Around San Marco

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It is hard to think of any hidden corners in the most visited district of Venice, San Marco, where thousands of tourists get lost every day, but some of San Marco's most interesting treasures are hidden in plain sight. Take for example the curious inhabitants on top of the two columns by the waterfront, in an area called the Molo, near the Doge's Palace: A winged lion, a soldier and a dragon. The winged lion is the symbol of Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice. The soldier is Saint Theodore (San Todaro), a Greek general who used to be Venice's patron saint until demoted upon the arrival of the stolen body of the mightier San Marco, an evangelist, no less. The dragon under Saint Theodore's feet is a later addition of unclear origin. The lion, the dragon and the soldier bore witness to hundreds of executions carried out by the state. Criminals, murderers, traitors and even homosexuals were hanged, decapitated or burned alive between the two columns. And in so doing, Venice showed her egalitarian side, albeit in its most macabre angle. The two columns, where so many unfortunate souls took their last breaths, were also the ceremonial gate to Venice, the welcoming entrance to kings and princes. Walking between the columns is considered bad luck, and superstitious Venetians avoid it even today.

The statue of Saint Theodore is a pastiche: The head is a portrait of king Mithridates, from Pontus; the body is that of a Roman soldier and dates from Hadrian's times. The dragon dates from the 15th century. The original sculpture is kept in the Doge's Palace; what we see on top of the column today is a reproduction. The lion didn't fare much better. While its origin is debated –it's believed to be either Etruscan or Persian or even Chinese– the book and the wings were added later to make it a true lion of Saint Mark. It was taken to Paris by Napoleon's army in 1797, at the fall of the Venetian Republic, and brought back in pieces in 1815. It was once covered in gold. The granite columns on which they stand were brought from Syria in 1172. Venetians didn't know how to set them up until Nicolò Barattieri, a Lombard engineer, took up the challenge in 1180, in exchange for the rights to set up a gambling table between the two columns.

Original San Todaro at the Doge's Palace

Map of Venice

A few meters away from the Molo, under the arches of the Procuratie Nove, is Caffè Florian, one of the first coffeehouses in Italy and in operation since 1720. Its first owner, Floriano Francesconi, called it Alla Venezia Triomfante. A detour at Florian is a must; you will be sitting in the same plush rooms where once the likes of Verdi, Proust and Casanova mingled. However, a look behind the scenes could also be rewarding. In the back of the Procuratie Nove is a series of courtyards, seven to be precise, with a treasure trove of sculptures, magnificent wellheads (vere da pozzo) and other architectural details haphazardly scattered. Some of these vere da pozzo are very old, displaying protochristian motifs. And trust me, you will find no tourists there.

Before you exit the Piazza you may want to visit one of Venice's most interesting museums: Museo Correr. The entrance to the museum is under the arches of the Ala Napoleonica, on the western side of the Piazza. A tour of its halls will give you a panoramic view of Venice's history, architecture, art, social life and naval power in centuries past. The unique and marvelous woodcut of Venice by Jacopo de' Barbari (from 1500) is on display here along with works by Canova, Carpaccio and Bellini.

If you exit the Piazza at the end of the Procuratie Nove you will be on Calle Seconda de l'Ascension. If you turn left on Calle Vallaresso (the first intersection), at the end of it on your left you will see Harry's Bar. Made famous by Hemingway and Woody Allen and patronized by "anybody who wants to be somebody." Harry's Bar is the birthplace of the Bellini cocktail (white peach puree and prosecco) and the Carpaccio meat dish (thinly sliced raw beef with mustard sauce).

If you exit the Piazza by the Correr Museum and walk to your right, you'll be on Bocca de Piazza. The street ends in a sotoportego beyond which is Osteria da Carla, a great place to have crostini, cicheti and wine.

Go back to Calle Seconda de l'Ascension and soon you will be on Salizada San Moisè that leads to Campo San Moisè. The Baroque façade of the church consecrated to the Jewish saint is the work of Alessandro Tremignon and Heinrich Meyring (17th century). Cross Ponte San Moisè and you will reach one of the most elegant commercial streets in Venice, Calle Larga XXII Marzo, lined with fashionable boutiques and posh hotels and restaurants.

At Ponte San Moisè there is an important gondola station on one side and the rather nondescript entrance to the five-star-plus Bauer Hotel on the other.

