Saint Mark’s Library




By Sydney Goldman

The early sixteenth century was a time period of progression and change within Venice, Italy. The Republic of Venice’s Doge had the goal to update and redesign Venice in order to improve its name and reputation as a wealthy and important city. In order to upgrade Venice’s reputation, the public square known as Saint Mark’s Square was a focus for improvement. Yet, although several buildings and structures were reconstructed within the Saint Mark’s Square, a building that particularly stuck out was the Saint Mark’s Library.

Figure 1: Saint Mark’s Library from Wikiwand

The Saint Mark’s Library, also known as the Marciana Library or Biblioteca Marciana, is a public library located in Venice, Italy. This library is one of the current ancient libraries that is still standing today and is known for its immense collection of classical texts within Italy. The library was named after Saint Mark who was a famous patron of the city. The building was initially built in 1537 and constructed by architect Jacopo Sansovino. It was built for the people of Italy in order to represent a period of recovery and renewal in style within the community. The library’s architecture and program were designed to represent an upcoming advancement within the area and to specifically represent harmonious learning and wisdom. This building stands with utmost importance because it was not only a peaceful place to learn through books and manuscripts, but it stood as a space for people to come together and learn from each other, from artwork, as well as about Saint Mark’s square and the world’s history. This paper will analyze the ways that the Saint Mark’s Library reflects its mission as one of the most significant and famous Libraries of the Renaissance within the Saint Mark’s Square. Specifically, this paper will analyze the construction of the building, its materials and decor within its interior and exterior, as well as its location and context within the Saint Mark’s Square, all characteristics that add to its importance.

The Construction Process of the Saint Mark’s Library

Although some parts of history in Venice remain unknown, there is a series of events that are important to highlight about the Saint Mark’s Library. The Saint Mark’s Library carried its own unique story that led its construction to take place. To begin, the Saint Mark’s Library was originally placed in a church. As time progressed and its collection of books grew, it was moved to the grand Doges’ Palace. However, in 1532, an idea came to create a new building solely designated for this public library that would face the Doges’ Palace in the Saint Mark’s Square.1 This action emphasized the importance of giving the library its own monumental space. Instead of continuing to find the library within another building, its purpose was too remarkable that it deserved to be praised on its own. As a result, in 1537, construction began for the building to be built in the new particular space and was instructed by Jacopo Sansovino. The initial construction of the building began when three bays of the side of the building were placed together in 1540.2

Nonetheless, barriers were faced when constructing the building throughout the years. In 1545, a vault that covered five of the bays collapsed as the tie-rods were not sufficient enough to hold it up. This occurrence stood as a lesson for architects and construction workers to be especially cautious of the materials they use. Procurators were suspicious about the supervision during the building’s construction. As a result, they removed Sansovino from office and he was sent to prison. He was responsible for paying for the amount of damage that was created in the Saint Mark’s Square. By 1547, Sansovino was reinstated in office to lead construction of the building. By 1554, sixteen arches on the building were finished and the sophisticated interior decoration began. Books were moved into the building by 1558. Unfortunately, Sansovino passed away in 1570 and the construction process was placed on hold. Nonetheless, the last five arches of the building were built in 1583 by Vincenzo Scamozzi’s guidance. He followed through with Sansovino’s initial design plans and led the building to be utilized for many years.

These unique construction plans led for the construction process to produce exquisite
framework throughout the building, which added significant value to the library’s name. In fact, the unique structure of the Saint Mark’s Library led the library to be known as one of the most famous and important libraries in the world. Specifically, the building held an impressive orderly arrangement, or taxis. The ground floor had two segments that were nicely proportional to each other, though one was further broken down into smaller sections. As you can see in Figure 3, this level’s taxis are referred to with the same letter to explain its similarities. The second floor held three different levels for each space, where “a” represents offices, “b” represents the smallest section size as a vestibule, and “c” represents the reading area. The top diagram of three letters represents the second floor, where the bottom diagram of the same letter represents the ground floor. This figure outlines the floor plan’s framework of spaces within the Saint Mark’s Library and how they were initially broken up to hold individual purposes, though also all connect as one great space as well. Moreover, we shall highlight the framework and taxis of the Saint Mark’s Library in its elevation view. The building’s structure was clearly broken up into multiple floors, as you can see two levels of windows and then the rooftop. This allows for us to clearly distinguish the stories within the library and how they relate to each other. Figure 4 shows how they were proportional with the same size, which is why they all have the letter “a” to represent that relationship.

