A trip to Venice can never be complete without a visit to what is arguably the Serenissima’s most important and most famous religious edifice: the Basilica di San Marco. What is most surprising about the basilica is that, although it is almost a millennium old and has been dedicated to the city’s patron saint from the start, it has only been the cathedral of Venice since 1807. Up until that year, the San Marco had “technically been nothing but the chapel of the Doges’ Palace”. Of course it was much more important than that in actual practice.
The real cathedral of Venice was the San Pietro di Castello, located on a small island in the easternmost part of the Rialto archipelago. This may have been the political and economic centre of Venice in the eighth century – the first San Pietro was built in about 775 – but this was no longer true in later centuries. Although the San Pietro, in spite of its isolated position, remained the formal cathedral of the Republic until its fall in 1797, its religious importance was quickly overtaken by that of the San Marco, if only because the latter church held the relics of Saint Mark and was located next the Palazzo Ducale, where not only the Doges resided, but all of the administrative bodies of the state held their meetings.
Before I discuss the history and highlights of the San Marco, there are a few things that visitors need to know. First of all, a visit to the San Marco is free. This is unusual for Venice, where you usually have to buy a ticket before you can visit a church (you can buy a Chorus Pass to visit eighteen of the most interesting churches, including the Frari). However, there are two catches. One is that only the visit to the basilica is free; you have to buy separate tickets to visit the Treasury, to see the famous Pala d’Oro altar screen and to enter the church museum, the Museo di San Marco. The second catch is that you will not be the only tourist who wishes to see the basilica. There are usually long queues outside and the average waiting time is – apparently – about 45 minutes. If you want to visit the basilica in the peak season (April to October), I recommend you buy a Skip the Line ticket, which can be purchased here for a mere three Euros. Just select a time slot, show up on time, and you are good to go. No need to lose valuable time in the scorching sun.
Keep in mind that bags are not allowed inside the basilica. You can deposit bags, purses, suitcases and any other luggage at the Ateneo San Basso, which is located in an alley just to the left of the church. This service is free, although a tip is always appreciated. Photography inside the San Marco is regretfully prohibited. The no photo policy is ignored by some, but expect to be reprimanded by the staff if you do so. For some reason, visitors are allowed to take pictures of the interior of the basilica when standing on the balcony outside. Taking pictures through the open windows is apparently not considered disrespectful. The balcony can only be reached through the museum, so you have to buy a ticket. Nothing in Venice is ever truly free…
I have previously discussed how the history of Venice basically started on islands like Torcello and how settlement of the Rialto archipelago – now the nucleus of the city – did not start in earnest until the ninth century. The first buildings here were made of wood, a material that was both light and cheap. But wood is less durable than stone, so over time the Venetians came to prefer the latter material over the former. However, stone is also much heavier, so thousands of wooden piles had to be driven into the bottom of the lagoon before the construction of stone buildings could commence. Because of the special conditions of the lagoon, these piles became hard as steel and provided (and still provide) a solid foundation for houses, palazzos, warehouses, shops and churches.
In 828 the Venetians managed to snatch the embalmed body of Saint Mark from its final resting place in Alexandria in Egypt, which had been overrun by the Muslims in 640-641. According to tradition, they smuggled the body out of the city in a basket, covering it with a shipment of pork so that Muslim officials would not dare inspect their cargo. When the body had been brought to Venice, it needed to be deposited in a church fit for an evangelist. This was to be the first San Marco, probably built in the shape of a Greek cross. This church was consecrated in 832.
In 976, the people of Venice rose up against their Doge, Pietro IV Candiano (959-976), and set fire to the Palazzo Ducale, which at that time was more of a fortress than a palace. The Doge was killed, the Palazzo burned down. Unfortunately, the San Marco and hundreds of other buildings were also seriously damaged by the flames. The most important church in all of Venice now had to be rebuilt. The new Doge Pietro I Orseolo (976-978), incidentally the only Doge to be declared a saint, lost no time and quickly instigated a reconstruction programme. As part of the project, he commissioned artists in Constantinople to make an altar screen which was later to become part of the Pala d’Oro already mentioned above.
