Tuesday, September 6, 2016

San Marco’s Basilica and its Surroundings

San Marco Basilica Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Since the eleventh century, San Marco’s Basilica has been known as Chiesa d’Oro, the Church of Gold. The former chapel of the Doge, the basilica has been the city’s cathedral since 1807 when it became the Patriarchy of Venice. The rich Italian-Byzantine style, the gold mosaics, the statues, the opulent gold chalices, crosses encrusted with precious gems, items of heavy gold displayed in the altar and in the church treasury, and its symbolism of Venetian power and wealth, gave it the nickname of Chiesa d’Oro.

Connected to the Doge’s Palace, the first St. Mark Church was ordered by the Doge in 828 and completed four years later. It is alleged that Venetian merchants stole the relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria and brought them to Venice.

San Marco Basilica and Doge's Palace are connected
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
San Marco basilica was accidentally set on fire in 976 during a rebellion to depose the Doge Pietro IV Candiano who was much hated by the locals.  Venetians locked him inside his ducal palace and set it on fire. The fire spread quickly to the basilica. The Doge and his young son were killed and their bodies were taken to the slaughterhouse. Sane minds prevailed and the bodies were recovered and buried with honors in the church of Sant’Ilario. His wife survived the attack and, the next Doge left her a small inheritance, while her other son fled to Saxony where he conspired against the new Doge who was so generous to his mom.

Typical Venetian square connecting the "calle"
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
It took two years to rebuild the basilica after this fire.  Historians report different consecration dates, 1084-85, 1093, 1102, and 1117. The building is an interesting mix of Italian and Byzantine elements, with added Gothic elements to blend in with the redesigned Doge’s Palace. Pala d’Oro was ordered from Constantinople and installed on the high altar in 1105. A year later, the church and its mosaics were damaged again by a fire.

Eastern inspired cupolas
Photo: Wikipedia
Doge Vitale Faliero rediscovered in 1094 the body of Saint Mark in a pillar. For a while, the church was the private chapel of the Doge, but then it became the Venetian Republic official church where ceremonies of state were held such as the installation and burials of Doges. The patriarch of Venice had a seat in the basilica opposite the Doge.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The balcony above the basilica’s portal displays the horses of San Marco since 1254. Thought to be horses pulling an imperial quadriga (chariot), the horses date to classical antiquity. Some believed that they once adorned Trajan’s Arch. The horses decorated the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Doge Enrico Dandolo sent them to Venice in 1204 as part of the loot from the Fourth Crusade.  Napoleon took them to Paris in 1797 but they were returned to Venice in 1815. The restored bronze originals are kept in Museo Marciano inside the Basilica, while the façade is decorated with bronze replicas.

Byron wrote, “Below St. Mark’s still glow his steeds of brass, their gilded collars glittering in the sun.” Today the brass replicas are corroded into a dull green by the Venetian climate and the proximity to the salty lagoon.

A porphyry statue of the Four Tetrarchs was looted from Constantinople in 1204, during the fourth crusade, and was brought to Venice and set into the south-west corner of the basilica. Diocletian had imposed a four co-emperor rule called a Tetrarchy. One of the tetrarchs has a missing foot which was found in the 1960s in Istanbul near the Bodrum Mosque, still located there today.

The interior is shaped like a Greek cross, with each arm divided into three naves with a “dome of its own as well as the main dome above the crossing.” The domes are oriental in shape and one is bigger than the other three.  The smell of incense and burned candle wax is overpowering. To guard against fires, most churches have designated a special place for lighting and burning candles, in small receptacles filled with sand.

San Marco gable and the winged lion
Photo: Wikipedia
The 12th century marble floor that has undergone many restorations is tessellated in geometric patterns and animal designs. Because the area is prone to flooding, the floor is undulating, uneven, and treacherous to walk on.  I tried to photograph the gold-mosaicked interior, but any photography was highly discouraged and forbidden.

The eastern inspired domes
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2004
The atrium or narthex “prepares the visitors’ eyes for the atmosphere of the gilded interior which is quite fascinating and overwhelming in its opulence with all the New Testament decorations of the interior and the Old Testament stories on the ceiling.

