Basilica di San Marco
Lonely Planet review
Creating Venice’s architectural wonder took nearly 800 years and one saintly barrel of lard. In AD 828, wily Venetian merchants allegedly smuggled St Mark’s corpse out of Egypt in a barrel of pork fat to avoid inspection by Muslim customs authorities. Venice built a golden basilica around its stolen saint, whose bones were misplaced twice during construction (oops).
Church authorities in Rome took a dim view of Venice’s tendency to glorify itself and God in the same breath, but Venice defiantly created the official doge’s chapel in its own cosmopolitan image, with Byzantine onion-bulb domes, Greek cross layout and Egyptian marble walls. The brick basilica is clad in patchworks of marbles and reliefs from Syria, Egypt and Palestine – priceless trophies from Crusades conquests and battles with Genoa. At the southwestern corner is the Four Tetrarchs , an Egyptian porphyry statue supposedly representing four emperors of ancient Rome looted from Constantinople.
The front of the basilica ripples and crests like a wave, its five niched portals capped with shimmering mosaics and frothy stonework arches. In the far-left portal, lunette mosaics dating from 1270 show St Mark’s stolen body arriving at the basilica – a story reprised in 1660 lunette mosaics on the second portal from the right. The far-right portal is another masterpiece of architectural thievery: over Greek columns and a Moorish arch is a lacy screen that might have been a Turkish sultan's balcony. Grand entrances are made through the central portal, under an ornate triple arch with Egyptian purple porphyry columns and 13th- to 14th-century reliefs of vines, virtues and astrological signs.
Blinking is natural upon your first glimpse of the basilica's glittering mosaics, many made with 24-carat gold leaf fused onto the back of the glass to represent divine light. Just inside the narthex (vestibule) glitter the basilica's oldest mosaics: Apostles with the Madonna , standing sentry by the main door for more than 950 years. The atrium’s medieval Dome of Genesis depicts the separation of sky and water with surprisingly abstract motifs, anticipating modern art by 650 years. Last Judgment mosaics cover the atrium vault and the Apocalypse looms large in vault mosaics over the gallery.
Mystical transfusions occur in the Dome of the Holy Spirit , where a dove’s blood streams onto the heads of saints. In the central 13th-century Cupola of the Ascension , angels swirl overhead while dreamy-eyed St Mark rests on the pendentive. Scenes from St Mark’s life unfold over the main altar, in vaults flanking the Dome of the Prophets (best seen from the Pala d’Oro).
The roped-off circuit of the church interior is free and takes about 15 minutes. Silence is requested, but gasping understandable. For entry, dress modestly (ie knees and shoulders covered) and leave large bags around the corner at Ateneo di San Basso's free one-hour baggage storage .
Tucked behind the main altar containing St Mark’s sarcophagus is the Pala d’Oro, studded with 2000 emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, rubies, pearls and other gemstones. But the most priceless treasures here are biblical figures in vibrant cloisonné, begun in Constantinople in AD 976 and elaborated by Venetian goldsmiths in 1209. The enamelled saints have wild, unkempt beards and wide eyes fixed on Jesus, who glances sideways at a studious St Mark as Mary throws up her hands in wonder – an understandable reaction to such a captivating scene. Look closely to spot touches of Venetian whimsy: falcon-hunting scenes in medallions along the bottom, and the by-now-familiar scene of St Mark's body smuggled out of Egypt on the right.
San Marco remained the doge’s chapel until 1807, and the ducal treasures upstairs in the Museo put a king’s ransom to shame. Gilt bronze horses taken by Venice from Constantinople were stolen in turn by Napoleon but eventually returned to the basilica and installed in the 1st-floor gallery. Portals lead from the gallery on to the giddiness-inducing Loggia dei Cavalli , where reproductions of the horses gallop off the balcony over Piazza San Marco.
In the Museo's displays of restored 13th- to 16th-century mosaic fragments, the Prophet Abraham is all ears and raised eyebrows, as though scandalised by Venetian gossip. On an interior balcony, Salviati's restored 1542–52 mosaic of the Virgin's family tree shows Mary's ancestors perched on branches, alternately chatting and ignoring one another, as families do. Hidden over the altar is the doge's banquet hall , where dignitaries wined and dined among lithe stucco figures of Music, Poetry and Peace.
Holy bones and booty from the Crusades fill the Tesoro , including a 10th-century rock-crystal ewer with winged feet made for Fatimid Caliph al-'Aziz-bi-llah. Don't miss the bejeweled 12th-century Archangel Michael icon, featuring tiny, feisty enameled saints that look ready to break free of their golden setting and mount a miniature attack on evil. Velvet-padded boxes preserve doges' remains alongside alleged saints' relics, including St Roch's femur, St Mark's thumb, the arm St George used to slay the dragon and even a lock of the Madonna's hair.