As you continue on Calle Larga XXII Marzo, if you turn left on Calle del Squero you will soon reach Corte Barozzi, a hidden place with a beautiful vera da pozzo in Istrian stone from the 17th century and the entrance to the Hotel Europa & Regina. From this corte take Calle Barozzi to its end on Calle del Tragheto. To the right is Corte San Moisè. A vera da pozzo in pink Verona marble is in the center and a plaque on an adjacent building tells us that in the Teatro Minerva or San Moisè on July 9, 1896, the first Venetian projection of the Lumière Brothers' cinématograph took place. This was only six months after the very first projection in Paris. From the end of Calle del Tragheto you have an outstanding view of the church of La Salute, across the Grand Canal.

Corte Barozzi

Corte Barozzi

Corte San Moisè

Calle San Moisè

Go back to Calle XXII Marzo. As the street narrows and turns left it becomes Calle de le Ostreghe (Street of the Oysters). If you lift your eyes, you will see a set of beautiful windows in the Venetian Gothic style that belong to Hotel Torino. As you cross Rio de l'Alboro you'll see to your left the perfectly located Ristorante da Raffaele and a charming wrought-iron bridge with the backdrop of Palazzo Genovese, a modern construction in Neogothic style, on the other side of the Grand Canal. Right behind you is La Ricerca, one of the largest bookbinders in Venice. Etchings, bookmarks, and blank books can be found here.

After you cross the bridge and before you reach the next campo, you will see on your left a very Venetian store, Il Prato. They specialize in blank books, paper-mache dolls, and amazing miniatures. As you continue in the same direction you will reach Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo or del Giglio. The church of the same name will be in front of you, to the right. Along with the church of San Moisè it has one of the most ornate façades in the city. The interior houses a treasure trove of relics, among them pieces of the robes of Saint Francis and Saint Catharine and bone fragments from Saint Claire and Saint Stephen. Just the Annunciation on both sides of the main altar, a work of Heinrich Meyring (17th century), makes this church worth the visit.

As we leave Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo the truncated remains of the old bell tower now transformed into a gift shop will be on your left. Cross Ponte and Campiello de la Feltrina. Bar Tarnowska's will be on your left. Bar Tarnowska's is part of the Hotel Ala where at the turn of the 20th century the assassination of Maria Tarnowska's lover took place. Maria Tarnowska was an interesting character. Born in Ukraine in 1877 and married to Russian aristocracy, she became famous as the instigator of the murder of one of her lovers by another one of her lovers. Apparently, her beauty was devastating to the men who got involved with her. Two of them died and four abandoned their wives and children. She stood trial in 1910 and was found guilty. The trial was followed intensely by the public, who wanted to drown her, and by the newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. She died in Argentina in 1949.

Maria Tarnowska going to court

Cross Rio San Maurizio at Ponte Zaguri and soon you will be in charming Campo San Maurizio. If you are lucky, you will be there when they organize a wonderful antiques fair (Mercatino dell'Antiquariato) usually held three times a year, for a three-day weekend, at the beginning of April, in mid September and during the weekend before Christmas. More than a hundred merchants offer any imaginable trinket and more, from antique Burano lace to a pair of life-size lions. 

At the church of San Maurizio there is always some interesting exhibition open to the public. Lately, it's been on musical instruments at the time of Vivaldi. Exit Campo San Maurizio through Calle del Piovan (Street of the Parish Priest), by the front of the church. At number 2762 is the former Scuola degli Albanesi. A relief above the door shows Sultan Mehmed II looking at the castle of Scutari (Albania) which fell to the Turks in 1479. Right below is a relief of the Madonna and Child. 

A few steps further down you will see one of the most original stores in Venice, Il Papiro, where you can find superb stationery, unique marbled paper, and leather-bound journals. It is a paradise for those who love to write by hand. After crossing the bridge (Ponte San Maurizio) you will see to your left on Calle del Spezier (Street of the Spice Merchant) an art gallery: Galleria Contini. Check it out; you may be amazed by the exhibit in the courtyard. It could be one of the stunning sculptures by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj or the work of some local genius. If you are not amazed, you can always take comfort in the wonderful local pastries at the store across the street or the unique gelato at Paolin on Campo Santo Stefano.