Figure 3: Taxis floor plan diagram of both levels from
Figure 4: Taxis diagram in elevation view from

Design and Decor of the Saint Mark’s Library

Aside from the building’s spectacular framework, it had specific details of decor that
made it easily recognized as luxurious and important with the public and architectural realm. Sansovino was greatly known for incorporating multiple types columns, pillars, and moldings within his library’s structure. He was inspired to portray a similar relationship between columns and entablature from the beloved Leon Battista Alberti. Similarly, how to he used inspiration from Alberti, his choice to base some of his designs on other previous scholars’ buildings added more value to the Saint Mark’s Library. Now, we shall paint a picture of what the Saint Mark’s Library looked like and what features it contained. First, the ground floor contained molded piers that had Doric ordered half columns.3 Sansovino’s choice of Doric columns supported entablature throughout the building and gave parts of the structure a clean and simple aesthetic. Sansovino was also known for using reclining figures in the arches’ spandrels to represent Roman arches by using these of the columns at an unusual height. This use of entablature allowed the building to portray a classical architectural style within Saint Mark’s Square. As you enter the upper story of the building, the openings were narrower, and the wall surfaces were uniquely wider than the ground floors. The small, round windows were supported by free standing columns as extra support. These smaller columns held an Ionic order within its entablature, which added a more detailed look to the structure compared to the Doric columns. The larger columns were exceptionally smooth, whereas the smaller columns had apparent ridges and grooves.

Figure 5: Doric columns in the ground
floor of the Saint Mark’s Library from
Figure 6: Ionic diagram of columns used
from Wikiwand

Moreover, the decor of the mezzanine windows looked similarly to the way of the
famous Farnesina, a building in Rome, Italy that shared a similar style that Sansovino admired. Close by, a beautiful staircase that was tunnel vaulted connected the ground floor to the main story of the public library. The main story held rooms that took up the space of the entire width of the building, with long windows on both extended sides. The main hall had seven arches and long walls with rounded arched windows. Below the windows were painted niches and above showed beautiful moldings and frescoes. The sham vaulting held direction through its division of squares and painted ornamental bands. There were also elegant vestibules that led into the main hall that were completely painted with precise designs throughout. The main rooms, like reading rooms, library offices, and library shelving spaces were placed around the Zecca, previously known as the Republic of Venice’s former mint.4

Although the building held straightforward magnificent designs, these design patterns portrayed a deeper level of meaning to individuals that paid close attention. Particularly, these choices of design created an impressive symmetrical balance throughout building. Each room within the library created its own unique, symmetrical pattern through the contrast of light. While the entire ceiling was hand painted and contained no present light fixtures, natural light entered through long windows on each the sides of the room. This design choice created an apparent, contrast where significant light outlined the building, rather than in the center. This action pushed the viewer to follow the light and outline the room’s perimeter and focus on the paintings throughout the walls as shown in Figure 7. Yet, aside from portraying equal light from the windows, the light depicted a symmetrical pattern on the floor tiles. Nevertheless, there were also clear choices of symmetry made throughout the Saint Mark’s Library’s exterior façade as well. For example, the building’s exterior portrayed clear symmetry from the top floors to bottom. The exterior’s entablature and windows properly distinguished each floor from one another, causing a symmetrical, proportional and balanced pattern to be exhibited as shown in Figure 8. Essentially, this division of rooms and spaces allowed the building’s structure and formation to highlight multiple design types throughout its layout. These design choices then led the way to enhancing beautiful detail on its present frescoes, furniture, and moldings within the building’s interior and exterior.

Figure 7: Contrast and symmetry highlighted within the interior view from Wikiwand
Figure 8: Diagram showing symmetry of the exterior façade from Olaszorszagrol

