Easter legends that involve the biggest and the second biggest square in Venice; Here you can read why there are so many pigeons (or as well call them: "pigioni" or "colombi") in Piazza San Marco, and how this fact is connected to Easter.

Giardini reali next to the Piazza, with colombi of course, a morning in April
When you cross the Piazza on a fine spring morning, you will notice you need to walk carefully as lots of pigioni cross your path. As a child I thought it was strange all these pigeons flocked to the Piazza, though of course, on the other Venetian squares, you still find the odd couple of birds sitting on the window sills or under the roofs.
Careful where you step in the immediate surroundings of the Piazza .. there are lots of birds..
The solution to this question is connected to the rituals which took place in Piazza San Marco on Palm Sunday. In the year 887 AD when pope Giovanni VIII introduced processions and festivities for Palm Sunday, Venice also followed his example, but with a decided feature of her own. The doge and his entourage were given palm twigs by the people crowding the Piazza on that morning, but these were not just any palm leaves, they were intervoven with silk threads and decorated leaves made of gold and silver. 

Palm Sunday procession by Gentile Bellini (1496)
After the mass service held in the church on Palm Sunday, the doge lead the procession around the Piazza (as you can see in the pictures below), where the people were looking on with olive twigs in their hands. 
Mattio Pagan: La processione del Doge nella domenica delle Palme (1556-1569)
It all started when the Doge liberated cages with pigeons in the church, but many could escape up to the vaults and balustrades. Finally, it became a ritual that priests, from the loggia of the basilica, liberated birds, chickens and pigeons, and the people standing below trying to catch them. This was thought as a present from the city for poorer people to enjoy a week after for lunch on Easter sunday. But many birds were able to escape, and finally the Government made sure they were fed properly, as the birds chose the roofs of the Doge's Palace and the Basilica to make nests and live upon. 
A descendent...
After the end of the Republic of Venice had come in 1797, these birds were left to themselves for a while, but then a Venetian noble woman living in an appartment at the Procurazie buildings in Piazza San Marco started feeding these birds, with the City of Venice taking finally over this task.. but how did it all start:
Legend has it that the first couple of "colombi" arrived in Venice already when the first basilica had been constructed. It was during a time when traditionally, the inhabitants of the Venetian communities and associations brought gifts to the Doge. One of them also brought a cage with a couple of wild pidgeons. When the lid was opened, the birds flew up and hid under the golden vault of the basilica which had just been inaugurated. This was considered a miracle by the Venetians that did not allow anyone to capture the birds as they were thought to be protected by St. Mark and thus were considered sacred. From that very moment, the Venetians brought food for the birds,  and the Doge was invited to sign a decret that a representative of the Republic of Venice would take over the task to feed these birds and their young. Also, the Senate confirmed this decision taken by the Doge, and till this very day, the city of Venice takes care of them.
So this might give you another view of the birds in the Piazza .. as of late, other birds have joined, the sea gulls, gabbiani reali (the real big ones) and gabbiani comuni (common sea gulls), have extended their homes from the tops of the lagoon's bricole to the wide Piazza, as you can see in the picture below.
As every year, in 2014, the Holy Week in Venice started with Palm Sunday and the procession of the Patriarch which started in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, where the "benedizione delle Palme" (palms blessings) takes place. Venetians today carry either palm leaves or olive twigs.
Easter decoration at Caffé Florian
Campo Santa Maria Formosa is a lively square about five minutes from the Piazza which you can quickly reach via a few shortcuts if you know them. I would characterize this square as sort of "small world", where you have everything ready you need, from market stalls to small cafes. It is much beloved by both Venetians and those tourists venturing here, and it is also a perfect playground for children, apt for games where you need space, but also full of secret corners if you want to hide ...
Entering Campo Santa Maria Formosa from the Calle del Paradiso side .. this is the more structured part of the square, opening up to a narrow bank from which the main facade of the church looks towards the Rio di SM Formosa
People sitting along the bank of Rio SM Formosa
It's a dream-like place with a groviglio di canali surrounding it, as all its entrances lead over or along canals. It is just a few minutes from our house, and to me has always been connected with Easter time. With the advent of Easter time, and the weeks before it, softer spring weather set in and I was able to sit outside in one of the cafes on the Campo (usually at the corner) and enjoy a "spring" chocolate and a pastina. On this wide space, one can breathe in the sunny spring air, plus contemplate your surroundings in peace and quiet, if you arrive early enough in the morning..
This is also Rio SM Formosa, seen towards Galleria Querini Stampaglia.  Here is the bench where the gondoliers usually rest
There are four entrances to the square, here is the one where you arrive in the square across the bridge from Ruga Giuffa. To your left, you can see as far as Galleria Querini-Stampaglia (by the way, they have a wonderful garden), and to your right, you can see one of my favorite views in Venice ... along Rio SM Formosa.
I have always loved this view of Rio SM Formosa of the acute angled water entrance of the building.
Campo Santa Maria Formosa is the second biggest square in Venice, and depending on where you stand, it may give the impression of being somewhat empty, despite the fact that there is not a single spot from which you can see all of the square.There is the main facade of the Church directed towards Rio di Santa Maria Formosa, as the main entrance of houses and churches in Venice turned towards canals and not inland. Inland was the private backyard area, either used for common purposes or vegetable gardens and orchards.
Looking back towards Ruga Giuffa
Below, you can see the third entrance into the square, from Calle Lunga SM Formosa. On the corner to the right is a cafe-bar I used to go to as a child during Easter, for a cioccolata densa.
View from Calle Lunga SM Formosa, with the market stalls in the midst of it
Many of you will have been to Basilica di San Marco, but few to Santa Maria Formosa .. so we will enter it now ..
From the second entrance, in the midst of the square ..
We don't really have Easter decorations as of now in the Holy Week ..
And it is here, from the main entrance to your left, that you find a special historic icon which played quite a role in Venetian history: La Madonna di Lepanto. Doge Sebastiano Venier took it with him on this decisive sea battle of European powers against the Ottomans, which took place off Lepanto, located in Greece west of Delphi, on 7 October 1571. By the way, during Carnival 2014, this battle was represented in one of the Carnival shows at the Arsenale, in the video below you can see more.
During the battle, the icon was placed on the flagship of Doge Venier, heading the Venetian fleet.
The icon is also represented on the outside door:
As the clouds are thickening by now from one side on the square, while in the other direction it is still sunny (April weather :-), you might be tempted to try one of these delicious sweets, cannoli al cacao in the bar-cafe on the corner (All' Orologio bar) ..
Cannoli on the counter: A fine breakfast, based on a south Italian recipe, which uses crema pasticcera and citrus fruit peel as filling
And this is what it looks like being seated outside in the morning, with not so many people around yet ..
One of the few pigeons in Campo Santa Maria Formosa (grey like the railing) ..
The market stalls offer fine vegetables for Easter: Campo Santa Maria Formosa
Line ha detto...

Thank you for this lovely post. I was in Venice for the first time 2 weeks ago, and SM Formosa is the first church I have visited. I have been to the campo 3 times, once it was to buy parsley in the market, at that exact stall shown on your picture, while accompanying the owner of my B&B. But even if I had more than a look at the campo, I feel I have seen almost nothing of it, because one has to go there and sit, observe it, feel it, smell it, slowly, slowly. I suffer from a terrible blues and need to return to Venice as soon as possible...

MARIANNE ha detto...

Thanks a lot for your many wonderful infos about Venezia.
I love your city and I'm always grateful for this site :)