Artist: Igor Mitoraj

"Davide's Renaissance"
Artist: Giuseppe Veneziano, 2011

Calle del Spezier ends at Campo Santo Stefano, also called Campo Francesco Morosini. In the middle of the campo is the statue of Nicolò Tommaseo affectionately called by Venetians "el cagalibri" -the book-pooper- for self-evident reasons. Tommaseo, along with Daniele Manin, participated in the Venetian insurrection against the Austrian rulers in 1848. He was one of the most important figures of the Italian unification. Campo Santo Stefano is the place to watch Venetians (and tourists) go by, and the best seats are in Gelateria Paolin. This campo used to be transformed in an Alpine village at Christmastime when it hosted a great Christmas market, but, sadly, the tradition was discontinued a few years ago. Campo Santo Stefano and the adjoining areas have still a lot to offer year round. Just walk around and you'll be surprised.

Campiello Loredan

There are six other campi and campielli around Campo Santo Stefano: Campiello Santo Stefano where the main entrance to the Santo Stefano church is located; Campiello Novo o dei Morti, a former cemetery in a secluded location enclosing charming Locanda Fiorita; Campiello Loredan, behind Palazzo Loredan and where you will find a typical Venetian wood carving and gilding studio; Campo Pisani that also serves as an outdoor theater in the summer months; Campiello San Vidal, where you can visit the former church of San Vidal, now a concert hall and art gallery. One of the works on display is "San Vidal on Horseback" by Vittore Carpaccio; and Campo San Vidal that leads to Ponte de l'Accademia.

In the courtyard of Palazzo Morosini, that you can see from Calle Streta Morosini, there is a vera da pozzo very similar in shape to the one on Calle del Pestrin in Cannaregio. This wellhead is probably derived from an old baptismal font.

Calle Streta Morosini

Palazzo Morosini

Close to the Church of San Vidal is Palazzo Loredan, the headquarters of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti. On the ground floor there is a collection of busts of distinguished Venetians: Tiziano, Tintoretto, Aldo Manuzio, Giovanni Bellini, among many others.

Giovanni Bellini

Tiziano and Tintoretto

The Doge and the Dogaresa
P. Giustinian on Rio de S. Vidal, Cp. S. Vidal
     Rio de l'Orso and Fondamenta Barbaro

      Campiello Novo o dei Morti with Locanda Fiorita
 Mitoraj on Campo San Vidal

The endless pedestrian traffic attracts numerous street vendors, overwhelmingly young males from West Africa, offering bags and other goods of questionable origin. Some Venetians call them vu' comprà, a derogatory term that alludes to the way they supposedly pronounce the phrase  "Vuoi comprare?" (Do you want to buy?). When they are not stoically standing by their merchandise or running from the police, they can be seen in the shadow of a church, away from the city center, socializing among themselves and probably dreaming of a better life. During the glorious days of the Republic, Venetians took pride in being an open and welcoming society where thousands of immigrants from the four corners of the known world found a home. Walk all the way to Ponte de l'Accademia, but do not cross it. You can take a short detour by crossing Rio de San Vidal to charming Rio del Duca (the next bridge).

     Palazzo Franchetti-Cavalli-Gussoni, Cp. San Vidal
                       Street vendor on Campo San Vidal

     Rio del Duca near Cp. S. Stefano A painter's paradise on Calle de le Boteghe
    Fairy-tale houses on Campo Pisani

After you have visited the different corners in and around Campo Santo Stefano, exit the campo by the side street at the corner of Gelateria Paolin, Calle de le Boteghe. Soon on your right you'll see Trattoria da Fiore, a great place for seafood cicheti and wine. Continue on, until the street becomes Calle Corner o del Magazen, right after Salizada San Samuele. At the end of Calle Corner you will find a true hidden corner of Venice, Corte Corner. The small garden, the tall trees and the staircase create a magical space. The vera da pozzo in the middle of the garden dates from the first half of 12th century and is Romanesque-Byzantine in style. Animals, leaves and flowers are carved between the arches. The other wellhead dates from the 14-15th century.

Go back to Salizada San Samuele and turn right. There are some interesting shops in this area selling local and original handicrafts. Soon the street opens into a fork; take either side of the fork; both will take you to the Grand Canal, the church of San Samuele and Palazzo Grassi, where there is always an interesting exhibition going on.


