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Basilica San Marco

The Basilica symbolises so much - it's Byzantine to show Venice's links with the East, it houses the remains of Saint Mark, but is very much the shrine of the republic, having been built as the Doge's private chapel. It wasn't built as a cathedral and its dean and clergy were all appointed by the Signoria and so chosen by the government - so typical of Venice anti-papal tradition.
The first church built here was dedicated to Saint Theodore, Venice's first patron saint. In 829, at the instructions of Doge Justinian Partecipacius, a chapel enlarging the church was built to also house the remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist - see Acquiring Saint Mark's relics below. Consecrated in 832, nothing remains of this church, which was damaged in the fires that raged during the revolt against Doge Pietro IV Candiano in 976 and rebuilt by Doge Pietro Orseolo. We know nothing for certain of the appearance of these churches, despite much conjecture and some archaeological research. The second church stood for 80 years before it too was replaced, by the current building, probably begun in 1063 by Doge Domenico Contarini and consecrated in 1094 by Doge Vitale Falier. Much decorated in later centuries, the current structure is substantially this 11th century church, although it was much simpler and more severe in appearance initially. Its shape and design is said to have been based on the long-lost church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople and to have been the work of Greek architects.
It was originally faced with brick, with most of the marble cladding, friezes and statues that we see today, including the four famous horses, nearly all plunder from the 4th Crusade's capture and pillage of Constantinople in 1204, added during the first half of the 13th century. These embellishments give it some of the ancient-art credibility lacking in a city with no roman past. It functioned initially as a martyrium for Saint Mark and a palace chapel for the doges, central to ceremonial Venice. Only later did it take over from San Pietro di Castello as the cathedral of Venice, a move enforced by Napoleon in 1807, thereby putting an end to its ducal-ceremonial function.

The church
The cycle of mosaics on the famous façade facing Piazza San Marco read from right to left, as the main approach until relatively recently was always from the lagoon and the façade facing south was then the first sight of the church, and therefore had greater importance and impact. The upper level pinnacles and mosaics date from the 15th and 17th centuries respectively.  The façade still has a pretty triumphal aspect despite this later building, including the Gothic upper arches, detracting from the Byzantine charm somewhat. Of the five mosaics in the arches only the one over the first door on the left is an original from the 13th century (see right), the rest being replacements made from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Being the last in the sequence this left-hand mosaic is of the body of Saint Mark being taken into the Basilica, and shows the façade as it looked in around 1250. The north façade, onto the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, is a mess of bits, impressive in parts but not exactly harmoniously combined, although looking pretty handsome after a recent clean.

The narthex you cross as soon as you enter stretches across the width of the façade and right-angled branches enclose the nave up to the transept. The church is Greek cross shaped with a central dome and a dome in each of the four square bays, these aisled bays meeting in a crossing dominated by huge piers pierced with passages. I
t was just as overwhelming on first entering as it was on my last visit, 15 years ago, but the plan is less confusing than I remember.  Everything glows, every surface is richly decorated with marble of mosaic and almost every vista has a Piranesi-like queasy complexity. Inside your progress is roped-off and guided, with nowhere to sit. The no photo rule applies but is patchily enforced. The interior is unquestionably Byzantine- influenced - the now-lost Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople, built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century is often cited as a model - but the altar being in the presbytery and the presbytery being raised to accommodate the crypt help make the interior much more Italian. You pay €2 to get into this presbytery and see the Pala d'Oro (behind the altarpiece) sparklingly lit but behind glass. Saint Mark's sarcophagus is under the altar.
You pay €3 for the Treasury, which consists of two rooms. On the left after paying is a small sanctuary full of reliquaries and saint's bits. Much better is the room opposite, the actual Treasury in an impressive square and domed space with some lovely icons and glassware. I found the treasury inessential but the museum (€5) up a steep staircase to the right of the entrance to the basilica, is a real treat. Mosaic fragments, up-close views of mosaics in the left transept, the horses, models and plans, and the view from the outside terrace, make this a bargain ticket.  And there's the new Sala dei Banchetti, housing mostly tapestries, but also Paolo Veneziano's cover for the Pala d'Oro mentioned below, and cases of graduals.

The campanile
The first bell tower was built in the 9th century and has been enlarged, restored and repaired many times since.

The mosaics
It seems likely that the second St Marks, built after the fire of 976, would have been decorated with mosaics. The mosaic work in the apse of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello dates to around the same time as the current basilica was built.

The earliest mosaics here are the four saints in niches either side of the door. They are probably late-11th-century - the standing figures in the main apse and the prophets of the earlier work in the presbytery dome date to the early-12th. On the domes and vaults in the narthex are scenes from the Old Testament. Inside are saints and New Testament scenes like the Pentecost and the Ascension.

