Venice – San Marco – a visit to Basilica di San Marco

Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco in Piazza San Marco is the most famous symbol of Venice.

The first building, errected around 828, was originally intended to be the church for the Doge’s palace next door (see next post). The current basilica, the third version, dates from 1028 but only became the city’s cathedral in 1807. Streetview here.

The design was inspired by the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (later demolished by the Ottomans). Both buildings are in the shape of a Greek cross with five domes occupying the center and the axes of the cross, which are connected by arches. Described as Italo-Byzantine, the unique design projects a feel of Oriental exoticism, while retaining elements of the Venetian style of Renaissance architecture.

Over time the building was slowly covered with marble cladding, carvings and friezes that were either brought back as spoils of war from campaigns in the east, in particular the Venetian-led conquest of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204, or directly copied by local sculptors.

Patterns more typically associated with Eastern civilisations are everywhere.

Some of the adornments are much older than the building itself, such as the statue of the Four Tetrarchs at the southwest corner of the basilica, which was looted from Constantinople after the 1204 conquest.

The Tetrarchy was a system of government, introduced in 293, which involved two emperors and two junior caesars, one of each for the two parts of the ancient Roman Empire.

Nearby are the Acritani Pillars which were possibly looted from Constantinople (and not Acre as the name suggests) but are of Sassanian (Ancient Persian) design. The pillars, richly decorated with motifs such as peacocks, grapes and palmettes, were most likely placed on the side of the basilica because there was nowhere else to put them.

The façade has two orders of arches, one at ground level which includes the entrance, and a second on the first floor which has a loggia (ceremonial terrace). Both are characterised by a large central arch with two minor arches either side. The lunette of the central entrance portal is decorated with a mosaic depicting the Last Judgment.

Above and below it are three carved arches of different sizes depicting symbolic scenes that are typical of Lombard Romanesque (see for example the works of Wiligelmo), but made by local workers.

The other lunettes contain mosaics depicting the events (full story here) around the remains of Saint Mark (one of the four apostles), beginning with the ‘discovery’ (theft) of his body by two Venetian merchants in Alexandria, Egypt in 829…

…and ending with the arrival of the saint’s sacred remains at the basilica (they are now buried under the altar but there is some controversy about this).

This last lunette (my favourite), in the Portal of Sant’ Alipio, contains the only remaining original thirteenth-century mosaic. The others were remade between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, while keeping their original subjects.

Above the central arches, at roof level, is a statue of the Lion of San Marco, the symbolic representation of Saint Mark in the form of a winged lion.

The lion symbolises the strength of the Evangelist’s word, and the wings, his spiritual elevation. It embodies the qualities of majesty, power, wisdom and righteousness by which Venice wanted to be known.

The huge central doors are of uncertain production, but date back to the 12th century.

When I visited in October 2020, the main part of the church on the ground floor was closed to the public for renovations. However you could still gain entry (only 5€) to the Museo di San Marco on the first floor.

For me, the most beautiful mosaics in the whole cathedral are the ones you can see in the Narthex, the front porch of the cathedral, while you are queueing to buy a ticket for the museum.

The mosaic panels in the cupolas of the narthex are particularly beautiful. They depict episodes from Genesis about the lives of Noah, Abraham, Joseph and Moses.

The main reason to go to the museum I would say is to get the views both from the external terrace and also the internal galleries.

While other Italian cities converted to using frescoes to decorate their churches during the thirteenth century, Venice continued to use mosaics, in part to support the local glass industry which provided the tesserae (cube-shaped tiles) to make them.

The luminous gold tesserae provide a glittering background for the mosaics, giving the cathedral its unique appearance.

There are over eight thousand square meters of mosaics in the cathedral which were made over the course of eight centuries.

Fragments of ancient mosaics removed during restoration in the 19th century are on display in the museum.

There’s also a display of tapestries in the museum.

And you can see the original Horses of Saint Mark; four strong steeds represented in gilded copper, that were also stolen from Constantinople in 1204. The complete statue once depicted a quadriga (a four-horse carriage used for chariot racing) and probably dates from the second or third century AD.

The originals have been moved inside for conservation reasons and copies now occupy the central place on the loggia (terrace), above the central portal.

Out on the terrace you get a much better view of the beautifully intricate roof decoration.

As well as great views across Piazza San Marco from the front terrace…

…and Piazzetta San Marco and the waterfront on the side terrace.

Sorry for the length of this post but the cathedral had so much to show!

In the following post we go next door to another remarkable building, the Doge’s Palace, and stroll along the waterfront…

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