Retrace your steps and keep going straight until you reach Piscina San Samuele where you turn right. At the end of the street climb the steps on your left and you will be on Campiello Novo o dei Morti. Cut across the campiello and you will be at the end of Campo Santo Stefano once again, this time by the front door of the church, where you can see a stone tablet dated 1633 prohibiting the opening of shops, cursing, and committing other indecencies near the church.

Cross the bridge at the end of the street, Calle dei Frati (Street of the Friars) and you will be in Campo Sant'Angelo, so called because of the church consecrated to Archangel Michael and demolished in 1837. A plaque in the middle of the campo marks the spot where the church once stood.


On Ponte dei Frati itself is the entrance to the former monastery of Santo Stefano, now a public building. Above the door you can admire a beautiful lunette depicting Saint Augustine protecting a group of monks under his cloak, à la Madonna della Misericordia, a work attributed to Giovanni Buora (end 15th century.) You can visit the cloisters during business hours. The old cloister dates from the 14th century and the newer one  from the  16-17th centuries. Its walls used to be adorned with frescoes by Pordenone, now on display at Ca' d'Oro.

Exit Campo Sant'Angelo by the opposite end, Calle del Spezier which soon becomes Calle de la Mandola (Street of the Almond) and then Calle de la Cortesia (Street of the Courtesy). In typical Venetian fashion all these name changes take place in a short stretch before you reach the next bridge (it should be pointed out, however, that to most Venetians the whole street is commonly known as Calle de la Mandola.) This very quaint area of Venice, enclosed between Campo Sant'Angelo and Campo Manin, offers some quintessential Venetian shops.

Rio Terà de la Mandola, off Calle de la Mandola

Calle de la Cortesia

On Rio Terà dei Assassini (an evocative name that doesn't need translation), adjacent to Calle de la Mandola is Libreria Bertoni, a bookstore that specializes in used and rare books with a large inventory of art books about Venice. From Calle de la Mandola we are going to take two detours. The first one on Rio Terà de la Mandola. Before the end of the street is the secluded Corte Barbarigo with a beautiful vera da pozzo from the second half of the 15th century.

Make a right turn at the end of the street (under the sotoportego) and then a left turn and you will be on Campo San Beneto. Museo Fortuny is located in Palazzo Pesaro degli Orfei. Fortuny's original work studio, plus his unique fabrics and inventions, can be viewed here. We exit the campo from Salizada de la Chiesa o del Teatro and make a left turn on Calle Sant'Andrea. At the end of this calle is a beautiful and secluded corte with an exuberant vera da pozzo, and a plaque of Sant'Andrea from 1356.The monks of Sant'Andrea de la Certosa (near the Lido) had a house on this court, which they used during their visits to the city. Aldo Manuzio, junior, lived on this court in the 1580s.


We return to Calle de la Mandola by way of Salizada del Teatro and take another detour to visit  Teatro La Fenice. We make a right turn on Calle de la Mandola and after a short stretch a left turn on Calle de la Verona. We cross the wrought-iron bridge of the same name with a nice view of Rio de la Verona and the back side of Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo that we'll see later. The beautiful face carving is on a house nearby.

The first opera house, Teatro Tron, opened in Venice in 1637. Until then, opera had been a royal entertainment only performed in the grand halls of the palazzi. One of the most famous opera houses in the world is La Fenice, which opened in Venice in 1792 and was destroyed by fire on two occasions, in 1836 and 1996, and twice rebuilt. The world premieres of Verdi's operas La Traviata and Rigoletto took place at La Fenice.

La Fenice during reconstruction in 2001
The beautiful marquee in 2004

The rebuilt theater opened its doors on December 13th, 2003, with a concert of Beethoven, Wagner and Stravinsky, but the first opera production was La Traviata on November 12th, 2004. The theater was painstakingly rebuilt following the Venetian motto "dov'era, com'era" (where it was, how it was) first used for the reconstruction of the San Marco campanile, which collapsed in 1902 and was rebuilt in 1912.

The area around La Fenice still carries a bit of a faded bohemian aura in its atmospheric cafes, hotels and wine bars (bàcari). A stroll around the many campi and campielli that surround the theater, especially right before a performance when people impeccably dressed flock from all different corners, will show you another face of Venice.

