Monday, 1 July 2013

Preview: St Mark's Basilica

Venice exists because of pork and grave robbing. One of multiple lagoon islands, it first saw settlement in the 5th and 6th Centuries by Romans fleeing from barbarian invasions. It was all pretty low level, just farmers existing on pretty desolate stretches of land, knowing that they were at least safe from the Germanic tribes who were sacking Rome or wherever they encountered. But in 810 AD, following a defeat of invading Frankish (kind of a very early version of France and Germany) troops, the population of the scattered islands decided to gather together on the more protected islands called collectively the Rivo Alto, or Rialto. A Venetian state was united. To give this new state some kind of legitimacy, a saint was needed, and one that was nice and uncontroversial, without links to the existing lagoon communities. St Mark was chosen. One of the early figures in the spreading of Christianity, and the author of the Gospel of Mark (i.e. from the "Matthew, Mark, Luke, John" of the Bible), his symbol was the winged lion, and I guess that the 9th Century Venetians thought this was pretty cool.

So where does the pork and grave robbing come into it? Well, it's all very well choosing a saint for your new city-state, but you also need some close ties with him. According to legend, Mark had once preached on the lagoon shores and had a vision of Jesus, and there was another tale of Mark being forced to shelter from a storm in the Venetian lagoons, and being told by an angel that it would be his final resting place. While both very improbable, this kind of stuff definitely helped, but still, you can imagine the city elders pondering, something a little more tangible was needed. That something was relics. St Mark's very body needed to be in Venice. And, so the story goes, in around 828 two traders from the Venetian lagoons found themselves in Alexandria. Alexandria was where Mark had founded the Coptic Church, before being martyred, and where his body had been laid to rest. His relics were now kept in a church. However, the Arab governor of Alexandria at the time had ordered the sanctuary and relics destroyed, so that he could use the materials to build a palace. Obviously, the good and pious traders could not allow this, and after quite a lot of persuasion, convinced the reluctant overseers of the church to hand over the holy relics. The next step was to sneak the body out of the city - and so what better way than hiding it inside a barrel of pork? It was simple and effective. The Muslim custom officials refused to go near it, and the traders were able to smuggle Mark's bones out of the city. According to tradition, the relics were received in Venice with full pomp and ceremony on January 31st 829 - after a rinse, I assume. To house these sacred relics, the Basilica of St Mark's was established shortly after.

Let it not be underestimated the importance of St Mark's and its relics to Venice. Few buildings have a fate so intrinsically tied to their city - Edinburgh Castle is the only other I can think of off the top of my head. The tale of St Mark's body is steeped in myth, with the earliest surviving account of the theft being a couple of centuries after the supposed event, but its significance for Venice is undisputed. With the body, Venice usurped their local rivals in importance. Having their own saint, their own relics, and their own major church to house these relics validated Venice's political independence; it gave them meaning, it put them on the map. A few years after the arrival of the relics, the first incarnation of St Mark's Basilica was built. Venice was still a volatile place and this was burnt down in a 976 uprising and rebuilt a couple of years later. By now, the Republic of Venice was on the rise as a powerful seafaring nation, and St Mark's was becoming one of the most famous sanctuaries of the early Middle Ages. Pilgrims came from far and wide and pilgrims mean money, so in 1063 St Mark's was demolished again to make way for a bigger and better church.

It is this version we see now: St Mark's, Mark III. It took 30 years to build, in its basic form at least - across the centuries it has been very much embellished and decorated. But the fundamental form dates from the 11th Century, to a Greek cross plan, that is a cross-shape with four arms of equal length. The architecture was very strongly influenced by Constantinople and the Byzantine look, which means it was adorned with plenty of domes - each arm of the cross has its own dome, and there is a large central one, so five domes in total. The western facade, that faces St Mark's Square, is split into three levels - lower, upper, and the domes - and with five portals framed by bays. It has a delightful symmetry. The architect is unknown, but strongly suspected to be from Constantinople - there was just nothing in the Latin world that looked anything like it. Venice had strong ties with the Byzantine empire, and St Mark's strongly reflected this.

