St Mark’s Bell Tower, the highest building in Venice, is located in front of the St Mark’s Basilica, in front of the corner of the Sansovino Library.
The base is a square with 12 meters long sides, built in brick and about 50 meters tall, surmounted by a belfry abovewhich is placed a dado (cube) that serves as a base for the pyramidal spire. A golden angel stands on top of the spire. Itsentire height is about 100 meters, of which 3.68 is the angel.
With its spire covered in golden plates and beacon which was lit during the night in the belfry, the bell tower functionedas a great lighthouse for sailors: it could be spotted from more than 40 kilometers away.
The bell tower has a long and often tormented history.
Construction began between 888 and 912 under the dogado of Pietro Tribuno, on top of earlier Roman foundations. The belfry was inserted in 1173, under the Doge Vitale Michiel II. The present form was only achieved in 1513-15 with the work of the architect Piero Bon, with the addition of the wooden angel coated in gold-plated copper that was to serve as a weathervane.
A classically inspired loggia was built at the foot of the bell tower in 1537- 49, designed by Jacopo Sansovino. It waslater enlarged with an external balustrade terrace, complete with a bronze gate.
The bell tower became a natural and rather large lightning conductor given its considerable height and the iron structuresthat reinforced it. Many bolts of lightning have struck it over the centuries, setting it on fire, causing the top to collapse or causing cracks in the structure. The greatest damage caused by lightning was in the years: 1388, 1489, 1548, 1562, 1565, 1582, 1653, 1745, 1761 and in 1762.
Only in 1776 was the bell tower equipped with a lightning rod on the suggestion of the Abbot Giuseppe Toaldo; it was a sort of electric cable that discharged under the Piazza. It was a cure-all: there have been no more direct lightning strikeson the structure since then.
But even fires and earthquakes gave no respite to the bell tower. In 1403 the torches that illuminated the belfry set fire to the structure and the tower was later seriously damaged in the distressing earthquake 1511. It was restored and completedby Piero Bon following these damages.
The tower continued to be weakened over the years, filling with cracks. On July 14, 1902 at 9.47 am, the city and the entire lagoon were woken by a roar: the bell tower had collapsed into a huge cloud of dust. Fortunately the collapseoccurred painlessly: by falling on itself, the damage remained limited to a corner of the Marciana Library and the death of a cat and some pigeons.
The race for its reconstruction began: with the order ‘Where it was, as it was’ the reconstruction works on one of the symbols of the city started immediately.
Stalls selling handicrafts and wine stood at the base of the bell tower until the 14th century. These stalls had the habit of moving with the shadow of the tower, and so people said: ‘Andèmo bèver al’ombra’' (Let's go and drink in the shade). With time, in the popular dialect, the phrase became ‘Andèmo bèver un’ombra’ (Let's go drink a shadow), where the meaning of the term ‘shadow’ is intended as a glass of wine. This is still what the Venetians say when they invite a friendfor a drink.
In 1609 Galileo Galilei presented his new invention, the telescope, to the Doge and the Serenissima Council.
Ten years later, on the 25th of April 1912, despite the many technical difficulties and all sorts of problems, the new bell tower including the rebuilt Loggia was inaugurated.
Always affectionately called ‘El parón de casa’, St Mark's Bell Tower struck time in the city with its five bells, each witha different sound and name:
- Marangona (Campanòn, or the Big Bell), marks the beginning and end of the work shift of the marangoni, shipcarpenters of the Arsenal, and rung the first notice for senators meetings. It was the only bell saved from the collapse of 1912. It currently rings at midnight;
- Trottiera, which reminded the patricians of the sessions of the Maggior Consiglio (where they arrived on horseback, ‘al trotto’);
- Nona, which rung at noon (and still does);
- Mezza Terza (or Prègadi) announced the meetings of the Pregadi, the members of the Senate and some religiousservices;
- Renghiera (or Maleficio) announced a capital execution in progress.