It was the year 1902 and San Marco and Venice were not very different from what we know today. The Basilica and the bell tower were standing, similar to today, since the twelfth century, although with many changes and renovations due to natural disasters (lightning) and malicious, such as fires. The bell tower, in particular, was in a very precarious equilibrium, and until 1776, when it was equipped with a lightning rod, it was itself the main driver of electric shocks that, over the centuries, had damaged the structure tens of times.

A drawing by Giovanni Antonio Canal known as Canaletto with repairs to the bell tower following the lightning of 1745

In 1902, as early as spring, the bell tower began to give the first worrying signs of subsidence, signs that continued more and more worrying until the evening of July 13 when, by order of the prefect, the square was vacated a short time before a concert of the 18th Infantry Regiment. The morning of July 14 at 9.47 or 9.52 (there are discordant sources) the bell tower collapsed entirely, becoming a pile of rubble in the middle of the square. Some technicians and many spectators managed to get away before the tons of bricks poured into the square, and the only one to die (according to newspapers of the time) was the custodian’s cat. This circumstance was not confirmed, and it may have been a journalistic invention to better understand what had happened. However, among the ruins of the bell tower, were also found nearly intact a bronze statue by Jacopo Sansovino depicting Mercury, only the right arm was broken and without four fingers, and a fragment of a Murano Glass chalice dating back to 1500.

The collapse of St. Mark’s Bell Tower was, of course, a tragedy for Venetians, and the rubble of the tower was thrown into the sea, about five miles from the Venice Lido. One brick, surrounded by laurel branches, was engraved with the date “July 14, 1902”.
The chronicles of the time said that It was like watching a funeral procession, and it seems that a little girl named Gigeta, on the boat with Giacomo Boni, a government official, threw the engraved brick into the sea. During the return trip, Boni noticed that Gigeta held her fist closed: she had kept a piece of brick of the bell tower.
The Basilica of St Mark, which obviously faces the bell tower, could have been seriously damaged by the collapse, mainly due to the columns facing the 98.6 meter tall building. The church, instead, was saved by the “Pietra del Bando”, a wide and low column that prevented the columns from being hit by the rubble. About the “Pietra del Bando” (in the photo below as it appears today), it was placed in the current position in 1246. On it the Comandador promulgated the laws of the Serenissima.

The newspapers of the time shouted to the miracle:
“Prodigious appeared the safety of the Basilica”, the “Gazzetta di Venezia” spoke instead of a “divine force”, “Il Gazzettino” of “a true miracle”. A large block of marble had in fact hit the cylindrical stone, uprooting it from the ground, but avoiding that the columns behind it that support the façade of the Basilica were struck. So, the Basilica was safe, but the bell tower was entirely rebuilt. Filippo Grimani, mayor of the city, on April 25, 1903, on the occasion of the laying of the first stone, pronounced the famous phrase several times:
com’era, dov’era” (how was, where was).
That also became the motto for a stamp issue printed in 1913, the year of completion of the works. The bell tower assumed the form that we all know today, basically the same as the original of the twelfth century, but certainly more stable and less proven by the ailments of the centuries.

Below the historic video (in Italian):

Sources: San Marco bell tower, collapse and reconstruction. 14 July 1902 – 25 April 1912, Venice, 1982,
Images from web. Public demain.

Written by Pavel

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