Piazza & Basilica di San Marco
The Basilica di San Marco, and the piazza that opens out in front of it, are at the very heart of Venice. Almost as impressive as the buildings themselves are the crowds of people, tourists and Venetians, that swarm across the open square. Souvenir-sellers and their stalls, string-quartets at the various cafes and pigeons all vie for your attention as you negotiate your way across the piazza from one ornate arcade to another.
These grand and regimented frontages were originally built in the 16th Century and were the centre of social life by the time Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797 and handed La Serenissima Repubblica to the Austrians. Napoleon is supposed to have described the piazza as ‘the drawing room of Europe’ which seems to fit well the grand and stately nature of the arcades. Under Austrian rule, the cafes on different sides were frequented by Austrians and Venetians respectively.
Another of the most striking features of the Piazza San Marco is normally the long line of tourists queuing to get inside the Basilica which winds back and forth in front of the facade with its eclectic collection of architectural and artistic styles, topped off with the famed horses of St Mark, looted from Constantinople in the 13th Century. When, as often happens, the Piazza – one of the lowest points of the Venetian islands – floods, the queue must snake its way around precariously on top of raised sections of boardwalk which otherwise stays stacked up in the front porch.In light of this, it is particularly pleasing that we arrange a private evening visit for our guests – not only do we see the basilica and its glorious golden mosaics lit up, but we don’t have to queue or walk around inside with hundreds of other visitors.
Basilica di San Marco, detail
The Basilica, seat of one of only five patriarchs in the Roman Catholic Church, is in many ways an absurd stylistic mish-mash. Originally built in the 9th Century but undergoing several major overhauls in the first few centuries of its existence, it has accumulated a huge array of decoration and ornamentation over the years: the Venetians not only amassed vast wealth through their virtual monopoly on maritime trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, but were also great magpies, bringing back to Venice art and artefacts from wherever they visited. That’s not to say that they were always given willingly; even the relics of St Mark the Evangelist, which the Basilica was built to house, were originally stolen by Venetian merchants from Alexandria.
Much of the decoration came from the sack of Constantinople in 1204, carried out by the armies of the Fourth Crusade but instigated by the Venetian doge, Enrico Dandolo, to whom the crusaders were heavily in debt.
Entering by a side door, we are impressed enough by the entrance porch; golden mosaics plaster the walls and ceilings even here and give off a warm glow in the dim light. After turning two corners though, we enter into the Basilica itself and immediately our eyes are drawn upwards. The shimmering gold decoration from which the Basilica derives its Venetian nick-name, the chiesa d’oro, extends in every direction. Biblical scenes and revered saints cover every available space, all executed in different styles as they were progressively repaired, restored or replaced over the centuries, though the scenes depicted in each space always remained the same.Our guides usher us to seats and we sit in awesome silence as slowly the golden mosaics are illuminated section by section.
Basilica di San Marco, detail
Cricked-necks abound as we then follow our guide around looking up at the solemn saints who stare back down on us from every arch and architrave. We even go up into the chancel, past intricately carved stone columns, to see the glittering altar-piece. Walking up to it we pass through the iconostasis, from which the twelve apostles, along with the Virgin and St George, survey the entire church, and the choir seats, where there are still programmes lying around from a rehearsal for the concert that will be given in honour of the Pope’s visit in a little over a week.
Coming back down from the chancel, and nursing our strained necks, we notice that even the floors are beautifully decorated in swirling geometric patterns made from coloured marble – they confuse the eye even more as the floor level now gently undulates due to the unstable nature of the island on which it was built.
Sadly we head for the exit, stretching our eyes up for one last glimpse of the millions of tiny gold tiles. The walk back through the Piazza and along the San Zaccharia waterfront is a pleasant end to the evening and the stunning visit.