IN PHOTOS: Venice opens St Mark’s palazzo to visitors for the first time

The Renaissance-era buildings flanking St Mark's Square have long been one part of Venice that couldn't be visited. Now, local residents have been allowed the first look inside before the buildings open to the public this month.

IN PHOTOS: Venice opens St Mark's palazzo to visitors for the first time
Cristiano Billia, associate director at David Chipperfield Architects in Milan, poses by the Procuratie Vecchie building after its restoration. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

For centuries, the impressive arcades flanking St Mark’s Square in Venice have embodied the watery city’s elegance and architectural significance.

Now, the Renaissance-era palazzo, whose galleries span as far as the eye can see on the north side of the square, is opening to the public for the first time on Friday, following a three-year renovation.

READ ALSO: 16 surprising facts about Venice to mark 16 centuries of the lagoon city

The building, known as the Procuratie Vecchie, was long the seat of the Procurators of St Mark, who for centuries administered the assets of the church in the wealthy city of Venice, away from the public eye.

An exclusive invitation for locals to finally glimpse the interior of the storied palace following Friday’s inauguration has already attracted reservations from more than 3,000 Venetians. Doors will be open to tourists from around the world from April 13.

Visitors walk in the Procuratie Vecchie building after its restoration. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Built in the 12th century, the Procuratie Vecchie was devastated by fire in 1512, its Venetian-Byzantine building replaced in 1538 by the Renaissance gem in classical style, whose arches – along with the square’s basilica, belltower – are one of the St. Mark’s most recognised features.

The exteror of Venice’s Procuratie Vecchie. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

The building is now owned by Italian insurer Generali,which commissioned renowned English architect David Chipperfield to breathe new life into the building.

Although St Mark’s Square is one of the world’s most famous, “none of us has really imagined what is behind these facades,” Chipperfield told AFP, adding it was rare for such a big square to enjoy “such a coherent facade”.

The entrance hall of the Procuratie Vecchie building after its restoration. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

“Superficially it all looks as if it has been built in one time, but it has been built by a number of architects over 100 years,” he said, adding that his role was to correct many of the “haphazard changes” made over the years.

Besides restoring the first and second floors and improving accessibility on higher floors, the work has included building a new home for The Human Safety Net, a foundation launched by Generali to help the world’s most vulnerable, including refugees.

The renovation includes the addition of exhibition rooms, an auditorium and a cafe.

The foundation’s director, Emma Ursich, said the Procuratie Vecchie was a fitting spot for the group, given that the Venetian officials who lived and worked there were also responsible for widows, orphans and the destitute.

READ ALSO:  Dress up and pay up: Venice mayor announces updated plans to control tourism in the city

A public reading room in the Procuratie Vecchie. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

“So for us it’s a nice homage to the history and to the identity of this building that we have the home of The Human Safety Net here, which works around social inclusion topics,” Ursich said.

To the left of the main entrance, the winged lion of Saint Mark, symbol of the city but also the emblem of Generali, is inlaid in the white marble wall.

A plaque commemorates the birth in 1831 of the insurer in Trieste, which moved part of its operations to Venice the following year.

A visitor views an interactive exhibition in the Procuratie Vecchie building. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Local residents view an interactive exhibition in the Procuratie Vecchie building. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP.

The recovery project took three years following a two-year design phase aimed at preserving as much of the existing structure as possible.

“We had a building that had been compromised over a very long period of time. It had been modified, added on, changed,” said Chipperfield. “So our responsibility was to bring the building back into some type of integrity.”

Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

Chipperfield lauded Italy’s skilled craftsmen who “have been restoring buildings for a thousand years”. They relied on techniques and materials that are part of Venice’s tradition, such as a finishing plaster with a satin effect known as “marmorino”, and “terrazzo”, a mix of coloured marble fragments and cement for floors and walls. 

Just across the square is the 17th-century Procuratie Nuove building. The home of illustrious members of the Habsburg dynasty in the mid-1800s, the structure overlooks the secretive Royal Gardens along the Grand Canal.

The gardens were reopened to the public in 2019 after five years of restoration.

