Basilica di San Marco

Basilica in Venice

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The Basilica di San Marco or Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark, commonly known as St Mark’s Basilica, is the cathedral church of the Catholic Patriarchate of Venice; it became the episcopal seat of the Patriarch of Venice in 1807, replacing the earlier cathedral of San Pietro di Castello. It is dedicated to and holds the relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the patron saint of the city.

The church is located on the eastern end of Saint Mark’s Square, the former political and religious centre of the Republic of Venice, and is attached to the Doge’s Palace. Prior to the fall of the republic in 1797, it was the chapel of the Doge and was subject to his jurisdiction, with the concurrence of the procurators of Saint Mark de supra for administrative and financial affairs.

The present structure is the third church, begun probably in 1063 to express Venice’s growing civic consciousness and pride. Like the two earlier churches, its model was the sixth-century Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, although accommodations were made to adapt the design to the limitations of the physical site and to meet the specific needs of Venetian state ceremonies. Middle-Byzantine, Romanesque, and Islamic influences are also evident, and Gothic elements were later incorporated. To convey the republic’s wealth and power, the original brick façades and interior walls were embellished over time with precious stones and rare marbles, primarily in the thirteenth century. Many of the columns, reliefs, and sculptures were spoils stripped from the churches, palaces, and public monuments of Constantinople as a result of the Venetian participation in the Fourth Crusade. Among the plundered artefacts brought back to Venice were the four ancient bronze horses that were placed prominently over the entry.

The interior of the domes, the vaults, and the upper walls were slowly covered with gold-ground mosaics depicting saints, prophets, and biblical scenes. Many of these mosaics were later retouched or remade as artistic tastes changed and damaged mosaics had to be replaced, such that the mosaics represent eight hundred years of artistic styles. Some of them derive from traditional Byzantine representations and are masterworks of Medieval art; others are based on preparatory drawings made by prominent Renaissance artists from Venice and Florence, including Paolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, Paolo Uccello, and Andrea del Castagno.

What to see on the Basilica Facade

  • Above the main entrance of St. Mark’s Basilica, there’s a lunette with mosaics showing the Old Testament scenes.
  • On the left hand-side from the entrance, there are the only original mosaics with all the others being 17th and 18th Century restorations, based on the same pictures -they show the arrival of Saint Mark’s body to the Basilica. This picture is considered one of the earliest presentations of the St. Mark’s Basilica.
  • On the right hand-side from the main entrance, the mosaics show the story of Saint Mark being stolen from Alexandria.
  • Above this you will see the balcony of the Loggia dei Cavalli. It got its name from the bronze sculptures of four horses, The Quadriga, that used to stand there. They were also brought as war booty from Constantinople during the 1204 crusade. The horses you see out there today are replicas. The originals can be seen inside the Museum of Saint Mark’s which can be entered through the church.
  • There are five huge domes on top, each with a little mini dome on top. The number five symbolized Christ and his 4 Evangelists.
  • On the right hand-side façade of the St. Mark’s Basilica, by the Doge’s Palace, is a sculpture of the Four Tetrarchs. The Tetrarchs are little porphyry sculptures showing what are believed to be the Emperors Diocletian, Maximilian, Galerius and Constantius.

What to see inside the Basilica

The mysterious magic of the shining gold mosaics which cover all the inside walls was not only intended to be a symbol of divinity, but also to provide the building with its paint and flair of an early Christian sacred place. While the main and secondary facades were decorated with sculptures, the interior presents a multicoloured marble floor. Over an area of 4000 square meters, golden glimmering mosaics show biblical scenes, episodes from city life and the St. Mark’s legend.

There are three mini Museums inside

  • Treasury (Tesoro): If you’d like to see glass, metal work, silverware, icons, chalices, candleholders and crucifixes all decked out in enamel, semi-precious and precious stones – you’ll be happy you payed for the admission! Also, if you like relics, don’t miss the relics room which is said to hold relics from Jesus’ Passion!
  • Golden Altarpiece /Screen (Pala D’Oro)  €5: Pala D’Oro is a Byzantine piece of work acquired as… no, this time you’re not right… not war booty! This piece was actually commissioned by one of the Doges. Inside this altarpiece is also where the remains of Saint Mark rest, and the whole piece is actually a glorification of the Evangelist. The Golden altarpiece is a magnificent golden wall made out of enamels with religious scenes set in gold and studded with rubies, emeralds, pearls, sapphires, amethysts and topazes. If you can appreciate this amazing piece of handiwork, you’ll be happy to have visited this section of the cathedral
  • San Marco Museum &  Loggia dei Cavalli (Museo San Marco) €5: If you’d like to visit this mini-museum remember that its entrance is actually before you enter the church itself, in the atrium. The staircase will be on your right hand-side just by the main entrance to St. Mark’s Basilica. Now, if for nothing else, this part of the church is so worth visiting for its access to the Loggia dei Cavalli! Yes, that’s the part of the church outside where you can take some great shots of St Mark’s square. On the inside, you’ll also see those original Quadriga horses!

The Basilica di San Marco appears in our Complete Guide to Visiting Venice!

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Visiting Basilica di San Marco


9.30am-5pm Mon-Sat, 2-5pm Sun summer, to 4.30pm Sun winter

Address: San Marco, 328, 30124 Venezia VE, Italy
Duration: 20 minutes

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