The degree to which the devastating fire which swept Venice in 1106 destroyed earlier mosaics and/or necessitated their replacements is much argued. Work continued here into the late 12th century, undoubtedly the most important century for the interior mosaics, as did the work in the apse and on the huge Last Judgement on Torcello. It is thought that craftsmen brought from Byzantium were responsible, at least initially, before locals learnt from them and continued. Possibly. Later centuries saw the need for, and the carrying out of, considerable repairs. Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno were amongst the artists called in to repair and train. Later interventions were more likely to replace old and 'ugly' mosaics with new works. The worst offenders here were Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Salviati and Palma Giovane. The new Apocalypse mosaic at the west end of the nave was one of these additions. Only in 1610 was a decree issued stopping this practice, as the old works had often been said to have been better than the new. This decree had to be repeated several times so may not have been very effective. As the skill and number of mosaicists declined, the rock bottom was reached in the 19th century, with repairs and materials of particularly poor quality.
Some 110 scenes in the mosaics in the atrium are said to be derived from miniatures in the Cotton Genesis, a 6th-century Greek manuscript (now in the British Library) taken from Constantinople. Or Alexandria - expert opinions differ.

The Pala d'Oro
Much added to, the Pal d'Oro (see photo right) is made of gold and silver and now has 187 enamel plaques and almost 2000 gems. It was originally an antependium (altar frontal) made for Doge Pietro Orseolo in 976, remade and placed at the back of the altar in 1105. Then remade again in 1209 and 1345. The original bottom section shows scenes from the Life of St Mark - these were originally along the very bottom but now go along the top and down the sides of the central section. The main central section has Christ in the centre, with the Four Evangelists in circular panels and flanking rows of the Apostles, with angels above and the twelve prophets below.
The 1209 'renewal' saw the addition along the top of the seven larger panels looted from Constantinople. Here six panels of scenes from the Gospels flank the Archangel Michael. These enamel panels probably came from the church of the monastery of the Pantocrator in Constantinople. Some form of Byzantine imperial involvement is suggested by one of the early 12th Century enamel panels depicting Empress Irene - a balancing panel of her husband Emperor Alexios I was removed at a later date. She is now balanced by a panel of Angelo Falier, procurator during the enlargement of 1209. The 1345 work saw the goldsmith Giovanni Paolo Benesegna commissioned to make a gothic frame and add more precious stones.
In 1432/4 Paolo Veneziano was commissioned to paint a wooden cover for the Pala d'Oro which was only displayed on the feast days of the Nativity and Easter, being hoisted up on those days by a system of pulleys. This cover (see photo right) which became known as the Pala Feriale, or “weekday altarpiece”, was painted by Paolo with the help of his sons Luca and Giovanni - all three signed the work, dated 1345. The original framing elements are lost so Paolo's panels are presented now in two rows.  On the top row The Man of Sorrows is flanked on the left by the Virgin, Saints Theodore and Mark, and on the right by Saints John the Evangelist, Peter, and Nicholas of Myra. Scenes of the life of Saint Mark and the theft of his relics are in the row below. In the 15th century this cover was replaced with a plain wooden panel and the Venezianos' panels are now displayed in the San Marco Museum.

The 4th Crusade spoils
The 4th crusade set out in 1402 to wrest control of Holy Christian sites back from the infidel, but more famously resulted in the invasion and sacking of Christian Constantinople in what began with a request to sort out a succession crisis and ended up in murder and pillage. It was to prove the beginning of the end for the great empire, but was arguably retaliation for the pogrom-like Massacre of the Latins which had seen the slaughter of Catholics, men. women and children, mostly from Venice, Genoa and Pisa, during the reign of Emperor Alexios II Komenenos decades previously. 4,000 of those who survived had then been sold as slaves to the Seljuk Turks.
The four gilded bronze horses, probably spoils taken to Constantinople in the 4th-6th century, were removed from the Hippodrome there, presumably, or nearby, and set up over the main entrance here in the 1254. Venice having no Roman past itself, the horses would've been seen as a suitably symbolic indicator of Venice's ambition to be the new Rome. They are actually made of copper, with a little (c.2%) tin, so are not strictly bronze. The date of their creation has been previously said to be anything from 400BC to 400AD, but is now narrowed to after the 2nd century AD, due to the difficulty of casting copper and the use of mercury gilding making an earlier date unlikely. Napoleon took them to Paris in 1797, where they ended up on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Tuilleries, until they were returned to Venice in 1815 following the defeat of Napoleon. They were moved indoors to protect them from acid rain and replaced by copies in the 1970s.

