The campanile of St. Mark’s is an imposing square plan tower about 99 metres high, crowned by a spire that was once a lighthouse for shipping. It is the prototype of all the campaniles of the lagoon area. It was first built in the 12th century on the site of what was probably a watchtower and rebuilt in its current form early in the 16th centurywith the addition of a belfry and with the spire faced in copper and topped by a sort of rotating platform with a statue of the Archangel Gabriel which functioned as a weathercock.
Of the five original bells only the largest remains. The others, now replaced, were destroyed when the tower collapsed in 1902. From the belfry loggia there is a spectacular bird’s eye view of the city and the lagoon.
Against the base of the campanile is the balcony built by Jacopo Sansovino between 1537 and 1549 and decorated with marbles and bronzes .
Begun on pre-existing Roman foundations in the 9th century and rebuilt several times between the 12th and 14th centuries, the campanile took on its definitive appearance, after much restoration and reworking, between 1511 and 1514.
It consists of a solid square brickwork frame with lesenes, 12 metres wide and 49.5 metres high (half its full height of 98.6 metres), and the arched belfry on which a large dado stands that serves as a base for the pyramidal spire topped by the golden angel.
Simple, of Roman concept in its severe harmony of line and proportions, the tower with the shining golden angel set on a rotating platform at the top has always been the first sight of Venice for those arriving by sea,. Struck several times by lightning and by earthquakes it continued its centuries-old life until the beginning of the 20th century.
On 14th July 1902 the campanile suddenly collapsed as a result of imprudent constructional work. The damage was not irreparable: the “proclamation stone” at the corner of the church prevented collapse of the corner column, thus saving the church. The Balcony however was buried under the rubble.
News of the collapse spread throughout the world and the Municipal Administration resolved that the Campanile should be rebuilt exactly as it had been.
The first stone was laid on 25th April 1903 and nine years later, in 1912, on St. Mark’s day, the new campanile was inaugurated. Externally the building was a faithful copy but was built, for greater safety and static stability, in accordance with the more rigorous laws on construction technique. Certain destroyed parts were reintegrated: on two sides of the dado above the belfry, alternated with the Justices, the two moving Lions in Istria stone replaced those sculpted at the time of the fall of the Republic, and the embossed copper statue of the Archangel Gabriel that topped the tower was recomposed with the original fragments and almost entirely redone, copying the old 1822 model.
This history of the campanile is linked to the memory of the traditional flight of the Angel celebration that took place on the last Thursday before Lent, a balancing act in which an acrobat descended a tightrope from the belfry to a boat in the Basin or to the loggia of the Ducal Palace where the Doge and Lords observed the spectacle.
A visit to the campanile was an attraction offered also in the past to illustrious guests, though the Lords were cautious in granting permission to foreigners for fear that they might survey the layout of the city and its ports for military purposes. Galileo used the campanile as an observatory to study the skies and it was there in1609 that he demonstrated his telescope to the Lords.