Venice for centuries was Europe's principal gateway between the Orient and the West, so it should come as no surprise that the architectural style for the sumptuously Byzantine Basilica di San Marco, replete with five mosquelike bulbed domes, was borrowed from Constantinople. Legend has it that in 828, two enterprising Venetian merchants smuggled the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist from Egypt by packing them in pickled pork to bypass the scrutiny of Muslim guards. Thus, St. Mark replaced the Greek St. Theodore as Venice's patron saint, and a small chapel was built on this spot in his honor. Through the centuries (much of what you see was constructed in the 11th c.), wealthy Venetian merchants and politicians alike vied with one another in donating gifts to expand and embellish this church, the saint's final resting place and, with the adjacent Palazzo Ducale, a symbol of Venetian wealth and power. Exotic and mysterious, it is unlike any other Roman Catholic church.
And so it is that the Basilica di San Marco earned its name as the Chiesa d'Oro (Golden Church), with a cavernous interior exquisitely gilded with Byzantine mosaics added over some 7 centuries and covering every inch of both ceiling and pavement. For a closer look at many of the most remarkable ceiling mosaics and a better view of the Oriental carpetlike patterns of the pavement mosaics, pay the admission to go upstairs to the Galleria (the entrance to this and the Museo Marciano is in the atrium at the principal entrance); this was originally the women's gallery or matroneum. It is also the only way to access the outside Loggia dei Cavalli . More important, here you can mingle with the celebrated Triumphal Quadriga of four gilded bronze horses (dating from the 2nd or 3rd c. A.D.), brought to Venice from Constantinople (although probably cast in Imperial Rome) in 1204 together with the Lion of St. Mark (the patron saint's and the former republic's mascot) and other booty from the Crusades; they were symbols of the unrivaled Serene Republic and are the only quadriga to have survived from the classical era. The restored originals have been moved inside to the small museum.
A visit to the outdoor Loggia dei Cavalli is an unexpected highlight, providing an excellent view of the piazza and what Napoleon called "the most beautiful salon in the world" upon his arrival in Venice in 1797 (he would later cart the quadriga off to Paris, but they were returned after the fall of the French Empire). The 500-year-old Torre dell'Orologio (Clock Tower) stands to your right; to your left is the Campanile (Bell Tower), and beyond, the glistening waters of the open lagoon and Palladio's Chiesa di San Giorgio on its own island. It is a photographer's dream.
The church's greatest treasure is the magnificent altarpiece known as the Pala d'Oro (Golden Altarpiece), a Gothic masterpiece encrusted with close to 2,000 precious gems and 255 enameled panels. It was created as early as the 10th century and embellished by master Venetian and Byzantine artisans between the 12th and 14th centuries. It is located behind the main altar, whose green marble canopy on alabaster columns covers the tomb of St. Mark. Also worth a visit is the Tesoro (Treasury), with a collection of the Crusaders' plunder from Constantinople and other icons and relics amassed by the church over the years. Much of the Venetian booty has been incorporated into the interior and exterior of the basilica in the form of marble, columns, capitals, and statuary. Second to the Pala d'Oro in importance is the 10th-century Madonna di Nicopeia, a bejeweled icon taken from Constantinople and exhibited in its own chapel to the left of the main altar. She is held as one of present-day Venice's most protective patrons.
Free Tours -- In July and August (with much less certainty the rest of the year), church-affiliated volunteers give free tours Monday to Saturday, leaving four or five times daily (not all tours are in English), beginning at 10:30am; groups gather in the atrium, where you'll find posters with schedules.
Know Before You Go . . . -- The guards at the cathedral's entrance are serious about forbidding entry to anyone in inappropriate attire -- shorts, sleeveless shirts (and shirts too short to hide your bellybutton), and skirts above the knee. Although the basilica is open Sunday morning for anyone wishing to attend Mass, you cannot enter merely to gawk as a tourist.
- © Frommer's 2013
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Ask Venice Locals about Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark's Basilica)
- Very Highly Recommended 2010
- tel: 041-522-5697
- San Marco, Piazza San Marco
- Basilica, Tesoro, and Pala d'Oro: summer Mon-Sat 9:45am-5pm; Sun 2-5pm (in winter usually closes an hour earlier). Museo Marciano: summer daily 9:45am-5pm (in winter usually closes an hour earlier)
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