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Failure: St. Mark’s Campanile
Location: Venice, Italy
Year: July 14, 1902
Type: Collapse

St. Mark’s Campanile is the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy, located in the Piazza San Marcos. The exact date of its original construction is unknown but authorities agree that it was most likely during the 9th century during the rule of Doge Tribuno Memmo. It was completed sometime between 1148-1157 during the reign of Domenico Morosini. [5] The tower stood approximately 99 meters tall.

St. Mark’s Campanile has a very long history of accidents. The towers first run in with mother nature occurred on June 7th, 1388 when it was struck by lightning. Then on October 24th, 1403 the upper portion of the tower was burned after fires lit for a celebration got out of hand. After its reconstruction, St. Mark’s campanile suffered damage from an earthquake in 1511. In the next 500 years, the tower would be struck by lightning and partially burned a total of seven more times. The most damaging of these lightning strikes occurred in 1745 and resulted in three deaths and a large crack running from near the top of the tower down to the 5th window. Finally in 1776, a conductor was installed on the tower rendering it safe from further damage due to lightning strikes. [5]

After suffering substantial periods of damage and restoration throughout the course of its life, St. Mark’s Campanile collapsed to the ground on July 14th, 1902. According to eye witnesses, the first sign of danger appeared early in the morning on the 14th when a large crack formed near the northeast top corner of the Loggia Sansovino (the structure at the bottom of the tower) and rose diagonally across the main corner buttress of the tower. [6] “Just before the collapse, the sound of falling stones within the bell chamber warned the people in or near the tower to flee, so that no life was lost by the accident.” [7]

The exact cause of the collapse is unknown, but there are a multitude of probable factors that led to its collapse. First and foremost, the tower’s original foundation “was built on a platform of two layers of oak beams, crossed, which platform itself rests on a bed of clay, into which piles of white poplar were driven.” [5] This foundation was only intended to support the weight of the lower, more solid portion of the tower and was therefore not adequate to support extra weight when the tower was expanded upwards. Experts also believe that the foundation could have been negatively affected by the dredging of the Grand Canal and even more so by the frequent flooding of St. Mark’s square. Other causes for the towers collapse are attributed to its extreme old age and long history of damage from lightning strikes, fires, and earthquakes as mentioned above. All of these disasters took a major toll on the structural integrity of the foundation, internal structure, and exterior masonry of the tower. St. Mark’s Campanile is also believed to have been repeatedly weakened by its constant restorations and renovations throughout its long history. Different materials and methods of construction were used in each successive attempt to mend the tower. [5]

After the tower collapsed, the Venetians immediately began discussing whether or not St. Mark’s Campanile should be rebuilt and if so, if it should be rebuilt as an exact replica of the previous version or a completely new design. The matter was extremely controversial with many citizens feeling strongly for both sides of the argument. In the end, it was decided that St. Mark’s Campanile would be rebuilt as an exact replica to the original because of its historic sentiment for the city of Venice. The new tower would differ only in terms of its structural support. The new design would replace the foundation beams with cement and iron, and the frame would consist of a large iron framework with iron clamps fastened into the masonry. [8] Picture 4 shows St. Mark’s Campanile in its current state after its construction was completed in 1912.

Sources:

[5] Palmer, G. H. (1903). THE CAMPANILE OF ST. MARK: ITS HISTORY, ILLUSTRATED BY PICTURE AND PRINT. The Magazine of Art, 1, 287-293.

[6] “On this day The collapse of the Campanile of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.” Times [London, England] 14 July 2012: 87. Academic OneFile. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

[7] The campanile of venice falls. (1902, Jul 24). The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921), 54, 1747.

[8] EDITOR, T. (1902). SHOULD ST. MARK’S CAMPANILE BE REBUILT? British Architect, 1874-1919, 377-378.