Venice Stories and Tips

Basilica di San Marco: Exotic Cathedral par excellence

Frescoes showing the removal of St Mark Photo, Venice, Italy

There is a whiff of the east about the Basilica di San Marco - Venices' premier church. It must be those bulbous domes reminding you of ancient Byzantium or the iconic gilt interior which reeks of the age of Constantine and Theodorius.

Whatever, you think of San Marco - and it provokes some pretty extreme reactions - it is without doubt one of the greatest cathedrals in the world. And your first sight of it, particularly if you enter the Piazza under the Musei Correr, is unforgettable. The mish-mash of styles is stunningly striking - gothic, byzantine and Romanesque and the great domes overlooking it all give it the appearance of an Ottoman mosque. It became my favourite sight in Venice (despite the crowds) and one I returned to on my last day to enjoy all over again. I rather like Mark Twain's description of it - "a vast meditative warty bug out for a walk..."

The version of St Marks you see before you is nearly a thousand years old. While the rest of Europe was struggling out of the dark ages and batting off the Vikings, the Venetians, hidden away in their secret lagoon, were creating this wonder. Like all good Christian churches it had to have a relic and this one had the body of St Mark poached from Alexandria in 828AD. Venice enjoyed collecting loot and those rearing horse statues above the doors are 'the Quadriga' - stolen from the Emperor's box in the Hippodrome in 1202. But it is the sheer profusion of styles which is so striking about San Marco - frescoes, gothic tracing, statues, peaks, balconies, arches, and marble columns. Put lots of film in your camera as you will not be able to take your eyes off it.

You can examine all the fine detail as you queue for entrance. Get there as early as possible, the Basilica opens at 9.30am (free entrance) and there will already be a queue there. As the day wears on the tourists from the cruiseships arrive and the queues stretch the whole way down the Piazzetta. But as you move slowly along you can have a good look at the mosaics above the doors. The best of the lot is the 14th century "Removal of the body of St Mark" which shows the body of St Mark being sneaked past muslim guards in pork barrels. Once through the door you are in the narthex which is the great dark marble entranceway with stairs leading up unto the balcony. The floor is uneven inside the church but the interior is breathtaking. A soaring dark nave overlooked by golden frescoe covered domes, marble columns and gilt ornamentation (see photo).

I was immediately struck how Byzantine it seemed - this is a church of the Old World, where Christianity was orthodox, still in its infancy and centred on Constantinople. Shadows hid the corners and shifting light from the domes didn't quite light the gold ornamentation. As you walk the dark marble echoes underneath you and golden mosaics of the saints stare back at you from numerous vantage points. Highlights include the Rood screen with its brown statues, the side chapels and the sarcophagus of St Mark where the saint was buried.

But the best advice I can give you for visiting the Basilica are the front balconies. As you enter the narthex a set of stone stairs leads up to your right. Paying 3,000 lira enables you to stand on a balcony behind the Quadriga and gaze out over the Piazza and the Molo. When I was there it was so early I had the balcony to myself and could examiner the Quadriga in detail. These are copies, the real ones are inside to prevent weather damage. Take a look, much bigger then I thought they would be and scratched by the elements - they are the crowning glory of the Basilica San Marco.

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