A view of St. Mark’s square, the Caffe Florian and the Procuratie Nuove building from the Procuratie Vecchie. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

By AFP’s Brigitte Hagemann

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How to choose a camping holiday in Italy: A guide for the uninitiated

Camping can make for an enjoyable and cost effective holiday - but before you book, it's important to know what you're signing up for. Here's our guide to maximising your fun and avoiding disappointment on an Italian camping trip.

How to choose a camping holiday in Italy: A guide for the uninitiated

With sites that stretch from the feet of the Dolomites to the golden shores of Sardinia, camping in Italy can be an ideal way explore the country and see its natural wonders up close.

Before you set off, though, it’s worth doing a little research to make sure you don’t end up on the Italian camping trip of your nightmares.

READ ALSO: Travel in Italy and Covid rules this summer: what to expect

The first and most important question to consider is what kind of stay you want.

Some campsites in Italy – particularly ones near famous lakes or beaches – are veritable behemoths, encompassing hundreds or even thousands of plots.

If you pull up to one of these venues with vague notions of drifting off not long after sunset to the sound of crickets chirping and the long grass rustling in the breeze, you’ll be in for a shock.

That’s not just because of the hordes of other holidaymakers surrounding you, but because despite identifying as campeggi, many of these places are less campsites than they are holiday villages, with a full programme of events that run until late at night and sometimes into the early hours of the morning.

READ ALSO: Dining outdoors and hiking: How visitors plan to holiday in Italy this summer

You’ll notice that much of the space at these sites isn’t given over to tents or camper vans at all, but is instead occupied by pre-fabricated bungalows or wooden verandas hooked up to long-stationary caravans.

You might find your Italian campsite is less of a peaceful haven than expected.
You might find your Italian campsite is less of a peaceful haven than expected. Photo by Anders Nielsen on Unsplash.

These more permanent structures can be rented out, but many of them are owned outright by families who return every summer and stay for weeks at a time.

Facilities will typically include a swimming pool and a restaurant and bar, and you can expect any of karaoke, sports competitions, dance or gymnastics classes, and both daily and nightly entertainment provided by animatori (children’s entertainers).

If you like the idea of organised activities and partying late into the night, or are considering camping because it’s a cheaper alternative to hotels and holiday rentals but you don’t actually enjoy the more rustic aspects of the experience, these campsites could provide the ideal set up for you.

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

If, however, you’re the kind of person who’s more liable to ask yourself where you went wrong than ask to join in when you find yourself lying awake at midnight listening to your neighbours belt out an Eros Ramazzotti ballad for the third time on their DIY karaoke kit, you’ll want to look a little further afield.

Luckily for the latter kind of holidaymaker, there are plenty of smaller and quieter venues that more closely resemble the traditional idea of a campsite – you just need to know how to find them. 

READ ALSO: MAP: Which regions of Italy have the most Blue Flag beaches?

The smallest and most wild types of Italian campsites are often referred to as agricampeggi. They typically have just a few plots, and no permanent shelters. Facilities are likely to be basic, with only toilets and showers, though they may in some cases also include a small pool and/or restaurant.

Agricampeggi campsites can provide a more relaxing experience.
Agricampeggi campsites can provide a more relaxing experience. Photo by Reuben Kim on Unsplash.

If you’re looking for something in the middle of the spectrum, with more services than an agricampeggio but less chaos than a camping village, base your campeggio search on the total number of plots available.

Campeggi with no more than a couple of hundred plots tend to be relatively laid back, but are also more likely to have restaurants, pools, and laundry rooms if you’re seeking some comfort. If you’re considering one of these, it’s always worth checking online reviews to see if they also put on high-volume nighttime entertainment (as some smaller campeggi do).

READ ALSO: MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

What about wild camping? 

Unfortunately for more intrepid campers, wild camping tends to be highly restricted in Italy – and setting up camp on beaches or in built-up areas in towns and cities is out of the question.

That said, if you’re determined to stake your tent far away from any signs of civilisation, there are some options. You can read our guide to wild camping in Italy here.

READ ALSO: What are the rules on wild camping in Italy?

If you know what you’re signing up for, camping in Italy can be the perfect way to experience the country’s natural beauty for a fraction of the cost of a hotel stay.

Just take some ear plugs or brush up on your Italian ’90s hits (depending on which side of the canvas flap you sit) … and remember that even after the worst of nights, you can always drive off and leave it all in the dust the next morning.