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Basilica di San Marco

Basilica di San Marco (5)

Overlooking the Piazza San Marco with a mixture of religious serenity and monumental magnificence, this basilica has been a symbol of Venice since the 11th century, when the old church that stood here was knocked down and which houses the remains of Saint Mark, patron saint of the city, to build a temple that gave a real idea of the full power of the Serenissima Republic.

A heartfelt homage to Byzantine art, this solid basilica, consecrated in 1094, was built in the image of and similar to two basilicas in the city of Constantinople: Saint Sofia and the Apostle Saints. It possesses a Greek cross ground plan and five large cupolas. Its imposing appearance, of an unequalled beauty throughout the city, looks clearly to this Orient that provided so much wealth for the Venetians.

The slow process of ornamentation, which began with its construction and was completed in the 15th century, gives it a certain eclecticism, which unites, for example, the Gothic elements on the tops of the arcades with the use of mosaic, with a clear Byzantine influence. 

Of note on the outside are the mosaics that represent the transfer of the body of Saint Mark from Alexandria, the relief work of the central portico and the four horses that feature above it, which are replicas of the bronze originals that can be found inside. These figures were brought over as booty from Constantinople.

The horses on the outside are found on a terrace from which you can get a marvellous view of the square. This is where the doges took their place for the official ceremonies held in the Piazza San Marco.

Another part that attracts one’s attention on the exterior part of the basilica is in a corner of the south façade. Here you will see a sculptural group on porphyry that dates from the 4th century and which is often given the name of The Tetrachs. Despite the fact that at first it was thought they had been sculpted in Egypt, today it is known that they come from Constantinople. 

The inside of the church is a lavish display of art dominated by a beautiful golden light. Among the 4,000 square metres of mosaics covering the walls, floors and interiors of the cupolas, of special interest is the Pantocrator found in the apse and the apostles represented on the cupola of Pentecosts, the figures of which are in a static and serene Byzantine style.

Special mention should be made of the skill of the craftsmen who were entrusted to decorate the cupola of the Ascension, situated in the intersection between the nave and the transept. In the central part there is a majestic figure of Jesus Christ dressed in a golden tunic that stands out over a starry sky. Around it there are four angels. Further down we can see the Virgin flanked by angels and the twelve apostles. 

The decoration of the floor, made from tesseras of polychrome marble, spreads, despite the unevenness of the the paving, like a subtle rug decorated with motifs representing geometric shapes and figures of animals. 

There are also wonderful mosaics that represent scenes from the Old Testament on the lanterns of the porch, such as those dedicated to the Genesis.

Among such displays of richness, it is difficult to focus on any one thing in particular. In fact, many travellers prefer, if they have enough days at hand, to measure out their visit to the Basilica di San Marco, and divide it up into several trips.

Even though the splendour of the temple is so amazing, you will not be able to avoid setting your eyes on the Pala d’Oro, an impressive altarpiece in the main altar. It is made up of 250 paintings on gold panels decorated with more then 3,000 precious stones. This piece forms part of the considerable treasure that the basilica possesses, also made up of numerous pieces of gold and silver, such as chalices and reliquaries.

The opulence of the temple is at the level of the functions it had in the religious and political life of the Republic, since as well as being an important place of worship, which replaced San Pietro in 1807 as the city cathedral, events took place here such as the reception of foreign dignitaries or the official presentation of the Doge after having been chosen.

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