Doge's Palace interior courtyard
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2004
The right transept contains the platform where the newly elected Doge appeared, St. Clément’s chapel, the Holy Host altar, the pillar where San Marco’s relics were rediscovered in 1094, as depicted in the mosaics of the right aisle where the entrance to the San Marco’s treasure is.

The left transept holds the platform for Scripture readings, St. Peter’s Chapel on the right aisle, and the Madonna Nicopeia, a Byzantine icon.  St. Isidor’s chapel and Mascoli chapel are located on the northern side.

The presbytery is located in the eastern arm with a crypt beneath. Behind the presbytery are located the sacristy and a 15th century church consecrated to St. Theodore, the first patron saint of Venice. Eight red marble columns are crowned with a high Crucifix and statues. The high altar contains San Marco’s relics.  The famous Pala d’Oro, a 10th century masterpiece of Byzantine goldsmiths craftsmanship contains 1,300 pearls, 300 sapphires, 300 emeralds, and 400 garnets, all original, highly polished, and unfaceted gems. The gem studded panels are encased in a gilded frame which is also encrusted with emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and gleaming translucent enamels bound by gold filigree. The gem embellishment was done in 1209 and 1345 by Venetians and Sienese.

The treasury contains gold, silver, enamel, stone carvings, rock crystals, and other objects looted from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade.  A few objects were collected from Northern Europe. Some art objects were melted down by Napoleon for coining at the end of the Venetian Republic and jewels were sold.  By 1816, an inventory ordered by the Austrians revealed that 141objects were left.

A sixth century throne carved in alabaster, Sedia di San Marco (St. Mark’s seat), was moved from the high altar to the Treasury in 1534. San Marco must have been a slightly built man as the throne could only fit a very small-framed bishop.

The interior is so richly decorated with gold mosaics, it would take a long time to really admire and understand such splendor and all the scenes from the Old Testament depicted in the narthex (atrium) alone, or the mosaics in the atrium Genesis Dome, or the Pentecost Dome, the Ascension Dome, the Baptistery, and the Zen Chapel. The lower walls illustrate the saints, the middle walls the Apostles, and the domes are dedicated to Christ, the Creator of everything.  Unfortunately, strict guides hurry visitors like me who wish to linger behind, to admire, to breathe in history, and perhaps to take that solitaire and forbidden photo of such majesty.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Venice and particularly San Marco’s Square is not just subjected to flooding  from the lagoon and rain which floods the foundation and ground floor of all buildings, its palazzos, churches, and cathedrals are attacked by pollution, sulphur dioxide and the salty mist of the lagoon air which corrosively destroys the marble reliefs on facades unless they are periodically cleaned.

Water corrosion visible on all buildings
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
But nothing is as destructive to Venice as the flooding called aqua alta which submerges the piazza, the lowest lying area of the lagoon for a good part of the year.  The Venetians are used to the walking tables around the square which help them navigate the temporary lake without wading waist deep in the green lagoon water.

San Marco Square
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The waterfront (Molo) was the former inner harbor where ships unloaded their cargo on the quays. Today, gondolas are tied in front of the Molo and occasional cruise ships are towed slowly in front of San Marco’s Square, temporarily blocking the lagoon completely with their massive and towering modernity.

Opening to the lagoon by Doge's Palace
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Facing the island of San Giorgio is the mint (La Zecca). Silver and gold ducats were minted in Venice from 1284. The zecchino was accepted as currency until the fall of the Venetian Republic. In 1870 the mint became part of Biblioteca Marciana with a reading room in the former courtyard.

The sea entrance from the lagoon
Photo: Ileana Johnson
The sea entrance to Venice is marked by the Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro, named after the city’s two patron saints. St. Mark replaced St. Theodore in 828 A.D. The columns are made of granite brought from Levant and were erected in 1172. St. Theodore’s statue is a modern replica (the original is located in the Doge’s Palace); the Lion of St. Mark is the original. The winged beast has agate eyes and is said to be either a Middle Eastern hybrid or a Chinese chimera.

The lion was brought back from Paris where Napoleon had taken it, was restored, and then placed on its pedestal with a Bible under his paw. The writer Jan Morris is quoted as saying that “a beast from the pagan east [was] converted from a savage basilisk to a saint’s companion.”