Ramo Ferretta with the hotel La Fenice et des Artistes behind     
Ponte Storto from Campiello dei Calegheri
   Window on Rio de la Verona

We return to Calle de la Mandola the same way we came in, via Calle de la Verona, and continue on to Calle de la Cortesia. To the right, before we reach the bridge is a wonderful bookstore with a knowledgeable and friendly staff that specializes in antique Venetian books, Linea d'Acqua. We cross Ponte de la Cortesia into Campo Daniele Manin, named after the Venetian patriot who fought the Austrian rulers in 1848 and was temporarily President of the the short-lived Republic of San Marco. He lived in the house between the two bridges.

Ponte de la Cortesia 

Monument to Daniele Manin

Gondole by Campo Manin

Right in front of us is one of the most - unjustly, if I may add- vilified buildings in Venice, the Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, a savings bank, designed by Luigi Nervi and Angelo Scattolin and built in the 1970s. I believe history will be kind to this building that is able to capture the Venetian spirit without losing its 20th-century soul. This is the location where Aldo Manuzio, founder of the famous Aldine Press, had his shop in the 15th and 16th centuries.


From Campo Manin we take a detour to the right into narrow Calle de la Vida (Street of the Grapevine) which soon turns left. After a few steps we turn right into Calle e Corte Contarini del Bovolo. To your right you can admire the beautiful spiral staircase. Bovolo means snail in the Venetian dialect. This remarkable staircase is attributed to Giovanni Candi, commissioned by Pietro Contarini at the end of the 15th century to embellish his Gothic palace. The stairs wind around a central column with a decreasing pitch as they rise. The view from the top is breathtaking.

We return to Campo Manin the way we came in and exit the campo by the left side of the Cassa di Risparmio. We follow the perimeter of the bank making a right  turn on Salizada San Luca. Libreria Fantoni is in a corner; it specializes in books on art, architecture, photography and Venetian themes. We continue onto Campo San Luca, the geographic center of Venice. Caffè Torino is in one of the corners. A great place to have a short break and people watch.

We exit the campo by making a left turn on Calle del Forno to the next intersection, Calle del Teatro, where we turn right. Teatro Goldoni will be on your left. We cross the bridge, Ponte del Lovo (Bridge of the Wolf). This is the only bridge in the middle of the city (other than the bridges on Riva degli Schiavoni) from where you can see the campanile di San Marco.

We soon reach Campo San Salvador. On your right is the church of San Salvador. The church houses many artistic treasures such as an Annunciation by Tiziano and the famous Pala d'Argento Dorato, on display in the main altar only at certain times of the year (between December 25 and January 1, from Easter Sunday to the following Sunday and from August 6  to August 13). The Pala probably dates from the 16th century and its central theme is the Transfiguration of Christ. During the rest of the year it's hidden by Tiziano's painting also depicting the Transfiguration of Christ.

Next to the church, the cloisters of San Salvador are open to the public. The beautiful Renaissance loggia is attributed to Sansovino and worth the visit.

As we cross Campo San Salvador and come into Campo San Bartolomeo, a commercial hub, to your left is the Rialto bridge, to your right the Merceria or Marzaria, the shopping district of Venice, and straight ahead Ponte de l'Olio that connects the sestieri of San Marco and Cannaregio. In the middle of the campo is the smiling statue of Carlo Goldoni, Venice's most famous playwright. Before the steps of the Rialto bridge, to your right, if you lift your eyes you will see a golden head that used to be the emblem of an old apothecary, Alla Testa d'Oro, that specialized in triaca or teriaca a cure-all preparation with many ingredients that the Venetians cleverly marketed.

Campo San Bartolomeo
              Goldoni at Campo San Bartolomeo

The Rialto Bridge shopping area
Whimsical umbrellas at the beginning of the Merceria

If you reach Ponte de l'Olio, you will be standing in a unique spot. It is the only point in the city from where you can see four sestieri all at once. If you stand in the middle of the bridge with your back to Campo San Bartolomeo, to your left is San Polo, to your right Castello, ahead of you Cannaregio, and behind you San Marco. Turn around and you will see the last number of the sestiere of San Marco and the end of the tour.

Some of my favorite websites about hotels, restaurants, cafes, stores and tourism have been included here. Their choice reflects my bias for bookstores, stationery stores, Venetian food, Carpaccio (the painter not the dish) and Bellinis (the painters and the drink) and should not be construed as an endorsement of their products or website contents. There are no commercial ties between them and "A Lover of Venice."