The second San Marco was finished and consecrated in about 978. This is not the church that we can admire today. Construction of the third and current San Marco started in 1063 under Doge Domenico Contarini (1043-1071). It was finished and consecrated 31 years later, on 22 June 1094, under Doge Vitale Falier (1084-1095). Three days later, the body of Saint Mark was allegedly ‘rediscovered’. The body that had been taken from Alexandria – whether it was Saint Mark’s or not – had disappeared after the 976 fire. It was probably reduced to ashes, but a Venetian tradition claims that on 25 June, after three days of prayer, a supporting pier crumbled, revealing the arm of Saint Mark in a hole. The saint’s body was then removed and reburied in the crypt. In 1836, it was placed beneath the high altar.
Now that the basilica had been completed, it was time to embellish it. This was a process that would take several centuries. Already during Doge Domenico Selvo’s reign (1071-1084), artists had been hired to start laying the mosaic decorations inside the basilica. It was the same Domenico Selvo who was said to have decreed that Venetian merchants travelling to the East were to bring back precious materials to decorate the new church. By far the largest shipments of material arrived in Venice as a result of what went down in history as the Fourth Crusade. This Crusade had little to do with fighting the Turkish or Saracen infidel and amounted to little more than a pillaging expedition and land snatching operation in deeply Christian territory. On 12 and 13 April 1204, the crusaders and their Venetian allies, led by the blind Doge Enrico Dandolo (1192-1205), captured Constantinople, capital of the weakened Eastern Roman Empire. The Venetians got three eights of this crumbling empire, including the all-important island of Crete, as payment for their services. More importantly for our story about the San Marco, they were also allowed to strip the city, founded by Constantine the Great himself, of many of its riches.
Among the many treasures taken from Constantinople, the four horses of Saint Mark are probably the most famous. There has been much debate about their age, with some authorities attributing them to the fourth century BCE Greek sculptor Lysippos. Whether this attribution is correct is not really relevant here; what matters is that they had for centuries stood in Constantinople and were presumably part of the famous hippodrome in that city. Dandolo had to cut off their heads before they could be shipped to Venice. Some decades after his death, the horses – with their heads reassembled and collars hiding the scars of their decapitation – were set up on the balcony above the central portal. The horses we see today are copies. The originals were stolen by Napoleon’s troops in the late eighteenth century and moved to Paris. There they were combined with a triumphal chariot and put on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. The horses were returned to Venice in 1815, but the originals were later moved to the Museo di San Marco inside to protect them against corrosion.
The Venetians did not just take the horses. They also confiscated slabs of marble, columns, sculptures and reliefs which were all used to embellish the San Marco back home. We may with some justification lament the Venetian’s unremitting rapacity, but at least they did not destroy the city, unlike their fellow crusaders from France and Flanders. Much of the material was used to decorate the northern and southern sides of the church, parts of the San Marco that, according to at least one of my guides, are often overlooked by tourists. The north face is best admired from the Piazzetta dei Leoncini. The best part of it is probably the Porta dei Fiori, with a charming nativity scene above the door.
The most famous item to be found on the southern side of the basilica is arguably the sculpture group of the Tetrarchs, the four co-rulers of the Late Roman Empire. The Tetrarchy was a system of government set up by the emperor Diocletianus in 293. The vast Roman Empire was divided into four parts, with each part being administered by a senior emperor (an Augustus) or a junior emperor (called a Caesar). A Caesar would normally succeed an Augustus upon the latter’s death or abdication and then select a new Caesar himself.