The decoration and genera of the Saint Mark’s Library adds to its reason of importance within the Saint Mark’s Square. The particular design and decor of the Saint Mark’s Library was worked on by Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, and Sansovino. Sansovino emphasized the style used by the Roman’s in Venice. Palladio was known for referring to the Saint Mark’s Library as “the richest and most ornate building since antiquity”.5 Moreover, Jacob Burckhardt was known for referring to the Saint Mark’s Library as “the most splendid work of secular architecture in modern Europe”. The Saint Mark’s Library was the first building to have classical orders used in the correct way, as well as containing a proper relationship between support in columns, entablatures, and pillars according to each element’s weight. The building was recalled as Sansovino’s masterpiece. Its Roman influence of design allowed for people who are fond of the Roman style to grow biased in loving this building. The Classical design allowed this building to stand out as a particularly special monument when compared to other contemporary buildings through its unique incorporation of other cultures. However, another part of what made this building’s decor and design stand out was its exterior design that attracted individuals towards it. The Saint Mark’s Library contained genera in different ways, though especially through its obelisks and statues found on the roofline of the building. These sculptures of genera were able to clearly emphasize antiquity. Its use of statues attracted more viewers through its unique examples of three-dimensional art rather than the two-dimensional art that were more commonly found. Furthermore, this style highlighted the use of Roman iconography and philosophy, promoting the Roman ideals as a whole which was greatly admired. Another main style of genera within the building was the sophisticatedly painted ceiling. The ceiling contained 21 pieces of artwork that were painted by 7 different painters.6 The paintings found throughout the Saint Mark’s Library held a deeper meaning than a simple portrayal of the human body. For example, in Figure 10 below, the painting held personification that represents wisdom and history, as well a poetic and rhetoric meaning. The deeper meaning of each painting added immense value to the Saint Mark’s Library. While individuals would visit the library to learn through manuscripts and books, they were also able to dive into each painting and try to search for its deeper message. While people would solely visit to learn through books, there were plenty of people who went to the public space to observe its famous artwork.

Figure 9: Sculptures on the roof of St. Mark’s
Library from Venice UMW Blogs

Aside from the building’s remarkable design and architecture, its immense number of books and literature allowed its purpose to go above and beyond as a famous and scholarly building. The materials and books within this library set it apart from others. Ancient texts of Greek and Latin were required to properly understand the Classical literature and philosophy during the Renaissance that had then been reemerged.7 Venice was lucky enough to have a great supply of collections and books that were able to sit in the Saint Mark’s Library. The number of manuscripts and books present allowed the library to gain another reason for being a distinct, important monumental space within Italy and the world.

Location of Saint Mark’s Library

Lastly, the Saint Mark’s Library benefitted greatly through its superb location within the Saint Mark’s Square. Surrounding the Saint Mark’s Library were other important buildings, though it was especially known for being in such close proximity to the Saint Mark’s Basilica, a Roman Catholic church, and Doges Palace, a Gothic style palace. The Saint Mark’s Library’s central and convenient location allowed for tourists and citizens to visit it while they also visited other significant buildings in the area.

Figure 11: Map of the Saint Mark’s Square from Cambridge University Press


Essentially, through its remarkable design and construction, detailed decoration, central location, and vast collection of books, it is apparent why the Saint Mark’s Library has remained famous and important to this date. While some libraries are known for simply holding large texts and manuscripts, the Saint Mark’s Library provides individuals with more than an opportunity to learn through books. Its immense collection of unique artworks, varying from its frescos and sculptures to molded ceilings, are only a few reasons of what why this was one of the longest standing monuments in history. To this day, the Saint Mark’s Library never lost its remarkable reputation or importance. Although other libraries tend to be taken down in retrospect for constructing new buildings, the Saint Mark’s Library is still open today as a current museum. While it is no longer used as a public library, you can still take the opportunity to learn about its history and through its detailed ceilings of art, and staged settings where it can still teach you about the history of its formation as well as Venice, Italy’s history as a whole.


1.- Dhwty. “Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana: A Treasure Trove of Ancient Manuscripts.” Ancient Origins. Ancient Origins, May 25, 2015.
2.- Heydenreich, Ludwig H., and Wolfgang Lotz. “Chapter 21: Jacopo Sansovino.” Essay. In Architecture in Italy 1400 to 1600. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974.
3.- Johnson, Eugene J. “Portal of Empire and Wealth: Jacopo Sansovino’s Entrance to the Venetian Mint.” The Art Bulletin 86, no. 3 (2004):
430-58. Accessed November 2, 2020. doi:10.2307/4134441. (from Jstor)
4.- The Titi Tudorancea Bulletin. “Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (National Library of St Mark), Venice, Italy,” 2020.
5.- Howard, Deborah. “Venice,” 1975.
6.- Teso, Laura. “Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice.” My Corner of Italy: All about Italy & Venetobrevealed by a local, September 9, 2017.
7.- Hisour. “Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, Italy.” HiSoUR, July 6, 2020.

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