Cannaregio    Castello    Dorsoduro    San Marco    San Polo    Santa Croce    Giudecca    The Islands
The List    The Lost Churches    The Scuole
The Veneto: Padua and Verona



 

It was 10 years ago...
Seasoned aficionados of this site will know that I have long left the exploration of the Basilica San Marco to others, due to my not being at all fond of crowds and mosaics.
But this situation changed recently, with my taking various courses devoted to the medieval period and Byzantium, and a visit to Venice in January 2017.

So to celebrate the 10th birthday of The Churches of Venice I'm making a start!
Further visits and reading will add perceptions, clarity and knowledge, I have no fear.

 

Basilica San Marco
1063
 


History
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 and serves 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 1084 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.

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, who thereby put 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. The north façade, onto the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, is a mess of bits, impressive singly but not exactly harmoniously combined, although looking pretty handsome after a recent clean. Of the five mosaics in the arches only the one over the first door on the left is an original from the 13th Century, 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 St Mark being taken into the Basilica, and shows the façade as it looked in around 1250.

Interior
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 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 the Paolo Veneziano 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 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 wood panels to cover the altarpiece which was only displayed on feast days. These panels (see photo right) became known as the Pala Feriale, or “weekday altarpiece”. On the top panel he depicted (all with the help of his sons Luca and Giovanni - all three signed the work, dated 1358) The Man of Sorrows, flanked on the left by Saints George and Mark, and the Virgin, and on the right by Saints John the Evangelist, Peter, and Nicholas. Scenes from the life and legend of St Mark are in the row below. In the 15th Century these were replaced with a plain wooden panel and the Venezianos' panels are now displayed in the San Marco Museum.

4th Crusade spoils
The four gilded bronze horses brought from Constantinople (probably spoils brought there in the 4th-6th century) removed from the Hippodrome, presumably, and set up over the western entrance here in the 1230s/40s. Napoleon took them to Paris, where they stood on top of his triumphal arch, the Arc du Carousel, for years, until they were returned to Venice in 1815. They were moved indoors to protect them from atmospheric pollution and replaced by copies in the 1970s.

The Tetrarchs - a porphyry sculpture of the then four rulers of the Roman Empire, of around 300, possibly taken from the Philadelphion in Constantinople. 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.

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.

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.

Acquiring Saint Mark's relics
Around 813 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. 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. St Mark thereby became the patron saint of Venice. In 976 they 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
T
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 as the latter, a servant of Caiaphas, was one of those attempting to arrest Jesus.

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

website

Vaporetto Vallaresso (San Marco)

map

 

 







 



 






Home

Cannaregio :: Castello :: Dorsoduro :: Giudecca :: San Marco :: San Polo :: Santa Croce :: The Islands :: Demolished