It was where Galileo first displayed his telescope to the Doge and where Goethe first saw the sea. By the time it collapsed in 1902, Campanile di San Marco, the sixteenth century bell tower overlooking the piazza of the same name in Venice, had seen various historical and weather turmoils.
Margaret Plant recounts in Venice: Fragile City that although a crack had been seen on the tower at least a week before the collapse, no precautions had been taken. The visitors were still allowed to climb up the weekend before, even as cracks visibly multiplied, even reaching the fifth floor. On Sunday before the collaspe, the orchestras in the piazza (a planned concert by the 18th Infantry Regiment band) were finally silenced to avoid vibrations, but it was too late. On the early hours of 14 July 1902 (some said 9.47 am, others 9.52 am), the tower collapsed, injuring no one but killing a caretaker’s cat (named Mélampyge, weirdly after Casanova’s dog).
Various fake photos claiming to show the collapse circulated, and became famous around the world. The photos below are fake montages by Antonio De Paoli (left) and Giovanni Zanetti (right), both of which showed people running in the piazza away from the debris. The above more dramatic photo, produced by Angelo Zaghis, was more accurate in its portrayal of an empty square but is also likely to be fake, eventhough it was reproduced in many books on Venetian history, including Plant’s.
Despite some grumbles — most notably from Giosue Carducci, the anti-clerical unofficial poet laureate of Italy (who would soon win the Nobel Prize in Literature) — the Venice city council voted unanimously to rebuild it. The mayor Filippo Grimani famously proclaimed, “com’era e dov’era (as it was, where it was)”. In a solemn ceremony befitting the pomp and maritime history of the Venetian Republic, the rubble from the Campanile were taken by ship for a ‘funeral’ in a ceremony that mimicked ‘La Sensa’, the annual ceremony where the Doges of Venice dropped gold rings into the sea. Tower itself was rebuilt — using many of the bricks which survived the collapse, crowned by the Marangona, the only one of the five original bells to survive the collapse (other bells were recast from the recovered fragments) — and was reopened on St. Mark’s Day 1912, exactly 1,000 years after the very first bell tower on the site was built.