Saint Mark's Square

A Brief Enquiry into the Public Squares of Modern Venice

When people think about their ‘ideal’ public square, it is often perceived as open and accessible; a place that allows for movement, communication, activities and contemplation. However, one may question if this is still the case today?[br]

Poet Joseph Brodsky described Venice as “The greatest masterpiece our species produced”. This is in part due to its serene combination of both waterways and picturesque buildings. Venice is a compact and easily walkable city with no cars to be found. Salty air lingers rather than the usual smog of cosmopolitan cities, making it a unique and incomparable oasis. The city was shaped by its canals (the main form of transport other than walking) resulting in the streets being somewhat chaotic, but undeniably enchanting in every turn. The buildings are clustered side-by-side with doors and windows opening directly into the public streets and plazas. The outside space becomes an extension of Venetian homes and businesses. Washing lines bedecked with clothes dance over the streets, adding to the vibrancy of the city.[br]

The city has provided its occupants with 127 public squares within 118 small islands, which may sound like a lot for such a compact city, but the current high rate of tourism has tipped the city’s public spaces out of balance. It currently has a ratio of 65,000 inhabitants to 14,000,000 tourists, that equates to about 1 local per 215 tourists. The city was not built for this crowd. To deal with these issues, the council has devised regulations to safeguard the use of public squares. In a typical square temporary occupants such as outdoor seating for restaurants and gift shops, lease a part of the square. Protective buffers are set around monuments, trees, street furniture, churches and bridges. There is also a minimum width of 3-meter clear passage for pedestrian movement. By doing so, overcrowding is lessened, spaces for public seating is offered and pedestrian flow is controlled.[br]

St Mark’s Square is crowned as the most active public space in Venice because of its size, central location and civic buildings surrounding it. The Piazza today appeared almost identical to its 1720s painting by Canaletto. His painting illustrated the daily activities within the square: people socialising, street entertainment, children playing and vendors trading. It is arguable that the main function or the architecture of the Venetian squares have not changed at all even after a few centuries.[br]

Nemeth and Schmidth argues that an ideal public space allows “variety, flexibility, permeability, or authenticity” and it should allow for “unplanned, unmediated, improvised uses”. Essentially, St Mark’s Square is simply an open public stage that becomes alive as it hosts public activities and events.[br]

No single space can truly meet all the needs of its users at all times. Spaces that try to do so often fail to do anything well. The public squares of Venice are like an extension of people’s properties, an opportunity to meet other people and participate in the wider social context of a city. People will always be in need of such spaces to breathe and wander. However, the unprecedented overcrowding from tourism threatens its ability to host for both the locals and tourists. The current planning and regulations practise in the public squares, and perhaps the whole city of Venice, may not be enough anymore. The city has been continually trying out new radical new solutions to mitigate the overcrowding problem in an effort to prevent Venice from unintentionally becoming a theme park.