But the 11th Century structure is only the beginning of St Mark's. It has been heavily modified since. It's like a child getting carried away and putting on every item of fancy clothing in their parents' bedroom, and covering themselves in all the make-up they can find, but somehow pulling it off. Right up until the 19th Century, St Mark's was getting additions and tweaks and improvements and renovations. It's a short, broad, squat structure that has been packed with details, and overloaded with adornments. Over the years, the Venetian ships returned from trading and sometimes pillaging in the East bringing back with them ancient columns, pictures, friezes, and other riches, and St Mark's got the best of it; because of this, much of the decor is older than the actual building. For a period, it was actually illegal for any ship to return to Venice from the east without precious gifts for St Mark's. Marble and mosaics clad the interior. St Mark's is essentially an 11th Century construction with 13th Century onwards decoration. The biggest, most notorious, series of addition were when when Venice bit the hand that fed it, and ransacked Constantinople during the infamous Fourth Crusade. A fellow Christian city and empire, the Venetians and other Europeans had originally intended to make another venture into the Holy Lands against the infidel Muslim, but had simply got greedy when they saw the vast riches of Constantinople. Aside from the mass rape and murder of innocents, they desecrated the holy sites, and stole vast amounts. St Mark's was enriched with Egyptian porphyry, Greek marble, Persian onyx, and most famously, four bronze horses from antiquity that were placed above the main portal (replacements are there now, with the originals in the basilica's museum for safe-keeping).

So St Mark's gave Venice legitimacy, and Venice rewarded it by lavishing it with gifts, dubiously attained or otherwise. It remained at the heart of a powerful republic for centuries, a distinct landmark in the city and a symbol of Venice's influence and power. The Fourth Crusade was proclaimed from the pulpit there, following a Mass. The slave trade was banned there, in 959. When its bells pealed, the city knew to celebrate - it signified a victory in war, or the commencement of a festival, of the election of a pope or a Doge (the city leader). When a Doge died, his body would be lifted up at the main entrance, for all the people to witness. From the 14th to 16th Century, prisoners were put in a cage outside, exposed to the weather and the insults of passers-by. It was the essential heart of the Venice - and remains so today.

Venice's downfall came in 1797, when Napoleon forced the Republic's surrender. But its decline as a power had been a couple of centuries in the making. St Mark's was vandalised, much of its riches stolen and melted down, but not devastated. Venice never recovered, being passed around between Austria and Napoleon for a while before eventually becoming just another part of the Kingdom of Italy, in 1866. These days, around 15 million visitors a year go to Venice, and sometimes up to 150,000 visitors a day - in a city of just 60,000! 70% of Venice's economy is tourism, turning it into a weird Venice-themed museum of itself. Yet St Mark's Basilica doesn't appear to be cheapened. It's still a church, and with a thousand years of history has seen enough to deal with a few tourists hanging around.It remains an essential, unique image of Venice.

So, what do I expect from St Mark's? I'm looking forward to it. Sure, it's another church, but it's a very different kind of one, with an Eastern feel. It looks like it's been lifted from Byzantine times and plonked in the middle of Europe. Many churches and cathedrals try and impress with sheer grandeur, but St Mark's is instead lavish and detailed. It has an extraordinary, rich history, and its appeal is as much its role in Venetian history, and Venice's corresponding role in European history as its structure and decoration alone. And purely from a visitor's point of view, being part of Venice means it will surely be a pleasant Wonder to experience. As long as I avoid these days when 150,000 descend upon the city.

Hopefully the days of spring next year won't be among these, as that's when I intend to visit. And that's when I'll give a fuller account of St Mark's Basilica and its history, as well as my own impressions.


  1. My main memory of St Mark's (mid-90s) was a sign that explained that Napoleon had taken some choice items from it. Funnily enough the French translation of the sign used the verb "prélever" which means to take, but more in the sense "to sample". Odd choice of a word! Even the statues of the four horses were "sampled" by Napoleon until France gave them back later, after his fall. They were put on the Arc du Carrousel in Paris, which still has a copy of them on top.

    On another subject, as you are Scottish, have you heard of the prehistoric village of Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands? It probably doesn't correspond to several of your criteria (notably the size as they are ruins of small houses), and I suppose that getting to the Orkney Islands is not something that can be done as an afternoon out, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on them given that you have described Stonehenge. They are of a huge historical/archaeological importance in any case.

  2. I've never actually been to Skara Brae or even the Orkney Islands before (shameful, given that I'm from the Highlands) but certainly know about them. They don't really have the sense of the spectacular I'm looking for in terms of Wonders, but in terms of just sheer interest I'd really like to visit. Scotland, and especially its islands, aren't exactly the most temperate of climates during the winter, and it must have been tough as hell in Orkney 6000 years ago. Given their age, significance and their UNESCO status, I think they're quite under-advertised.

    I also really like that they were discovered by a huge storm, hidden for thousands of years. Makes you think what else lies beneath the ground, across the world.

  3. The only cathedral I've ever seen that could equal it's opulence is St. Vitas in Prague Castle, Prague. Both are amazing structures with eastern European influences.

  4. likelihood he or she will convert. So the next time someone lands on your site as the result of a Google search, put your best

  5. Well done!
    Great Article. None intrusively given material with plenty of


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