The engineer was allowed to have gambling tables between the two columns, a prime business spot at the time. Public executions were also held between the two columns giving rise to the superstition that it is bad luck to walk between the two columns.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
The water is an indescribable shade of green, difficult to imitate on canvas. During Carnevale di Venezia, which ends with the Christian celebration of Lent, the canals and the lagoon become festooned with extravagantly decorated gondolas and pedestrians dress in the most elaborate costumes and masks of an era gone by, traveling back in time.

Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
To celebrate Serenissima Repubblica’s victory in 1162 against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Venetians gathered and danced in San Marco’s Square. This annual festival became official during the Renaissance.  In 1797 Carnevale was outlawed and the wearing of masks was forbidden. It was reintroduced in the 19th century at private parties as an occasion to party and to display the mask wearer’s creativity. The Italian government brought masks back in 1979 to boost the tourist industry. A prize is awarded each year for the most beautiful mask, some of which cost in the thousands of euros and take up to a year to complete. The mascherari were so important in society that they had their own guild.

The different mask designs include:

-          bauta, covering the entire face and with a long nose;

-          Colombina, covering only half of the upper face, heavily decorated with crystals, feathers, gold and silver; Colombina was the maid;

-          medico delle peste, the most bizarre looking of the mask, often white, originally used as a way to protect the wearer  from the plague;

-          servetta muta (moretta), the mute servant, a black velvet strapless mask worn by patrician women; the mask was held in place by a button bitten by the wearer;

-          volto (face) or larva (ghost) is a modern stark white interpretation, gilded and decorated, covering the entire face, and worn with a tricorn and a cloak;

-          Pantalone, a half-mask dating back from the commedia dell’arte era, represents the sad and intelligent old man with a large nose like a crow’s beak and with slanted eyes;

-          Arlecchino, is a black half-mask made of wood or leather with an ape-like nose and a bump on the forehead which represents the devil’s horn; this harlequin, was a peasant, servant, or slave to Pantalone;

-          Zanni, a half-mask in leather, with low forehead, bulging eyebrows, and a long and curved nose at the end, signifying the wearer low life state in life and stupidity.

Winged lion on Doge's Palace
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Areas in Venice are divided into sestieri (areas). The one easiest to get lost in is Mercerie, with its maze-like alleys, a most fascinating shopping quarter that used to have an unusual McDonald’s in a narrow and dark alley. One of the most prestigious addresses in Venice is Campo Santo Stefano. The Piazzetta dei Leoncini is a tiny square next to the Basilica and is named after the marble lions used by generations of children as riding horses.

Napoleon gave the notion of nepotism a new meaning when his nephew, who wanted to have a beautiful view from his palace in the Procuratie Nuovo (the new procurators’ offices) in San Marco’s Square, supposedly created the Giardini Ex Reali (Royal Gardens) along the waterfront.

Passageway between tiny "calle"
Photo: Ileana Johnson 2016
Every alley in Venice is called calle, marked by a yellow sign with pointing arrows in various directions, another way to get lost or run around in circles. However, if you ask me, it is a way to discover new places that otherwise I might have missed. If you ask my husband, a precise reader of maps, it is irritating.  

Window on a "calle"
Photo: Ileana Johnson
On Calle Vallaresso, there is the famous watering hole sought by celebrities and wannabes alike, Harry’s Bar. It mixes the Bellini, a drink made with crushed pureed peach and sparkling prosecco. Founded by Giuseppe Cipriani in 1931 and still run by the family, Harry’s Bar also invented carpaccio, a dish made of finely sliced raw beef fillet spritzed with oil and lemon, and named after the famous 15th century painter Carpaccio whose favorite color was a steak-like red.

The Frezzeria is the shopping area where cheaper masks and glass pretending to be of Murano provenance are sold. After all, most tourists cannot tell the difference.  At the end of Frezzeria is Campo San Moise, the most exclusive but less attractive shopping area. The Church of San Moise with its baroque façade dominates the square. On Calle delle Veste is the famous opera house La Fenice which mysteriously burned to the ground in 1996. It was rebuilt and reopened in 2004 with La Traviata. During construction, high Venetian society had to suffer the indignity of going to the Tronchetto (ferry) industrial zone where the opera company was located for the duration. On one of my trips, cast members were giving out flyers with the times and dates of the next performance. I went inside La Fenice and was given a very brief peek by a staff member who happened to be in the foyer.








  1. One of my favorite episodes yet. Thank you for taking me on the journey.