The most precious and splendid religious monument in Venice, admired by art experts and tourist crowds from all over the world. Famous for its originality, history, beauty and artistic wealth. St. Mark’s Basilica is a masterpiece of late Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic architecture in perfect harmony.
Its interior is a veritable museum, containing the most splendid artistic monuments of Byzantine art, brought back from victorious expeditions to the East or created by talented Venetian masters. The basilica, 76 metres long, with a 52-metre façade, a 62-metre transept and a central dome measuring 43 metres on the outside and 28 metres on the inside, is built on the plan of a Greek cross, whose intersection and equal arms are covered by five domes that give it an oriental character. The architecture of the temple and the interior make St Mark’s Basilica a unique work of art in Latin Europe and at the same time such a perfect enclave of Byzantine architecture in Italy. The forms of the building were modelled on the Church of the Twelve Apostles, built in the 6th century in Constantinople by the Emperor Justinian. The architect is unknown, but it is assumed that he was Greek. The work was entrusted to Venetian and Lombard masters. The body of the basilica was made of brick, the wall covering of marble.
In 828, two merchants, Rustico of Torcello and Buono of Malamocco, arrived in the port of Venice with the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, which they had stolen from Alexandria in Egypt to save them from desecration by the Muslims. To protect the relics of the saint, who was chosen as the patron saint of the city, the doge G. Partecipazio had a church dedicated to him built without delay. The modest church was completed in 832. In 976 the church was destroyed by fire during a popular uprising against the doge P. Candiano IV. Two years later it was rebuilt by the doge P. Orseola. As the commercial and naval power of the Republic of Venice grew, the need arose to build a magnificent and rich temple worthy of the city and its patron. This decision was taken by Doge D. Contarini, who in 1063 began the construction of a monumental basilica in the Byzantine style, whose shape and walls have survived to the present day. The church was completed and consecrated in 1094.
Generations of Venetian, Lombard and Tuscan masters of various trades worked to embellish the basilica. The church was decorated with magnificent mosaics, marble, sculptures, columns, gold and silver masterpieces, and the treasury was enriched with precious objects of worship. The rich booty brought by the Venetians after their victorious expeditions to Tyre and Constantinople, including the famous Greek horses that decorated the façade in 1250, as well as the Byzantine, early Christian and ancient sculptures embedded in the walls of the church, such as the group of tetrarchs in porphyry from the 4th century, played an important role in the beautification of the church.
An important decorative element of the façade and interior of the basilica are the columns and pillars, of which there are about 500, made of different types of stone imported from Dalmatia and Greece, such as porphyry, granite, white and black Greek marble, green marble, alabaster and others. There are different styles and forms of capitals: from Romanesque and Byzantine to Gothic and Renaissance. The same applies to the arcades, which are decorated with sculptures by Tuscan artists. All the decoration of the basilica, despite the differences in style, remains in perfect harmony with each other and reflects the Venetian taste for splendour and colour.
However, the most famous mosaics in St Mark’s Basilica are those with a golden background, which cover the façade, the atrium, the domes and the interior of the church, earning it the name “Golden Basilica”. The total area of the mosaics is 4,200 square metres. The oldest ones date from the 11th century. Most of them were made in the 12th and 13th centuries: Bellini, Titian, Pordenon, Lotto. During the period of the Republic, the Basilica was the official state church and also served as a palace chapel under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Doge. Its clergy remained autonomous from the patriarch and had their own administrative body to oversee the expansion and maintenance of the basilica. The doge visited the temple 35 times a year, taking part in the most important religious ceremonies and those related to the political life of Venice.
St Mark’s Basilica was the centre of political, social and religious life and was the scene of some of the most glorious and sad events in the history of the Republic. On its steps, in 1177, the famous reconciliation between Pope Alexander 111 and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa took place in the presence of Doge S. Ziani as mediator. The solemn proclamation and the ceremony of granting the title to the newly elected doge took place here. It was here that the crusaders from France and Flanders took their vows before setting off on their fourth expedition in 1201, under the reign of Doge K. Dandol. In the basilica, the ship’s commanders and the famous condottieres received a blessing before setting out on their expedition. The people gathered here for prayers of supplication during the plague and in times of war. The basilica was visited by the Polish and French king Henry III Valois, who came to visit Venice in 1574. In 1688, the famous chief F. Morosini received a sword and a blessing from the Pope after the victorious conquest of the Morea and other islands of the Greek archipelago.
The central arch is crowned by a statue of Saint Mark among ascending angels. Below, on a blue background covered with stars, the golden lion of Saint Mark. On the archivolt of the central arch are splendid reliefs and sculptures by P. di Nicolo Lamberti, representing the stories of Genesis, the prophets, the evangelists and the Fathers of the Church. The north side façade repeats the architectural and decorative motifs of the main façade.
The atrium surrounds the basilica on the front and left sides. On the right, it has been closed and transformed into the baptistery and the chapel of Zena. The artistic richness of its interior makes it an atrium worthy of the Golden Basilica. The vaults are covered with precious mosaics created by Venetian masters with great artistic sense and technical perfection. Romanesque mosaics from the 12th and 13th centuries predominate, representing a unique cycle of biblical stories, from the creation of the world to the exodus from Egypt. The walls are lined with coloured marble and decorated with columns with rich capitals. The original marble mosaic floor, with its geometric patterns, dates from the 11th and 12th centuries. The atrium is in the form of a gallery, consisting of 7 small naves, vaulted by domes and separated by wide arcades.
How to get to St Mark’s Basilica
30-minute visit, admission ticket: 4 euros
P.za San Marco, 328, 30100 Venezia VE, Italy