Piazza San Marco - Venice's most epic square.
But did you know there's more to this unforgettable landmark than a glittering Byzantine Basilica, the oldest coffee shop in the world and an iconic bell tower? Uncover a bloody past and secrets hidden right here...
Il Palazzo Ducale - The Doge's Palace
Built in the 9th Century, this glorious elaborately decorated palace stands at the entrance to Piazza San Marco from the sea. Its function has always been the residence of the Doge - Venice's highest ranking official, as well as the high court and government seat. If only these walls had ears! Many a criminal resided here in maximum security prison before walking Venice's famous Bridge of Sighs towards, often eternal, incarceration. These ornamental walls hold some of Piazza San Marco's bloodiest secrets, some you can clearly see from the square.
Traditionally the Doge would face his public from one specific spot along La Loggia - an exposed gallery running the length of the Palace. It was between the middle two columns where he'd stand to address his people during events and ceremonies; it was also here that the Doge would announce any brutal death sentence. Glance up and you'll notice these columns are coloured pink. The convicted were hung on the piazza but any aristocrats would hang right here between the columns with their bodies left for days as an unsubtle reminder to the Venetians who say these columns remain stained with the blood of those who died here.
Giacomo Casanova - Venice's most desirable and elusive lover, was arrested in 1755 for reasons unknown and sentenced to imprisonment in the Piombi - prison cells named such, after their allegedly impenetrable lead ceiling. Sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, after seven months of incarceration Giacomo finds a lead chain and begins to bore a hole through the floor. But just before competition, he's suddenly moved to a different cell. Here Casanova befriends an inmate and together they work to pierce through the ceiling, managing to escape onto the palace roof eight months later. While scampering along the slippery ledge, they find an open window and climb back into the palace, into the room of the Cancelleria Superiore. Picking the lock and rushing down the stairs, legend says they pass nobles who mistake them for drunken gentlefolk and watch them leave through the Porta della Carta, as free men.
If Casanova was a star before, his fame and appeal only grew after his masterful escape in 1756, all fodder for his best seller - a compelling autobiography he wrote years later.
Sticking with the theme of murder and torture, the next of Piazza San Marco's secrets is an unusual column you'd never notice unless you knew, once again part of the mysterious Doge's Palace. On the piazzetta, the gallows used in execution were always placed directly below the Doge's favourite, pink-columned spot and positioned to face Piazza San Marco's iconic clock tower. This provided a parting look at one's exact time of death, the tower was also used to hoist caged criminals in torture. But did you know that the death-sentenced convict was given one last chance to be pardoned?
A simple task or a seemingly unjust form of entertainment because the task to be completed remains impossible to this day.
Standing before the Palace, with your back to the gondole bobbing on the lagoon, take a good look at the forth column from the corner of the Palazzo Ducale - it's slightly out of alignment with the others. You'll notice the marble at its base is worn down and smooth.
Ma perché - but why?
The impossible task of redemption was to circle it with your back to the column, without falling off the step. You can imagine the sweat and tears and shufflings of hope that wore this very marble smooth - apparently over the years very few succeeded.
The last secret speaks of a love story, masterfully embedded, once again, in the columns of the Palazzo Ducale on Piazza San Marco. There are myriads of tales told in these columns but follow a secret picture-book story in stone of romance and love, along the capitals running the length of la Loggia: here, two lovers meet, fall in love, marry and bear a child. Legend says it's lucky to kiss under the love story, as it is to kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset - sealing your love for eternity. But sadly the destined couple lose their child in death and the story ends. Why such a tragic tale? Nobody knows. Perhaps it was the simple life story of the stone mason who wanted to preserve his tale for all to see, perhaps the story continues on another of Venice's beautiful buildings and ends in a satisfying sigh, somewhere else.
Nevertheless, there's enough love and romance in this city to fuel a hundred lifetimes of novels and stories, escapes and secrets - most we will walk past and never know.
Next time you're in Venice, seek out the secrets of Piazza San Marco - one of the world's most iconic of spots, and dig into its past and mysteries. Try to circle the perilous column and let us know if you make it!