The Tetrarchs
- a porphyry sculpture of the then four rulers of the Roman Empire, of around 300 (see right) possibly taken from the Philadelphion in Constantinople. They are probably the bearded emperors Diocletion and Maximilian and the clean-shaven Caesars Galerius and Constantius I. In Francesco Sansovino's Guidebook to Venice of 1561 he tells a story of four merchants who smuggled treasures into Venice, but deciding that the proceeds would have to be split too many ways a pair decided to poison the other two, with the other two having the same idea, so all four were poisoned. He reports that 'in the opinion of the mob'  these four are the figures depicted in the Tetrarchs sculpture, but admits that it is just a fable. The missing heel and plinth fragment was found in Istanbul in the 1960s and is now in the Archeology Museum there.
Marble revetments, floors, columns (and their bases and capitals) and panels of sculpture, stripped from the churches of Constantinople. Mostly their origins are untraceable, but capitals and columns from the 6th-century church of Saint Polyeuktos are distinctive, like the misnamed pilastro acritani.

Acquiring Saint Mark's relics
Saint Mark had been the Bishop of nearby Aquileia, where he had been sent by Saint Peter.  On his way,  in his boat, passing near where Venice was to be built, he had a vision telling him that his body would find its final resting place nearby. He was martyred in Alexandria, his next posting, in 68AD.
Around 828 some Venetian merchants travelled to Alexandria intending to 'acquire' the relics of Saint Mark. Two of their number, Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello. learnt from the custodians of the sanctuary where the saints bones were kept that they were in danger of being destroyed by the Arab governor of Alexandria who was going to use marble and columns from Christian churches to build himself a palace in the city of Babylon. Or so the story goes. The custodians having been talked around, the saint's remains were replaced by the nearby body of Saint Claudia and the relics loaded aboard ship, hidden in wicker baskets and covered with cabbage leaves and pork, the latter considered unclean by Muslims. So when customs men came to inspect the cargo their disgust made them wave the baskets through without inspection.
On the voyage back to Venice the saint appeared to the dozing sailors and saved them from shipwreck. The relics were initially placed in a corner of the Ducal Palace awaiting the building of the new basilica. Saint Mark thereby became the patron saint of Venice, replacing Saint Theodore. In 976 the relics were lost in a fire. Only at a reconsecration in 1094 did the the saint himself reveal the location of his remains to Doge Vitale Falier and the people gathered in the basilica, by extending an arm from a pier on the right hand side of the nave. The church was also filled with a sweet smell.

Other relics
he relics housed here have included an arm of Saint George, a stool which belonged to the Virgin, a finger of Mary Magdalene, a knife used at the last supper, the stone on which John the Baptist was beheaded, a rib of Saint Stephen, and the sword Saint Peter used to cut off Malchus's right ear. The latter, a servant of Caiaphas, being one of those attempting to arrest Jesus.

Lost art
There is a 12th century mosaic fragment of a male head, a personification of Mesopotamia, removed from the west dome here, in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It was removed by the restorers Salviati in 1867.

The Basilica in art

There are countless views of the Piazza which feature the Basilica. Gentile Bellini's Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco of 1496 (see right) was painted for the Grand Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista but is now in the Accademia. It shows us how the Basilica looked in the late 15th century, with its original lunette mosaics. Three paintings by Canaletto of the interior during Easter celebrations exist - two in the British Royal Collection and one in Montreal. John Ruskin made many fine sketches of details (see right). There are lots by Sickert.

Dickens wrote (in Pictures from Italy)
A grand and dreamy structure, of immense proportions; golden with old mosaics; redolent of perfumes; dim with the smoke of incense; costly in treasure of precious stones and metals, glittering through iron bars; holy with the bodies of deceased saints; rainbow-hued with windows of stained glass; dark with carved woods and coloured marbles; obscure in its vast heights, and lengthened distances; shining with silver lamps and winking lights; unreal, fantastic, solemn, inconceivable throughout.

Opening times
October – March/April (Easter):
Basilica: 9.30 - 5.00  (last admission 4.45)
Sunday and holidays: 2.00 - 4.00 (entrance free)

St. Mark’s Museum: 9.45– 4.45  €5
Pala d’Oro: 9.45 - 4.00 Sunday and holidays: 2.00 - 4.00 €2 
Treasury: 9.45 - 4.00 Sunday and holidays: 2.00 - 4.00 €3

March/April (Easter) – November:
Basilica: 9.45 - 5.00 (last admission 4.45) Sunday and holidays: 2.00 - 5.00 (entrance free)

St. Mark’s Museum: 9.45 - 4.45  €5
Pala d’Oro: 9.45 - 5.00 Sunday and holidays: 2.00 - 5.00  €2
Treasury: 9.45- 5.00 Sunday and holidays: 2.00 - 5.00 €3


Vaporetto Vallaresso (San Marco)







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