Known in English as Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Basilica di San Marco is one of Venice’s many historical treasures. Located beside the Doge’s Palace, or the Palazzo Ducale as the locals call it, the ecclesiastical structure of the basilica was formed to house the remains of Saint Mark which had been transported from Alexandria to Venice in 829 AD. In order to honour his remains, the building was consecrated in 832 AD (although the basilica’s construction was not completed until the late ninth century) and the city then adopted the apostle as its patron saint, thereby replacing Saint Theodore.
The Basilica di San Marco has many tapering spires which echo the eastern influence of its architecture. With wonderful Byzantine domes and highly detailed mosaic work, much of the building is finished with lavish amounts of marble. For a thousand years, Saint Mark’s Basilica has been the city’s foremost church and it makes for an unforgettable sight. The building we see today is not the original chapel, however, which was burned to the ground in 976 AD. After a time, the new basilica was constructed on the site of the chapel. From 1094, when the basilica was built, and for many centuries thereafter, the church has been something of a work in progress. This is because a number of doges chose to add to it, often with items looted from places such as Syria, Egypt and Palestine during the crusades.
Outside the Basilica
The front façade of the basilica has a feature like a ripple running through it that resembles a tidal wave. In the lower section, it boasts no less than five niched portals, each of them topped with lustrous mosaics and arches by skilled stonemasons. In the portal at the extreme left as you look at it, there is a mosaic which dates back to the latter half of the thirteenth century. It depicts Saint Mark’s body arriving at the basilica, having been stolen by Venetian merchants. The mosaics in the arches situated in the façade’s upper portion are somewhat more devotional and depict stories from the life of Christ. Above the large central window the symbol of Venice, a winged lion, can be found. Further along the frontage there are remarkable statues of Greek horses which were installed in 1254.
Heading inside, it is noteworthy that the basilica conforms to the Greek cross design. Each wing of the church has a central nave with a side aisle. Behind and above the high altar is a large canopy known as the Pala d’Oro, or the Golden Pall. Now protected by glass, this canopy is bejewelled with a myriad of precious stones and was made by Byzantine goldsmiths over parts of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Remember to look upwards, too. The basilica’s ceiling and internal walls are adorned by in the region of 8,000 square metres of mosaics, many of them stunningly gilded.
The museum at the Basilica di San Marco has far too many treasures to name them all. However, a few highlights include the Quadriga of St Mark’s. Plundered by Napoléon, but later returned, this a group of four bronze horses which were themselves originally taken by Venetians when they were in Constantinople. The now restored mosaic of the Virgin Mary’s family tree is another wonder. This work by Salviati, dating from the mid sixteenth century, depicts Mary’s ancestors perched on the branches of a tree. Also worth seeking out is the Doge’s banquet hall which is hidden, to some degree, behind the high altar.
Much of the interior of Saint Mark’s Basilica can be explored without charge, so long as you are willing to confine your visit to the roped off area. Touring the basilica is easy enough without a guide and you simply need to follow the circuit around. However, it is advisable to dress modestly since this is a religious building.