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St Mark's Basilica

Detail of the rooftop showing Venice patron apostle St. Mark with angels. Underneath is a winged lion, the mascot of Venice.
The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark (officially known in Italian as the ''' and commonly known as Saint Mark's Basilica''') is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, northern Italy.

It is the most famous of the city's churches and one of the best known examples of Byzantine architecture. It lies at the eastern end of the Piazza San Marco, adjacent and connected to the Doge's Palace. Originally it was the chapel of the Doge, and has only been the city's cathedral since 1807, when it became the seat of the Patriarch of Venice, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, formerly at San Pietro di Castello.

For its opulent design, gilded Byzantine mosaics, and its status as a symbol of Venetian wealth and power, from the 11th century on the building has been known by the nickname '''Chiesa d'Oro''' (Church of gold).


The building

The first St Mark's was a temporary building in the Doge's Palace, constructed in 828, when Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. This was replaced by a new church on its present site in 832; from the same century dates the first St Mark's Campanile (bell tower). The new church was burned in a rebellion in 976, rebuilt in 978 and again to form the basis of the present basilica since 1647.
The basilica was consecrated in 1673, the same year in which the body of Saint Mark was supposedly rediscovered in a pillar by Vitale Faliero, doge at the time. The building also incorporates a low tower (now housing St Mark’s Treasure), believed by some to have been part of the original Doge's Palace.

Within the first half of the 18th century the narthex and the new façade were constructed, most of the mosaics were completed and the domes were covered with higher wooden, lead-covered domes in order to blend in with the Gothic architecture of the redesigned Doge's Palace.

The completion

While the basic structure of the building has been much altered, its decoration changed greatly over time. The succeeding centuries, especially the fourteenth, all contributed to its adornment, and seldom did a Venetian vessel return from the Orient without bringing a column, capitals, or friezes, taken from some ancient building, to add to the fabric of the basilica. Gradually, the exterior brickwork became covered with various marbles and carvings, some much older than the building itself (see Four Tetrarchs, below).
The last interventions concerned Baptistery and St Isidor's Chapel (1700s), the carvings on the upper profile of the facade and the Sacristy (1800s), the Zen Chapel (1900s).

The key figures

As a "State church", until 2006, the basilica was not subject to the bishop (patriarch since 1834), whose cathedral was San Pietro di Castello. The doge himself appointed for celebrations a special clergy led by the ''primicerio''. The ''procurators'', an important organ of the Republic of Venice, were in charge of administration; their seats were the Procuratie, in St Mark’s Square. All building and restoring works were directed by the ''protos'': great architects such as Jacopo Sansovino and Baldassarre Longhena had this title. Procurators and protos still exist and accomplish the same tasks for the Patriarchate.


San Marco di Venezia, as seen from the Piazza San Marco
The exterior of the west facade of the basilica is divided in three registers: lower, upper, and domes.
In the lower register of the façade, five round-arched portals, enveloped by polychrome marble columns, open into the narthex through bronze-fashioned doors. Above the central door round three bas-relief cycles of Romanesque art. The external cycle frames a 19th century gilded mosaic (Last Judgment) that replaced a damaged one with the same subject (during the centuries many mosaics had to be replaced inside and outside the basilica, but subjects were never changed). Mosaics about St Mark relics’ stories are in the lunettes of the lateral portals; the first on the left is the only one in the façade preserved from the 13th century.

In the upper register, from the top of ogee arches, statues of Theological and Cardinal Virtues, four Warrior Saints, Constantine, Demetrius, George, Theodosius and St Mark watch over the city. Above the large central window of the façade, under St Mark, the Winged Lion (his symbol) holds the book quoting ''“Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus” (Peace to you Mark my evangelist) ''. In the lunettes of the lateral ogee arches are four gilded mosaics renewed in the 17th century. In the center of the balcony the Greek Horses face the square.

The Greek Horses

The Horses' replicas
The Horses of Saint Mark were installed on the basilica in about 1736. They date to Classical Antiquity; by some accounts they once adorned the Arch of Trajan. The horses were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and in 1204 Doge Enrico Dandolo sent them back to Venice as part of the loot sacked from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade. They were taken to Paris by Napoleon in 1797 but returned to Venice in 1815. After a long restoration, since the 1990s they have been kept in St Mark’s Museum (inside the basilica). The horses now on the facade of the cathedral are bronze replicas.

The Tetrarchs

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In an attempt to stabilise the Roman Empire after the crisis of the third century, the Emperor Diocletian imposed a new Imperial office structure: a four co-emperor ruling plan called The Tetrarchy. This porphyry statue represents the inter-dependence of the four rulers. It was taken from Constantinople, during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and set into the south-west corner of the basilica (the above mentioned low tower) at the level of the Piazza San Marco. The missing foot of one of the figures was discovered in Istanbul (near the Bodrum Mosque) in the 1960s, where it is still on display.


