The first tower standing at the site of the campanile was built in the seventh century, possibly as a lighthouse. The first clock tower dates from around the year 900. Throughout the centuries, it was rebuilt a number of times, finally reaching its current look around 1513, after a restoration following a damaging earthquake.
The Campanile di San Marco, or Belltower of St. Mark’s, has stood for more than a thousand years-or for less than a century, depending on how you define “truth in advertising.”
The present-day structure was built in 1912 as an exact replica of its predecessor, which collapsed unexpectly on the morning of July 14, 1902. Ian Littlewood’s Venice: A Literary Companion quotes an American architect’s eyewitness report of the slow-motion implosion in The Times of London:
“Workmen had been repointing the Campanile, and had discovered a bad crack starting from the crown of the second arched window on the corner toward St. Mark’s. This crack had shown signs of opening further, and they feared small fragments falling down on the crowded Piazza; so the music was quietly stopped in the hope that the crowd would naturally disperse. The effect was exactly the opposite of that desired. Every one rushed to the Piazza.
“At eleven I was under the tower which rose in the dim moonlight. The crack was distinctly visible even in this half light, but apparently menaced only a corner of the tower. On Monday, early, the Campanile was resplendent in the sunshine. At nine my little girl Katharine went off with her horns of corn to feed the pigeons. Mrs. — was at St. Laccana, and I was near the Rialto sketching. The golden Angel on the tower was shining far away. Suddenly I saw it slowly sink directly downward beneath a line of roofs, and a dense grey dust rose in clouds. At once a crowd of people began running across the Rialto towards the Piazza, and I ordered my gondolier to the Piazzetta. On arrival the sight was pitiful. Of that splendid shaft all that remained was a mound of white dust, spreading to the Walls of St. Mark’s.”
Some Venetians claimed that St. Mark’s Square looked better without the tower, and others thought it was foolish to spend taxpayers’ money on a replacement. In the end, donations from outside Venice covered most of the expense, and a rebuilt Campanile was christened on April 25, 1912-exactly 1,000 years after the foundations of the original structure had been laid, according to historians of the time.
Although “campanile” means “bell tower,” the Campanile di San Marco did double duty as a military watchtower when it was constructed in the 10th Century. Later, as the tower was expanded and refined, its bronze-sheathed roof caught the sun’s rays and acted as a daytime beacon for mariners.
The Campanile received an overhaul in the early 1500s after being damaged by an earthquake, giving it the profile that we see today. It also received its share of historic visitors, including Galileo (who showed the Doge his famous telescope in 1609), Goethe (who viewed the Adriatic from the arched windows), and Emperor Frederick III of the Holy Roman Empire, who is said to have ridden his horse up the tower in 1452.