Founded in AD 832, the Basilica of Saint Mark is an extraordinary building, one of the most significant churches in all of Christendom. Mesmerizingly beautiful, it swells and ripples with columns and carvings, domes, mosaics, and marbles. The church has a character all of its own, not easily confined to an architectural category. It’s a marvel of styles and artistic traditions stretching across geographic and cultural boundaries from East to West and spanning over a millennium of slow evolution.
The church qualifies as a basilica by holding a relic, namely the body of Saint Mark the Evangelist. The story goes that on his way to Rome from Aquileia, Saint Mark anchored near the Rialto and encountered a vision of an angel who declared: ‘Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here will be your resting place’. In 828, to make this portent reality, two Venetian merchants and two monks travelled to Alexandria – where Mark had supposedly been martyred in the 1st century – and stole his body, replacing it with the body of Saint Claudia. They hid Saint Mark’s remains in a basket of pork, so as to suppress the body’s Holy Odour and avoid suspicion from the Muslim officials. This famous foundation story, known as the translation (or crossing), is depicted in the 13th-century mosaic above the Doorway of Sant’Alipio (the furthest to the left of the five main doorways); traditionally, this audacious bit of bodysnatching is considered more as a furta sacra (or pious theft). Thus Saint Mark became the patron saint of the city, displacing the warrior-saint Theodore, who is often mistaken for Saint George in his typical depiction as a man slaying a dragon. The change also symbolised Venice’s gradual emancipation from Byzantine rule.
Yet the basilica demonstrates Venice’s enduring debts to Byzantine culture, from the floorplan to the mosaics and decorations. Taking inspiration from the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, especially the 6th-century version built by Justinian I, its layout follows the shape of a Greek Cross (where all four arms are of equal length), rather than the standard Western Christian church, which traditionally forms a Latin Cross (akin to a lower case ‘t’).
The original 9th-century church was built entirely of brick, exposed to the elements and accentuated with the terracotta dog-tooth mouldings that decorate Byzantine arches; traces remain at the lunette-shaped south wall. This changed in the 13th century as masons began work on shimmering, Byzantine-inspired mosaics which would ultimately cover 8,000 square metres. With the addition of ancient artefacts plundered from Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, its original features were almost entirely hidden. Geoffrey di Villehardouin, a Frankish knight, convinced the Great Council to transport his army to the Holy Land in 1201. When he couldn’t pay, the crusading army found itself stranded in Venice until a message came from Constantinople. Venice, eyeing an opportunity, diverted the Crusade in order to restore the rightful emperor to the Byzantine throne and receive its payment. Instead, the new emperor also could not provide the funds and, in the ensuing unrest, was strangled to death. The crusaders sacked the city, and the Venetian fleet returned fully loaded with marbles and treasures that reappeared across Venice.
Most notable are the Horses of Saint Mark, crafted from copper, on the basilica’s loggia; they were most likely made in the 2nd century and were taken from the Hippodrome in Constantinople. The four horses are the only chariot’s team to survive from antiquity (the originals can be seen in the Museo di San Marco within the basilica). On the building’s south façade are the Tetrarchs, a cluster of rich porphyry sculptures representing Diocletian and his three co-rulers, and symbolising the Roman Empire’s political harmony. They originally decorated the Philadelpheion in Constantinople and were probably made by Egyptians in the 4th century.
It’s not easy to categorise St Mark’s Basilica. Despite ancient status as the city’s unofficial cathedral, it was officially designated the doge’s private chapel; only in the 19th century was it formally declared a cathedral. Aesthetically, the columns in the interior represent both the solid Byzantine and the slender Gothic. The series of curved and rectangular niches that feature along the lower walls hark back to Roman tomb construction and the geometric patterns that decorate the floor revive Roman traditions on a scale rarely seen in medieval architecture. The famous five onion-shaped, lantern domes overtly allude to Islamic visual design. So, visitors from both East and West would have found St Mark’s unfamiliar and perplexing as it straddled artistic worlds: built by Italian craftsmen from Venice, Lombardy, and Tuscany; designed in the Greek manner with Gothic additions; and inflected by the architectural tones of the Middle East. Venice stands most of all for internationalism and the meeting of cultures; perhaps the best we can do for categorisation or definition is to say that the building is truly Venetian.