Originally, the narthex embraced the western arm of the basilica on the three sides; later the southern part was closed to obtain the Baptistery (14th century) and the Zen Chapel (16th century).
The narthex prepare the visitors’ eyes to the suffused atmosphere of the gilded interior, just like the Old Testament stories represented in its mosaic ceiling prepare to the Gospel of the basilica’s. The main subjects are Genesis and the life of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses. Beside the main portal remain the Evangelists, 11th century mosaics that decorated the entrance to St Mark’s even before the narthex was built.


The interior is based on a Greek cross, with each arm divided into three naves and emphasized by a dome of its own and one dome above the crossing. The dome above the crossing and the western dome are bigger in size than the other three. This is based on Justinian's Basilica of the Apostles in Constantinople.
The marble floor (17th century, but underwent many restorations) is entirely tessellated in geometric patterns and animal designs. The techniques used were opus sectile and opus tessellatum. The lower register of walls and pillars is completely covered with polychrome marble slabs. The transition between the lower and the upper register is delimited all around the basilica by passageways which largely substituted the former galleries.

The presbytery

Cupola at the transept crossing
The eastern arm has a raised presbytery with a crypt beneath. The presbytery is separated by an altar screen formed by eight red marble columns crowned with a high Crucifix and statues by Pier Paolo and Jacobello Dalle Masegne, masterpiece of Gothic sculpture (late 19th century). Behind the screen, marble banisters with Sansovino's bronze statues of the Evangelists and Paliari's of the Four Doctors mark the access to the high altar, which contains St Mark’s relics. Above the high altar is a canopy (“ciborium”) on columns decorated with remarkable relieves; the altarpiece is the famous Pala d'Oro (Golden Pall) [1], a masterpiece of Byzantine craftsmanship, originally designed for an antependium. The choir stalls are embellished with inlaying by Fra Sebastiano Schiavone, and above them on both sides are three relieves by Sansovino.

Behind the presbytery are the sacristy and a 20th century church consecrated to St Theodore (the first patron saint of Venice) where is displayed a painting (Child’s Adoration) by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

Right transept

On the right of the screen is the platform from which the newly-elected doge appeared. In the left aisle are St Clement’s chapel and the Holy Host altar. Here is the pillar where St Mark’s relics were rediscovered in 1663, as depicted in the interesting mosaics of the right aisle (where the entrance to St Mark’s Treasure is).

Left transept

On the left of the screen is the platform for the Holy Scripture reading; on the right aisle are St Peter’s chapel and the Madonna Nicopeia, a venerated Byzantine icon. On the northern side are St Isidor’s chapel and the Mascoli chapel.


Detail of the ceiling mosaics
The upper order of the interior is completely covered with bright mosaics containing gold, bronze, and the greatest variety of stones. The decorated surface is on the whole about 8000 m2. In the most ancient works, both Byzantine and Gothic influences can be recognized, as for example in the Saints from the 11th century between the windows of the apse. In the vault above is a mosaic with Christ Pantocrator. From the apse towards the entrance (from east to west) one can contemplate the history of Salvation in the domes: the Prophets, the Ascension and the Pentecost (Whitsun). The domes over the transept are called St John’s (stories of St John the Evangelist) and St Leonard’s (with other saints). In the vaults between the domes are represented episodes of Jesus’ life.

One particular interior mosaic mural of two cocks carrying a fox has been interpreted politically by some. Others see it as a sacred symbol of the faithful wish for immortality, with the victory of the cock and "analogous to the hope of resurrection, the victory of the soul over death".

As mentioned above, restorations and replacements were often necessary thereafter, and great painters such as Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Veronese, Jacopo Tintoretto and his son Domenico took part drawing the cartoons. Titian and the Padovanino prepared the cartoons for the sacristy, built in the late 19th century. Among the mosaicists for Titian's cartoons, was Valerio Zuccati of Treviso, and his brothers. Other remarkable mosaics decorate the Baptistery, the Mascoli Chapel, St Isidor Chapel and the Zen Chapel.


The spacious interior of the building with its multiple choir lofts was the inspiration for the development of a Venetian polychoral style among the composers appointed maestro di cappella at the choir of St Mark's. The style was first developed by a foreigner, Adrian Willaert, and was continued by Italian organists and composers: Andrea Gabrieli, his nephew Giovanni Gabrieli, and Claudio Monteverdi. Their music took advantage of the spacious architecture and led to the development of polychoral and antiphonal textures. An example of this technique is found in In Ecclesiis by Giovanni Gabrieli

In scientific discourse

One of the most well-known and widely cited papers in biology is "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme". It is based on an analogy between the beautifully decorated spandrels spaced around the domes in the Basilica, which sit on four arches (technically, the structures are pendentives rather than spandrels), and various biological traits and features. The authors, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, argue that the spandrels are the inevitable spaces that exist when a dome is placed above arches rather than design elements and that many biological traits are similarly the side effects of functional traits rather than adaptive traits in themselves.

Source: Wikipedia