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Basilica di San Marco
Basilica di San Marco Review
An opulent synthesis of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, Venice's gem is laid out in a Greek-cross floor plan and topped with five plump domes. It didn't become the cathedral of Venice until 1807, but its original role as the Chiesa Ducale (the doge's private chapel) gave it immense power and wealth. The original church was built in 828 to house the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist. His remains, filched from Alexandria by the doge's agents, were supposedly hidden in a barrel under layers of pickled pork to sneak them past Muslim guards. The escapade is depicted in the 13th-century mosaic above the door farthest left of the front entrance, one of the earliest mosaics on the heavily decorated facade; look closely to see the church as it appeared at that time.
A 976 fire destroyed most of the original church. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1094, and for centuries it would serve as a symbol of Venetian wealth and power, endowed with all the riches admirals and merchants could carry off from the Orient, to the point where it earned the nickname "Chiesa d'Oro" (Golden Church). The four bronze horses that prance and snort over the doorway are copies of sculptures that victorious Venetians took from Constantinople in 1204 after the fourth crusade (the originals are upstairs in the Museo di San Marco). The rich, colorful exterior decorations, including the numerous different marble columns, all came from the same source. Look for a medallion of red porphyry in the floor of the porch inside the main door. It marks the spot where, in 1177, Doge Sebastiano Ziani orchestrated the reconciliation between Barbarossa—the Holy Roman emperor—and Pope Alexander III. Dim lighting, galleries high above the naves—they served as the matroneum (women's gallery)—the iconostasis (altar screen), and the single massive Byzantine chandelier all seem to wed Christianity with the Orient, giving San Marco its exotic blend of majesty and mystery.
The basilica is famous for its 43,055 square feet of mosaics, which run from floor to ceiling thanks to an innovative roof of brick vaulting. Many of the original windows were filled in to make room for even more artwork. At midday, when the interior is fully illuminated, the mosaics truly come alive, the shimmer of their tiny gold tiles becoming nothing short of magical. The earliest mosaics are from the 11th and 12th centuries, and the last were added in the early 1700s. One of the most recent is the Last Judgment, believed to have been designed by Tintoretto (1518-94), on the arch between the porch and the nave. Inside the main entrance, turn right on the porch to see the Book of Genesis depicted on the ceiling. Ahead through a glass door, 13th-century mosaics depict Saint Mark's life in the Cappella Zen (Zen Chapel). The Cappella della Madonna di Nicopeia, in the left transept, holds the altar icon that many consider Venice's most powerful protector. In nearby Cappella della Madonna dei Mascoli, the life of the Virgin Mary is depicted in fine 15th-century mosaics that are believed to be based on drawings by Jacopo Bellini (1400-71) and Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506).
In the Santuario (Sanctuary), the main altar is built over the tomb of Saint Mark, its green marble canopy lifted high on carved alabaster columns. Perhaps even more impressive is the Pala d'Oro, a dazzling gilt silver screen encrusted with 1,927 precious gems and 255 enameled panels. Originally commissioned (976-978) in Constantinople by Doge Orseolo I, it was enlarged and embellished over four centuries by master craftsmen and wealthy merchants. The bronze door leading from the sanctuary into the sacristy is by Jacopo Sansovino. In the top left corner the artist included a self-portrait, and above that, he pictured friend and fellow artist Titian (1485-1576). The Tesoro (Treasury), entered from the right transept, contains many treasures carried home from conquests abroad.
Climb the steep stairway to the Galleria and the Museo di San Marco for the best overview of the basilica's interior. From here you can step outdoors for a sweeping panorama of Piazza San Marco and out over the lagoon to San Giorgio. The displays focus mainly on the types of mosaic and how they have been restored over the years. But the highlight is a close-up view of the original gilt bronze horses that were once on the outer gallery. The four were most probably cast in Rome and taken to Constantinople, where the Venetians pillaged them after sacking that city. When Napoleon sacked Venice in 1797, he took them to Paris. They were returned after the fall of the French Empire, but came home "blind"—their big ruby eyes had been sold.
Be aware that guards at the basilica door turn away anyone with bare shoulders, midriff, or knees: no shorts, short skirts, or tank tops are allowed. Volunteers offer free, guided tours in English from April to October—look for the calendar to the right of the center entrance, or get more info by calling the phone number listed here. To skip the line at the Basilica entrance, reserve your arrival—at no extra cost—on the Basilica Web site. You can also skip the line if you check a bag at the nearby bag-check facility (find it on the map at the Basilica entrance)—just show your bag-check ticket to the entrance guard and he'll wave you in.
- Address: Piazza San Marco, San Marco 328, San Marco, Venice, 30124
- Phone: 041/2708311 basilica; 041/2413817 tour info 10-noon weekdays
- Cost: Basilica free, Tesoro €2, Santuario and Pala d'Oro €1.50, Galleria and Museo di San Marco €3
- Hours: May--Sept., Mon.--Sat. 9:45--5, Sun. 2--5; Oct.--Apr., Mon.--Sat. 9:45--5, Sun. 2--4. Last entry 1 hr before closing; interior illuminated Mon.--Sat. 11:30--12:30, Sun. 2--5
- Website: www.basilicasanmarco.it
- Vaporetto: Vallaresso/San Zaccaria.
- Location: Piazza San Marco
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