Joy of Museums

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“Piazza San Marco with the Basilica, Venice” by Canaletto

Piazza San Marco with the Basilica, by Canaletto, 1730. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge

“Piazza San Marco with the Basilica, Venice” by Canaletto

“Piazza San Marco with the Basilica, Venice” by Canaletto depicts Venice ’s principal public square of San Marco and Saint Mark’s Basilica, with its Byzantine architecture. The bell tower dominates the scene and represents a timeless view of Venice while also capturing the details of eighteenth-century life.

Piazza San Marco often known as St Mark’s Square is the social, religious and political center of Venice. The Square is dominated at its eastern end by the great church of St Mark and the Campanile of St Mark’s church. The foreground portrays the decorative marble pattern of stone pavements that had recently been laid just before this painting was made. The marble pattern forms a complex geometrical pavement design of which little is known about the reasoning for the particulars of the design plan. Some have speculated that the pattern was used to regulate market stalls or to recall their former presence in the square. Others believe the model was drawn from oriental rugs, a favorite luxury item in this trading center.

This Canaletto painting is a typical example of the vedute paintings popular with Grand Tour travelers of the 1700s as a visual record of their travels. Canaletto was one of the more famous painters of city views or vedute, especially of Venice. From 1746 to 1756 he worked in England where he created many paintings of the sights of London. He was highly successful in England and became famous thanks to the British merchant and connoisseur Joseph Smith who sold his extensive collection of Canaletto’s paintings to King George III in 1762. Canaletto’s paintings became highly prized as during the 18th century European monarchs vied for his grandest pictures.


Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697 – 1768) better known as Canaletto, who was born in Venice, is famous for his paintings of the city views of Venice, Rome, and London. He was also a printmaker using the etching technique. Many of Canaletto’s paintings can be found in museums across the world, depict highly detailed, usually large-scale paintings of Venetian other famous cityscapes or vistas.

Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco, also known in English as St Mark’s Square, is the principal public square of Venice, Italy. It is also called la Piazza or “the Square”, other open spaces in the city with a few exceptions are called campi (“fields”). The Piazzetta (“little Piazza/Square”) is an extension of the Piazza towards the lagoon. The two spaces together form the social, religious and political center of Venice. This article relates to both of them.

In 829 the relics of St Mark were stolen from Alexandria and brought to Venice, and the Venetians and the Doge adopted the apostle as their new patron. The relic of the apostle increased the importance of the city, and the acquisition of the relic was a step in the gradual process of Venice freeing itself from the domination of Byzantium. The relics were temporarily placed in the palace of the Doge, who provided in his will for a new church to be built. This first church of St Mark was begun on the south side of the existing chapel. The design of the church was based on the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople, and it seems to have covered the same area as the central part of the present church. The area of the Piazza was eventually defined by the erection of buildings on the north and south sides.

In 1204 Constantinople was captured in the course of the 4th Crusade and subsequently, significant amounts of valuable building material and artifacts were taken from the city and shipped back for the adornment of Venice. This included marbles and pillars for the façade of St Mark’s and the four porphyry figures known as the Tetrarchs, which were eventually installed near the entrance to the Doge’s Palace. In the later 13th century, St Mark’s was being given its new west façade embellished with marble and mosaics and trophies from Constantinople, including the four horses.

The Piazza was paved in the late 12th century with bricks laid in a herringbone pattern. Bands of light-colored stone ran parallel to the long axis of the main piazza. These lines were used in setting up market stalls and in organizing various ceremonial processions. In 1723 the bricks were replaced with a more complex geometrical pavement design as can be seen in this painting by Canaletto.

The Piazza San Marco is not much above the sea level, and during storm surges or heavy rain, it is quick to flood. Today, when the sea is high, the water from the lagoon is fast to rush up into the Square.


  • In 829 the Venetians stole the relics of St Mark from Alexandria.
  • In 1204 the Venetians orchestrated the capture of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade.
  • In 1687 a Venetian bombardment of an Ottoman ammunition dump severely damaged the Parthenon and its sculptures.
  • How many tourists to Venice recognize the Byzantine-influenced architecture in St Mark’s Square?

Piazza San Marco with the Basilica, Venice


A Tour of the Harvard Art Museums


“There is something so different in Venice from any other place in the world, that you leave at once all accustomed habits and everyday sights to enter an enchanted garden.”
– Mary Shelley


Photo Credits: 1) Canaletto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons