a costly affair. Some houses were even on the brink of collapse. On July 14, 1536, Sansovino was asked to develop a model for a new apartment building up at the San Geminiano (a church that was demolished under Napoleon (See Wikipedia).
The construction of the new building did not start at the south side of the Piazza, but on the west side of the Piazzetta. The exact discussions that took place among the procurators are unknown. Construction started at the bakery close to the Campanile on the Piazzetta. A model made by Sansovino was the starting point. Precisely at this moment, on March 6, 1537, a decision was made to erect a library for the collection of Cardinal Bessarion. This Cardinal left a beautiful collection of manuscripts to the city.
Jacopo’s son, Francesco Sansovino, writes in his guide on Venice that his father planned to make the building on the south side of the Piazza a two-story building, just like the library. Scamozzi completed the building on the south side with three stories and a mezzanine. Sansovino would probably also be forced to construct more than two stories, since the apartments brought in large amounts of money.
Jacopo was the first architect who was able to undertake a radically new and large plan in the Renaissance. Sansovino emphasises unity by creating a continuous arcade along the entire square and the Piazzetta. Along with the approach by Jacopo, Michelangelo was working on the Campidoglio (click here for the story about the Campidoglio). Sansovino created unity, harmony and clarity in the centre.
The square is bordered on three sides by 16th century arcades, and on one side by the Basilica San Marco.
On the south side, the square partly borders the Piazzetta which lies on the waters of the lagoon. Two granite columns are located on the shore. The winged lion of St. Mark is depicted on one column, the other one shows St. Theodore. In the past, executions took place here, and it is still believed to be bad luck to walk between the columns.
Photos: Norbet Nagel; Dimitres Kamaras; St Mark: Wolfgang Modorer; Mark and Theodoro: Doug D