San Marco Basilica highlights

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San Marco Basilica is the main attraction in Venice. It is the core of the city. Due to a matter of beauty, elegance and architecture. And of course to a matter of affection. I Veneziani love it. This is Venice’s Cathedral.

At first it was the Doge’s Palace chapel, with private passage. Since 1807 it is also Venice cathedral. In San Marco Basilica every public and important ceremony takes place. There are many treasures and highlights to point out. I’ll try to be as schematic as possible. I’m sure you’ll find thorough explanations in your book guides.

Super short story of San Marco

  • Marco was a disciple of the Apostles Paul and Peter.
  • He is known to be author of one of the Gospels.
  • He embarked with other evangelists on a ship to reach Rome. Arrived in the lagoon of Venice (the city did not exist yet though), they shipwrecked on a small island. There Marco had a vision. An angel prophesied him his future along with the place of his own rest, a wonderful city yet to be built.
  • He died on April 25, 68, in Alexandria of Egypt. To learn more you can read my post about April 25.
  • On January 31, 828 his remains were stolen by two Venetian merchants and transported to Venice, hidden in a basket full of pork meat.
  • A few years later the construction of Venice cathedral began. It had to preserve the remains.
  • The church was consecrated in 832. It replaced the previous church, dedicated to the Byzantine Saint Teodoro (Todaro in Venetian), still visible in one of the two columns in the piazzetta.
  • Reconstructed a couple of times, the current version was consecrated in 1094.
  • In 1204, after the conquest of Costantinopole, the four horses, along with marbles and reliquiaires were transported in the basilica.
  • During 1200 the domes were raised.
Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco

San Marco Basilica Exterior

The tetrarchs
The tetrarchs

San Marco has an oriental flair, given the role of Venice as a gateway between East and West. Many of the decorations, marbles, columns and ornaments were taken in the East during trade travels or wars.

The tetrarchs

For example the tetrarchs (fourth century, Syrian or Egyptian origin), a red porphyry block located on the right side (close to the Doge’s Palace). Scholars reckon they are Roman emperors. However, according to a local legend, they’d be four thieves caught and petified by San Marco.
The most evident Eastern technique is undoubtedly the mosaic. Fabulous golden mosaics can be admired on the facade (finally the restoration is complete) and inside the basilica.

Facade Mosaics

On the facade, the only 1200s original piece is the one above the left portal. It depicts the entrance of St Mark’s body into the basilica (as the basilica was at the time, so it is very interesting). The other mosaics, damaged, were rebuilt between 1600 and 1800. Those on the lower level show the various phases of the Saint’s body transportation. Save the central one, Last Judgement.

On the highere level you can see:

  • Deposition
  • Descent into Limbo
  • Resurrection
  • Ascension
San Marco Basilica Facade
San Marco Basilica Facade

The free horses

On the balcony there are the famous horses. They are a copy (the original are in the museum inside the basilica). Their origin is uncertain, they maybe Greek or Roman, made before or after the birth of Christ. In any case, they were taken by Venice at Constantine’s hippodrome in Constantinople, as a part of the spoils of war after the Crusade (1204). They were then put on the facade of the basilica, as a symbol of a freed Venice, since the horses are free from harness.

In 1797 Napoleon, after conquering Venice, gave the city to Austria, but first he took many spoils, among which the horses. A Venetian delegate witnessed the division of the land between Austria and France and wrote, “With the stroke of a pen, without even being admitted to the discussion about its secular rights, one of the oldest nations of Europe has been suppressed.” The horses were put in the Tuileries garden. They were recovered in 1815 thanks to the Treaty of Vienna.

Horses on the terrace, San Marco Basilica
Horses on the terrace, San Marco Basilica

The bando stone

At the right corner of the Basilica, you can see a short purple pillar. Bando means call and also ban. This sort of column was present in many Italian towns during the Middle Ages. It was the place where announcement were made, or… criminals heads stuck after death sentences. When the bell tower of St. Mark collapsed in 1902, the Basilica was saved thanks to this stone, that stopped the rubble.

San Marco Basilica
San Marco Basilica

San Marco Basilica Interior

Pala d’Oro

Behind the iconostasis (the part which separates the main aisle from the altar), you can admire (paying a separate fee) the Pala d’Oro (Golden Altarpiece), adorned with 3000 precious stones and 80 enamels from Constantinople, mounted with a Gothic frame. It’s one of the most valuable pieces of godlworking in the whole world. Once it was exposed only during major celebrations. It depicts major religious holidays, along with religious figures.

Mosaics

The mosaic floors are often covered by carpets, in order to protect them. But they are still partly visible, and marvelous: geometric patterns and animals in Byzantine style.

The golden mosaics walls, arches and ceilings, dated between 1000 and 1400, cover an area of about 4,000 square meters. Consider that a tennis court measures 262 square meters. What is here represented is a classic Biblia pauperum, the Bible of the poor, i.e. the depiction of Bible and Gospels stories so that everyone could understand them: The Christ Pantocrator, the Prophets, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Passion of Christ.

Treasury

I skipped the Treasury of San Marco Basilica (another separate fee), a collection of about 280 precious objects, mainy from Constantinople.

Museum with a view

If you want to visit also the upper floor museum (another separate fee), you have to climb a steep and narrow stone staircase (with high steps). In my opinion, it is absolutely worth the vist. Not so much for the pieces (the original horses, some tapestries and manuscripts), but rather for two reasons:

  1. From the inner balustrade you can admire the mosaics from above.
  2. From the external terrace you enjoy a great view over the piazza and the lagoon.
View from the terrace, San Marco Basilica
View from the terrace, San Marco Basilica

Tips, Tricks and Warnings

  • Entering just the Basilica has no fee BUT, in order to avoid queue (and it can be a loooong queue), you can buy online a 2€ (each) ticket from the site venetoinside.
  • For disabled entrance must be arranged (read instructions on the link above).
  • Tickets for the Museum (5€), the Pala d’Oro (2€) and the Treasury (3€) must be purchased at the moment (cash). So, if you purchase all these things, you will pay 12€ each, which seems reasonable.
  • Suitcases, backpacks and bulky bags are not allowed, you have to deposit them before you get in line (or befor eyou enter if you have the avoid-queue ticket).
  • Shorts, sleeveless or low-necked shirts and short skirts are not allowed.
  • You can’t take photos (grrrrrrr). I hate when I can’t take photos. It was not a big deal though, since it was so dark that I couldn’t have taken good photos anyway.
San Marco Basilica
San Marco Basilica

San Marco Basilica – To sum up

In conclusion, I liked the visit, I think this is unmissable. How can you go to Venice and not to visit its main landmark? I used the skip-the-line ticket and it was worth it. The visit can be overwhelming for the great number of decorations, things to see, symbols to interpret. If you’re just curious an nothing more, never mind, go inside, take a peek and then go upstairs to the terrace. If you’re into this kind of things, maybe consider joining a guided tour.

All things considered, the biggest disappointment to me was the poor lighting, so that the mosaic do not shine as I would have expected. It was a gloomy day (photos were taken in different days), yes, but I gather it is scarcely lit anyway, probably to preseve the pieces. I can totally understand. But, I admit, I would have gladly enjoyed a shiny golden view like those I saw in some photos online. 

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