Things We Are Not Taller Than: Venice, Italy

This post is part of a series. You can read about the origins of our travel tradition here.

If you look at the Campanile San Marco, you’d be shocked to know that it was built 1000 years ago. The graceful, fluted lines; the narrow, tapered windows; the patina’ed peak at the top of which rotates the angel Gabriel, look familiar and modern, rather than ancient.

But it’s true—the campanile was conceived and constructed in the 9th century and originally used as a watchtower and lighthouse. To be fair, only the foundations of that original structure remain. Over the centuries, the campanile was struck by lightning multiple times, set on fire multiple times, and finally, suffered a complete collapse in 1902. Rebuilt in total just ten years later, the tower that stands in the middle of St. Mark’s Square (flooded, in turn, by water, pigeons, and tourists) is an exact replica of the decimated one, only this time, reinforced to prevent future collapse.

Like most of Venice, the Campanile suffers from the high water flooding (Aqua Alta), and plans are underway to fit a titanium ring beneath the foundations to give added stability and support to the structure, rather than risk relying on the wooden piles in soft ground.

If the Campanile feels familiar and modern to me, it’s no surprise. I grew up in the presence of two knock-offs—the Tribune Tower in Downtown Oakland and Sather Tower, nicknamed “The Campanile” at U.C. Berkeley. Both were completed in the early 1900s (right around the time of the original tower’s collapse and rebuilding), and obviously inspired by the Venetian construction.