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Walt Disney World Architecture in Real Life: Piazza San Marco

By: Kendall Foreman

Photo looking up toward the recreations of St. Mark's Campanile and the Doge's Palace in the Italy pavilion at Epcot.

Built upon a ninth century Roman foundation, the Romanesque strength of St. Mark’s Campanile draws the eyes of all who approach the city of Venice. This famous tower has served a number of purposes throughout history as it cast its imposing shadow over the square that Napoleon once called “the world’s most beautiful drawing room.”

The Piazzetta San Marco and the Piazza San Marco are approached via the Grand Canal of Venice. As citizens and tourists step out onto dry land they are immediately flanked by two stately Byzantine columns, one depicting St. Theodore of Amasea and one topped by the Lion of Venice. These mark the entrance to the Piazzetta San Marco.

Along the right side of this “little square” sits the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale). Doge was the title given to the highest official of the Republic of Venice, and the Doge’s Palace served as the official residence and seat of the government up until the last Doge abdicated in 1797. With historical ties to the Byzantine Empire and a valuable trade partnership with much of the East, Venice’s architecture was influenced not only by Europe but also the Middle East. This led to a combination of Gothic, Renaissance, and Byzantine architecture that has come to be known as Venetian Gothic. The epitome of this style can be seen in the Doge’s Palace with its structural traceries, pointed arches, decorated roof lines, columned loggia, and patterned walls.

Traversing the Piazzetta San Marco and past the Doge’s Palace leads to the largest and most famous square in Venice, the Piazza San Marco. Flanked on all sides by structural icons of Venice, it is punctuated by St. Mark’s Campanile. The campanile or “freestanding bell tower,” sits beside St. Mark’s Basilica but differs greatly in appearance from the five-domed structure. The campanile is considered to be in the Italian Romanesque style and is differentiated from the surrounding buildings by its red brick exterior and pyramidal spire. Atop its peak sits a gold-leafed statue of the archangel Gabriel which serves a dual purpose as a weathervane.

It is believed that the tower was erected in the 12th century on the site of a Roman watchtower. In the proceeding centuries, it was damaged and repaired a number of times, and finally built in the form that can be seen today in the early 15th century. It is from that over 300-foot campanile that Galileo Galilei demonstrated his telescope to the Doge Leonardo Donato in 1609. That tower stood until 1902 when a large crack formed on the north wall. Efforts were made to stabilize the structure on July 12-13, but it completely gave away on the morning of July 14, 1902. The next ten years were spent reconstructing the bell tower exactly as it was before, and in 1912, it stood over the square once more.

Decades after St. Mark’s Campanile was rebuilt in Venice, it was reconstructed, albeit on a smaller scale, across the Atlantic Ocean.

A photo of the Italy pavilion in Epcot taken from across World Showcase Lagoon in order to capture how the pavilion is a mirror image of the actual Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy.

When it was decided that Italy would serve as inspiration for one of the World Showcase pavilions in Epcot at Walt Disney World, the architecture of Venice was chosen to be featured at the forefront of the pavilion. Just as in the floating city, Epcot guests find replicas of both the Lion of Venice and the St. Theodore columns standing right at the edge of the promenade.

Just beyond the noble pillars sits a 1/5-scale portrayal of St. Mark’s Campanile and a detailed, faithful representation of the Doge’s Palace. When viewed from the Isola del Lago (on the opposite side of the promenade), the depiction recreates stepping from a gondola and into the Piazzetta San Marco. And yet, it is different in its own right. Disney Imagineers took creative license by trading the position of the campanile and the Doge’s Palace. With the stately height and size of the American Adventure Pavilion located to the right of the Italy Pavilion, it was decided that the balance of the promenade, when viewed from across the lagoon, would be better maintained by creating a mirror image of the actual square in Italy.

Photo of the entrance to the Italy pavilion in Epcot featuring the recreations of the St. Theodore of Amasea and Lion of Venice pillars that are in Venice, Italy.

Even if a large characteristic such as position was sacrificed for the overall design of Epcot, no detail was overlooked with regard to the details. The ornamental capitals, ornate roof line, structural traceries, and quatrefoil openings of the Doge’s Palace are all present. Even the relief of Doge Andrea Gritti kneeling in front of the Lion of St. Mark can be seen recreated near the rooftop. While St. Mark’s Campanile is much smaller than the original, it is impressive nonetheless with its striking spire topped by a facsimile of the statue of the archangel Gabriel, also covered in real gold leaf.

The Italy Pavilion in Epcot is a near perfect representation of the architecture of Venice, and it is perhaps most faithful in its duplication of the purpose of the structures themselves. Each building of Piazza San Marco is important in and of itself, but together their architectures create a gathering place for the people of Venice – “the world’s most beautiful drawing room.” This is also what the Disney Imagineers have reproduced, a place for guests to gather and experience a little bit of Italy.

(Lead image, relief photo, campanile spire photo courtesy of Melanie Whitfield. Other photos from the author’s personal collection.)

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.