The Basilica di San Marco is the most exotic of Europe’s cathedrals, and no visitor can remain dispassionate when confronted by it. Herbert Spencer loathed it – “a fine sample of barbaric architecture”, but to John Ruskin it was a “treasure-heap … a confusion of delight”. It’s certainly confusing, increasingly so as you come nearer and the details emerge; some knowledge of the history of the building helps bring a little order out of chaos.

Brief history

According to the legend of St Mark’s annunciation, the Evangelist was moored in the lagoon, on his way to Rome, when an angel appeared and told him that his body would rest there. (The angel’s salute – Pax tibiMarce evangelista meus – is the text cut into the book that the Lion of St Mark is always shown holding.) This tale seems to have been invented in the thirteenth century, partly as backdated justification for the theft of the body of St Mark from its tomb in Alexandria in 828. As soon as the holy remains had arrived in Venice, work began on a shrine to house them.

Modelled on Constantinople’s Church of the Twelve Apostles, the shrine of St Mark was consecrated in 832, but in 976 both the church and the Palazzo Ducale were burnt down. The present basilica was finished in 1094 and embellished over the succeeding centuries. Every trophy that the doge stuck onto his church (this church was not the cathedral of Venice but the doge’s own chapel) was proof of Venice’s secular might and so of the spiritual power of St Mark.

The exterior

Of the exterior features that can be seen easily from the ground, the Romanesque carvings of the central door demand the closest attention – especially the middle arch’s figures of the months and seasons and outer arch’s series of the trades of Venice. The carvings were begun around 1225 and finished in the early fourteenth century. Take a look also at the mosaic above the doorway on the far left – The Arrival of the Body of St Mark – which was made around 1260 (the only early mosaic left on the main facade) and includes the oldest known image of the basilica.

The narthex

From the Piazza you pass into the vestibule known as the narthex, which is decorated with thirteenth-century mosaics of Old Testament scenes on the domes and arches; The Madonna with Apostles and Evangelists, in the niches flanking the main door, date from the 1060s and are the oldest mosaics in San Marco.

The Loggia dei Cavalli

A steep staircase goes from the church’s main door up to the Museo di San Marco and the Loggia dei Cavalli. Apart from giving you an all-round view, the loggia is also the best place from which to inspect the Gothic carvings along the apex of the facade. The horses outside are replicas, the genuine articles having been removed inside. Stolen from the Hippodrome of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, the horses are probably Roman works of the second century – the only such ancient group, or quadriga, to have survived.

The interior’s mosaics

With its undulating floor of twelfth-century patterned marble, its plates of eastern stone on the lower walls and its four thousand square metres of mosaics covering every other inch of wall and vaulting, the interior of San Marco is the most opulent of any cathedral. One visit is not enough – there’s too much to take in at one go, and the shifting light reveals and hides parts of the decoration as the day progresses; try calling in for half an hour at the beginning and end of a couple of days.

The majority of the mosaics were in position by the middle of the thirteenth century; some date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and others were created as recently as the eighteenth century to replace damaged early sections. Some of the best are the following: on the west wall, above the door, Christthe Virgin and St Mark; in the west dome, Pentecost; on the arch between the west and central domes, the Crucifixion and Resurrection; in the central dome, Ascension; and in the east dome, Religion of Christ Foretold by the Prophets.

The sanctuary

From the south transept you can enter the sanctuary where, behind the altar, you’ll find the most precious of San Marco’s treasures – the Pala d’Oro (Golden Altar Panel). Commissioned in 976 in Constantinople, the Pala was enlarged, enriched and rearranged by Byzantine goldsmiths in 1105, then by Venetians in 1209 (to incorporate some less cumbersome loot from the Fourth Crusade) and again (finally) in 1345. The completed screen holds 83 enamel plaques, 74 enamelled roundels, 38 chiselled figures, 300 sapphires, 300 emeralds, 400 garnets, 15 rubies, 1300 pearls and a couple of hundred other stones.

The treasury

Tucked into the corner of the south transept is the door of the treasury, installed in a thick-walled chamber which is perhaps a vestige of the first Palazzo Ducale. This dazzling warehouse of chalices, icons, reliquaries, candelabra and other ecclesiastical appurtenances is an unsurpassed collection of Byzantine work in silver, gold and semiprecious stones. Particularly splendid are a twelfth-century Byzantine incense burner in the shape of a domed church and a gilded silver Gospel cover from Aquileia, also made in the twelfth century.

The rest of the Basilica

Back in the main body of the church, there’s still more to see on the lower levels of the building. Don’t overlook the rood screen’s marble figures of The Virgin, St Mark and the Apostles, carved in 1394 by the dominant sculptors in Venice at that time, Jacobello and Pietro Paolo Dalle Masegne. The pulpits on each side of the screen were assembled in the early fourteenth century from miscellaneous panels (some from Constantinople); the new doge was presented to the people from the right-hand one. The tenth-century Icon of the Madonna of Nicopeia (in the chapel on the east side of the north transept) is the most revered religious image in Venice; it used to be one of the most revered in Constantinople.

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