The text below about the San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale was written by Roos Stalpers and Fee van ’t Veen.
In this church it is clearly visible that Venice and Byzantium (Turkey) maintained close contacts. The Byzantine traditions and styles have mingled with western elements, resulting in a unique combination. The name and the emblem of San Marco – a lion with wings – are found all over Venice.
G. Bellini detail ‘Procession in Saint Mark’s Square’
‘Like an opal, St. Mark’s shows no sign of age. It glitters like a new jewel, and might have been built but yesterday. Unlike most churches, it has no sombre, frowning air. Its spires do not launch themselves into the sky. It does not bristle with towers and arched buttresses. Rather the building seems to stoop and crouch. It is surmounted by domes, as is a Mohammedan mosque, and is a strange mixture of Oriental ornamentation and Christian symbolism. Horses take the place of angels; grace and splendour, the place of austerity and mystery. Who ever heard of gold, alabaster, [Tetrarchs of porphyry] amber, ivory, enamel, and mosaic being used in the construction of a Christian church? Who ever heard of dolphins, [griffin] tridents, [pillars of Acre] marine shells, trefoils, cupolas, marble plaques, backgrounds of vividly coloured mosaics and of gold? It is more like a fairy palace, or an Alcazar, or a mosque, than a Catholic church; more like an altar to Neptune than one to the Christian God.“ Cited from: Dorothy Menpes “Venice’ pp. 79-80
“The Reception is the only 13th-century mosaic preserved on the facade of the Basilica. It is depicted in a semi-dome above the Porta di S. Alipio, an extremely prominent portal for visitors entering the basilica. On the facade, the brightness of the gold in the mosaics mingles with symbols of glory. The body [coffin] is received by the doge and his retinue in a holy procession that advances in front of a representation of the basilica itself. Christ guides the procession of the doge, dogeressa, bishops, noblemen, ladies of the court, and others into the church. An inscription frames the portal apse: COLOCAT HUNC DIGNISPLEBS LAUDIBUS ET COLIT HYMNIS UT VENETOS SERVET TERRAQUE MARIQUE GUBERNET (“The people place him [here] with worthy praises and reverence him with hymns in order that he guard the Venetians and rule over land and sea.”) The phrase “Protection from the enemy” was added to the inscription in the 13th century as a justification of the Venetian conquest over the Eastern Church.” Cited from: Alexandra Steadman ‘Imperialism, Economics and Sacred Experience in the Golden Mosaics of San Marco’ p. 61
Legend goes that Saint Marcus the evangelist came to Venice when he was going from Aquileia to Rome in the ninth century. Marcus received a vision from an angel who predicted that Venice would be the city he would die in. The prediction came true. The dead body of Marcus was found by two Venetian merchants in Alexandria in Egypt who smuggled it, hidden beneath pork, to Venice (in the rich decoration of the façade of the San Marco is a mosaic that pictures the transport of the dead body of Marcus in a coffin).
The dead body was entrusted to Doge Giustiniano Particiaco. He gave an order to build a church in honour to the Saint Evangelist. This first church was lost in a fire in 976. A second church was built, and was broken down in the eleventh century to make room for an even more impressive basilica. The church that is in Venice today was built in 1063, and was based on the shape of the first church. The architect is unknown. The basilica has undergone (reconstruction facade 976-1094) some alterations over the centuries, after it served as a private chapel for the doges, it became the cathedral of Venice. The ground plan of the church exists out of a Greek cross, crowned by five cupolas. The design was strongly influenced by the Church of the holy Apostles in Constantinople (Istanbul) from the sixth century.
“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.” Source: Wikipedia.
‘’Every horse is made of two parts: the body and legs, and the head. Some say the Venetians severed the heads from the bodies themselves, for the purpose of transport from Constantinople to Venice. Their collars hide the ‘seams’. Apparently, the heads were then placed on the wrong bodies.’
Translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Venezia Anekdotische reisgids’ Athenaeum-Polak & van Gennep, Amsterdam 2011 p.84
The famous Bronze Horses were also part of the loot. If you climb the stairs in the church, you can still see the replicas of the four horses. You can also enjoy a great view over the Piazza San Maco. The church just oozes wealth. That’s why this was the place in which the doge was presented after the elections and where heads of State, popes and princes were received.
Technical issues plagued the domes of San Marco. Upon reaching Venice, Jacopo Sansovino encountered this predicament and ingeniously devised a solution, likely drawing inspiration from the construction of the Pantheon. The Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple, employed external rings to withstand sideways pressure. You can find the story about the Pantheon by clicking [here] and scrolling down.
The most exquisite mosaics adorn the central cupola known as the Cupola of Ascension.