In theory, the system might have led to a more efficient government. In practice, however, the Empire was simply carved up into four separate little empires, with the Tetrarchs often fighting each other rather than cooperating. So to sum up, the Tetrachy was a noble idea that ended in utter failure. The sculpture group, made of porphyry marble, was probably created in the early fourth century. It may have stood in a public square in Constantinople before being nicked by the Venetians. The group shows the Augusti and Caesares embracing in friendship, but note that men have their hands on their swords as well. Also note that the left foot of one of the figures is missing. For some reason it was left behind – perhaps the Venetians were in a hurry – and is now in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
Among the external decorations are nine lunettes with mosaics. These were added in the 1260s, but only one of the original mosaics has survived. This is by far the most interesting one, the others being mediocre works from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries (for an example, see the image of the Muslim officials in Alexandria above). The so-called Mosaic of Saint Alipius shows the basilica as it must have looked like in about 1265, just a few years after the horses from Constantinople were set up over the main portal, but more than a century before the addition of Gothic elements (see below). The mosaic is rich in detail, featuring not just the horses, but also three of the five domes and many of the external decorations. It also depicts an actual event, i.e. the translation of the body of Saint Mark into the basilica.
By the end of the thirteenth century, the San Marco had become a curious, but nonetheless appealing mix of styles. The church was mostly a combination of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture. About a century later, in the early 1400s, another style would be added to the cocktail, as the basilica “was on the point of receiving its finishing touch, that ‘Gothic Crown’ of marble pinnacles and crockets that so entranced [famous art critic John] Ruskin four hundred and fifty years later’. The statues of angels and saints were also part of this Gothic project. Artists from the fifteenth and sixteenth century would later add touches of Renaissance to the edifice, finalising a church that has no equal elsewhere in Italy, or even Europe. Goethe somewhat dismissively called the San Marco a colossal crab. Others have compared the basilica to a gigantic magpie’s nest because of the large quantities of looted objects that have been used in its construction and decoration. Nonetheless, no one can deny that the San Marco is unique and definitely one of the most impressive buildings in all of Europe.
Inside the San Marco
A Skip the Line ticket will provide visitors with quick access to the basilica, but they still have to share the building and its treasures with scores of other tourists. The San Marco is world-famous for its mosaics which cover a space of over 8.000 square metres. Those in the narthex feature stories from the Old Testament. Here we can for instance see the Creation of Man, Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, Joseph and Moses. In the church itself, we find stories from the New Testament, but also the whole story of how the body of Saint Mark was stolen from Alexandria. Most of the mosaics are from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Some look a lot newer, especially those near the balcony over the main entrance, and these are generally not worth your time.
I especially liked the mosaic decoration of the western dome, which is named after the Pentecost. We see the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove in the centre, sitting on a throne. The twelve Apostles are literally filled with the Holy Spirit: we see rays of light emanating from the dove – the ‘tongues of fire’ from Acts 2 –, reaching the heads of the haloed Apostles. Below them are the various peoples mentioned in Acts 2, for instance the Parthians, Medes and Elamites, who in the Bible are subsequently addressed by Peter in their own languages. Each of the peoples has its own type of dress.
Finally, I will dedicate a few words to the Pala d’Oro, the altar screen already mentioned above. You can see it after paying two Euros. The first part of the screen was made after 976 (see above). The screen was then remodelled and enlarged by Doge Ordelafo Falier (1102-1117), who is in fact featured on the screen: he can be seen on the left, just below the central panel of Christ in Majesty. The top section of the screen features scenes from the Life of Christ while the bottom section focuses on the Life of Saint Mark. The screen was assembled in its current form in the fourteenth century, on the orders of Doge Andrea Dandolo (1343-1354). It is made up of dozens of enamel plaques and scores of precious stone. The Pala d’Oro is truly dazzling to behold. Here one is definitely tempted to violate the no photo policy…
John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, was a vital source for this post. Three travel guides – Trotter, Dorling Kindersley and Royal Dutch Touring Club (ANWB) – provided additional information, as did the website of the Basilica di San Marco.
 John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 18.
 John Julius Norwich, ‘A History of Venice’, p. 280.
 According to the official website. My three travel guides find themselves in disagreement on this matter. ‘At least 4.000 square metres’, ‘4.240 square metres’ and ‘over 8.500 square metres’. I somehow doubt anyone ever went up to measure the mosaics, but 8.000 square metres certainly sounds plausible. Perhaps some of the lower estimates exclude the mosaics in the narthex.