by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Comune di Venezia
Remains of the Campanile in Piazza San Marco after its collapse on 14 July 1902

'Where it was, as it was'

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 28 July 1992


'I will never forget', said an eyewitness, 'that moment: the colossus's wound opened still more horrifyingly, the side facing the Basilica crumpled, ripping itself apart, and, while the crowd gave a prolonged cry, an ominous sound of ruination and disintegration rumbled forth; the immense pinnacle of the Campanile swayed with two or three slow movements from right to left, skewing the arches supporting it and shivering them to pieces; the colossus collapsed in on itself, sinking down, down, down and swallowing itself up...'

The moment was 9.47 on the morning of 14 July 1902. On the same morning, 90 years later, a diverting and enlightening exhibition 'The Campanile of St Mark's: the Fall and the Reconstruction' (that runs through 31 December) opened at the Doge's Palace.

As the vast cloud of dust settled after the fall, leaving St Mark's Square carpeted with a layer of pulverized mortar several inches thick, the 322 foot Campanile was found to have reduced itself to a conical, 14,000-ton mound of rubble nearly 40 foot high. The gilded angel surmounting the pinnacle, having been seen describing a graceful parabola through the air as the tower fell, was discovered prostrate at the main doorway of St Mark's, while the church itself and the Doges' Palace remained, to the astonishment of all, untouched. The only serious damage was to Sansovino's exquisite Loggetta at the base of the tower, and the far end wall of his imposing Marciana Library, which was sheared off.

There were no casualties, even though a group of guards and workmen were at the bottom of the Campanile, and some insouciant customers were drinking at cafe tables a few yards away only minutes before. (The corpse of a cat was, however, later discovered during the removal of the debris, which took over six months.)

The controlled and courtly fashion in which the tower chose to auto-destruct gave rise to the oft-repeated Venetian observation: 'Lu xe sempre sta galantomo, lu ga parla, lu ga avisa: fe largo che casco!' ('He always was a gentleman: he spoke to us, he warned us: 'Stand clear, because I'm coming down!').

The Campanile's shining example of good breeding was lost on certain baser individuals who, within hours, were out hawking a special late extra 'with the Names of the Dead and Injured', not to mention the malfactor who grabbed a gold chain in the confusion and managed to escape, despite the victim's whacking him on the head with her parasol. Other ladies fainted, including one 'in an interesting condition', and were borne away to nearby cafes and pharmacists to be revived and given restoratives.

The exact reasons for the Campanile's fall remain uncertain. Built between the 10th and 12th centuries, the tower reached its familiar appearance in 1513. It was repeatedly struck by älightning over the centuries, and shaken by earthquakes, which at least once set its bells jangling madly all by themselves.

But the main cause seems to have been incompetent, sometimes little more than cosmetic, repair work, undertaken after the lightning strikes and earth tremors, that gradually upset the balance of the structure. The final culprit, according to one contemporary source, was the custodian, who inhabited a room at the bottom of the tower, and who cut out chunks of brickwork to make a chimney and a cupboard for himself.

More than just a symbol of civic pride, the Campanile was of immeasurable totemistic significance to Venetians. In origins a a look-out post and refuge from attack, it became the vantage point par excellence to spot Venice's fleets returning from the East, and the landmark that guided Venetian mariners through the narrow Lido passage into the lagoon.

The whole life of the city became regulated by its bells: one, the massive Marangona ('Carpenter') marked the beginning and end of the working day, tolled at midnight and was rung to celebrate victories or declare emergencies; another summoned the Senate to its sittings; another still, rang at the moment of a criminal's execution, and so on.

By nightfall on the day of the collapse, with a resolution that the present municipal government might do well to study, the local council decided to build the tower again: dov'era, com'era ('where it was, as it was'). The Viennese architect Otto Wagner had the temerity to suggest a nice new one in the latest modern style (designed presumably by himself) and was told by the Venetian public and press at which landing to step off (some amusing parodists' visions for an alternative Campanile are pictured in the show and catalogue).

On the 25 April, St Mark's Day, 1912, Campanile Mark II was inaugurated: local dignitaries and the world's ambassadors sat down to a banquet of salmon, quails and roast Bohemian pheasant in the Doge's Palace, over 2,000 Venetian children were given Italian tricolour lunchbags containing 'a souvenir Murano glass beaker, two filled rolls, a sweet and an orange', and, amidst the pealing of bells, Venice regained its visual, aural and psychological centre of gravity once more.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024