by Roderick Conway Morris

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Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice
Procession in Piazza San Marco by Gentile Bellini, around 1496

900th Anniversary of the San Marco Basilica

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 24 December 1994


One of the strangest buildings on earth, St. Mark's Basilica is a kind of solid- state, sumptuously illustrated encyclopedia of Venice's history, government, economy and everyday life.

As with all the best reference works, some of it was commissioned, but most of it was energetically pillaged from impeccable sources - principally the Byzantine east - with numerous eclectic touches, from the Gothic spires to the four bronze horses that, though hijacked from Constantinople, probably began life in Rome.

A 19th-century English architect may have disdained 'the lumpy form of the cathedral which surprises you by the extreme ugliness of its exterior…all in bad taste,' but few before or since have remained so immune to to the exuberant, almost barbaric splendor of its domes, arches and pinnacles, and the awe-inspiring, glittering richness of it marble and gold- encrusted interior. The very surface you tread would be a strong candidate for the title of most beautiful floor in the world.

St. Mark's was consecrated 900 years ago and to celebrate the anniversary the crypt (now below sea level) has been sealed with resins in a 10-year project and rendered improbably dry, the restorers' scaffolding that has shrouded parts of the façade for well over a decade has been removed and a revealing 'Homage to St. Mark' exhibition is being staged in the doges' apartments of the Palazzo Ducale next door (until Feb. 28).

Venice's original patron saint was Theodore of Heraclea, whose statue, trampling a crocodile-like dragon, still stands on one of the two massive granite columns in Piazzetta San Marco. By the ninth century, however, when the republic had already established itself as a maritime power to be reckoned with, the Venetians felt the need of a protector with more prestige.

In 829, two Venetian merchants spirited away the remains of the Evangelist St. Mark from his tomb in Alexandria, getting them past Egyptian customs officers, according to legend, by covering them with pickled pork (the scene is depicted in a 17th- century mosaic in an arch of the church's façade).

Possession of a top-notch apostle not only worked wonders for Venice's international standing but also served to legitimize and reinforce the authority of the doge and of the state's oligarchical republican form of government. For the relics never fell into the hands of the Catholic Church - remaining, as it were, the personal property of successive doges, housed in what was officially, until the end of the republic in 1797, the doges' private chapel.

Two more modest, earlier churches existed on the site of St. Mark's, but in the mid-11th century it was decided that something altogether more spectacular was required to honor the saint who had presided over Venice's inexorable rise to prodigious wealth.

The present basilica was built on the model of the Holy Apostles Church in Constantinople, and Byzantine artists and craftsmen were imported to create the stupendous mosaics. In the 13th century - after the fourth crusade's sack of Byzantium - the church acquired its present level of almost absurd opulence. Thousands of columns, panels, reliefs, statues, bronzes, icons and other embellishments were added to the church - and with its treasury now stuffed with much of the contents of the Byzantine emperors' collection, Venice could at last almost claim to be the successor of the New Rome.

Wisely, 'Homage to St. Mark' does not attempt to compete with either the basilica or the treasury in sheer magnificence - but nonetheless has some wonderful sights to offer. The central theme is the image and symbolism of St. Mark and the diffusion of his gospel. When Christians became emperors and kings Bibles were sometimes transformed into luxurious products on which vast amounts of money were lavished. Only about a dozen of these very early 'Purple Codexes' (their pages dyed with the imperial color and inscribed in silver ink) have come down to us, five of which are here. Scarcely less interesting are a number of ancient stone and ivory thrones, some probably used to display gospels rather than churchmen.

St. Mark came to play such a central role in every aspect of Venetian life, that city, state and saint became synonymous. And, when the republic collapsed in the face of the French onslaught, the despair-laden rallying cry of Venice's ill-prepared defenders was simply 'Marco! Marco!'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023