The Basilica di San Marco is not only the religious center of a great city, but also an expression of the political, intellectual, and economic aspiration and accomplishments of a city that for centuries was at the forefront of European culture. It is a monument not just to the glory of God, but also to the glory of Venice. The basilica was the doges' personal chapel, linking its religious function to the political life of the city and was endowed with all the riches the
Republic's admirals and merchants could carry off from the Orient (as the Byzantine Empire was known), earning it the nickname Chiesa D'Oro, or Golden Church.
The dim light, the galleries high above the naves—they served as the matroneum, the women's gallery—the massive altar screen, or iconostasis, the single massive Byzantine chandelier, even the Greek cross ground plan give San Marco an exotic aspect quite unlike that of most Christian churches. The effect is remarkable. Here the pomp and mystery of Oriental magnificence are wedded to Christian belief, creating an intensely awesome impression.
The original church, consecrated in 832, was built to house the body of St. Mark, which, according to legend, had been stolen by two Venetians in 828. The whole enterprise, however, was intended to establish Venice's prominence over neighboring Aquileia, a city with a glorious ancient Roman past.
When the present church was begun in the 11th century, rare colored marbles and gold leaf mosaics were used in its decoration. When Venice's sons returned from their military exploits, especially when Venice conquered and sacked her former ruler, Constaninople, in 1204, the trophies of the conquest were not just displayed but rather permanently integrated into the facades and the altar.
During the 11th century, when the construction of the present church was begun, Venice was still under the rule of the Byzantine Empire, and the new church was patterned after the Church of the Twelve Apostles (now demolished) in Constantinople, rivaling the Hagia Sophia in religious and political importance. The building was, therefore, a political statement, informing Venice's Byzantine masters that her new basilica was equal to that in Constantinople and housed a relic of an apostle and evangelist.
When the basilica was consecrated in the late 11th century, like many early Christian churches, it had an unadorned brick facade. The 12th and 13th centuries were, however, a period of intense military expansion, and by the early 13th century, the facades began to bear testimony to Venice's conquests. The apse of the portal of St. Alipio, the farthest north (left) of the five west facade portals, bears a 13th-century mosaic showing how the church looked at that time: the facade is already decorated with precious marbles, and the gilt-bronze ancient Roman horses taken from Constantinople in 1204 are already in place on the facade's upper register.
Besides the horses, the facades contain many other trophies, both ancient Roman and Early Christian, taken during raids, that testify to Venice's daring and power. The facades also show evidence of the high quality of artistic achievement of Venetian artisans, as can be seen in the beautiful early 13th-century bas reliefs on the inner arches of the main portal. Nevertheless, ancient, pillaged art—expressions of power, conquest, and prestige—were preferred to new work, and these spoils tended to trump contemporary creativity.
The glory of the basilica is, of course, its medieval mosaic work; about 30% of the mosaics survive in something close to their original form. The earliest date from the late 12th century, but the great majority date from the 13th century. The taking of Constantinople in 1204 was a deciding moment for the mosaic decoration of the basilica. Large amounts of mosaic material were brought in, and a Venetian school of mosaic decoration began to develop. Moreover, a 4th or 5th century treasure—the Cotton Genesis, the earliest illustrated Bible—was brought from Constantinople and supplied the designs for the exquisite mosaics of the Creation and the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses that adorn the narthex (entrance hall). They are among the most beautiful and best preserved in all the basilica.
The mosaics of the basilica follow a well-developed program, with those of the narthex representing the Old Testament, or the preparation for the coming of Christ, and those of the interior representing the stories of the Gospel and saints, ending the Christ in glory in the apse (in truth, a Renaissance copy).
The earliest mosaics, bearing the graceful lines of high Byzantine art, are in the first dome of the interior, the Dome of the Pentecost, and date from the 12th century. It is probably the work of Byzantine artisans. The central dome, the Dome of the Ascension, is from the 13th century, and shows the development of a particularly Venetian style.
In the Sanctuary, the main altar is built over the tomb of Saint Mark, its green marble canopy lifted high on 6th-century carved alabaster columns—again, pillaged art. The Pala D'Oro, a dazzling gilt-silver, gem-encrusted screen containing 255 enameled panels, was commissioned in 976 in Constantinople by the Venetian Dodge Orseolo I and enlarged over the subsequent four centuries.
To skip the line at the basilica entrance, reserve your arrival—at no extra cost—on the website. If you check a bag at the nearby checkroom, you can show your check stub to the guard, who will wave you in. Remember that this is a sacred place: guards will deny admission to people in shorts, sleeveless dresses, and tank tops.
Piazza San Marco, San Marco 328, Venice, 30124, Italy
041-2413817-tour info 10–noon weekdays
May 30, 2003
Everybody loves this church. Its absolutely laden with marble. Gives you a real sense of the riches of this city so many centureis ago. The floor dips in slight waves from the sinking of the island. If you go to mass here, when you walk up to Communion imagine yourself as a real parishoner in the 13th century. It just all comes over you.
Sep 18, 2002
Opulent, stunning, well worth a visit. Get there early to beat the crowds.
Sep 11, 2002
The wealth that this city once had is evident from the interior, which has gorgeous marble flooring and walls completely covered in gold-leaf mosaics.