The belltower of the Basilica di San Marco is much more than just an enclosure to house bells to ring the faithful on a Sunday morning. It is a symbol of Venice and one of its most significant structures. In a city like Venice, that’s quite a claim.
The tower stands nearly 100 meters (98.6m or 323 feet) high. Freestanding in St. Mark’s square it literally towers above many of the surrounding structures. Yet, unlike them, its facade is a simple and still elegant brick design. The base is 12 meters (39 feet) on a side and the attic houses five bells. Capped by a spire in the shape of a pyramid it is topped with a golden weather vane in the form of the Archangel Gabriel.
However, interestingly, the entire structure is a re-built replica. The original collapsed in 1902 after standing for nearly 500 years. It was recreated in 1912 to resemble the original exactly.
The initial construction took place still further back, beginning in the 9th century. But earthquake damage in the early 1500s gave the leaders of the Republic an incentive to rebuild. It was during this effort that the tower took on its present appearance, attracting such famous visitors as Galileo and (much later) Goethe.
For centuries it served not only to house the bells for the cathedral, but as a military watchtower and lighthouse. From its peak one could look out far beyond to warn of impending danger. The bells could then be rung not to call the faithful to church, but defenders to battle.
The bells serve different purposes by design. The largest was used to signal the start and end of a work day. Another rang out the hour. A third was used to call the Senators of Venice to the Doge’s Palace.
The facade is more than just a plain, boring brick, however. Its gold leaf covering at the top scatters the warm summer rays of the Venetian sun around the Piazza. The faces of the belfry display walking lions along with a bas relief of a woman symbolizing Venice herself, called la Giustizia or Justice.
Inside an elevator transports visitors to the top to enjoy the magnificent view of the public square. From there one can also walk around the attic and investigate the details in the interior, including some of the amazing marble of the belfry.