St. Mark Basilica Travel Guide
IntroductionAt the heart of the city of Venice is the Piazza San Marco, and dominating this piazza is the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica. Also known as the Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark (Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco), it is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. Though Venice has a number of churches, St. Mark’s is the most renowned and also one of the oldest, with a history that goes back to the year 800s. The Basilica is also one of the best known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture.
The original church was first constructed in 828, and it was connected to the Doge Palace as it was originally intended to be the private chapel of the Doge (the elected chief-of-state of the Republic of Venice, back before Italy was unified). The reason it was ordered to be built in the first place, however, was because the Doge learned that Venetian merchants have stolen the remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria in Egypt and brought it back with them.
According to legend, the body of the saint was smuggled by hiding it under layers of pork in barrels, which the Muslim guards didn’t dare touch. Later, the smugglers encountered a storm, and it is said that all would have been lost if it weren’t for a miracle, where St. Mark appeared to the ship captain and told the man to lower the sails, thus saving the ship and all people in it. This is such a popular legend, that the story is depicted in a 13th-century mosaic near the basilica’s entrance.
At the same time as the church’s construction, St. Mark’s Campanile, or bell tower, was also erected, and the entire project took ten years to be completed. No expense was spared, and the church was richly decorated with gold ground mosaics and other precious works of art. In fact, the church was famous for its opulence even during medieval times, and in the 11th century, it was nicknamed “Chiesa d’Oro”, or “Church of Gold”.
By 1073, more construction work was performed on the church and it began to take on the shape of the basilica as we now know it. The church gained even more prestige in 1094 when the Doge of the period, Vitale Faliero, claimed to have rediscovered the remains of Saint Mark in one of the church’s pillars. Later still, in 1105, the church’s (perhaps literal) crowning jewel, the Pala d’Oro, which was ordered all the way from Constantinople, was installed on the high altar in 1105.
Over the centuries, the structure itself was not altered much, but its interiors grew more lavish, especially during the time of the Fourth Crusade in the 1200s, as well as in the 1300s, when Venice led sieges on Constantinople. At this time, ancient Byzantine buildings were looted of elements such as mosaics, columns, and friezes, and the spoils were brought back to Venice and installed in the basilica. Carvings as well as marble cladding were also among the elements that were added to the exterior of the church, with some of these parts proving to be even older than the church itself.
It was also during the 13th century that the status of the church was changed from being the Doge’s private chapel, to being a “state church”. With this new status, the church then also became the venue for important state events, such as the installation and burials of Doges, as well as other major public ceremonies of state. It actually wasn’t until 1807 that the church became known as Venice’s cathedral, when the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, moved his seat from the not-as-grand San Pietro di Castello, to St. Mark’s.
What to See
Horses of Saint Mark
This set of bronze statues of four horses, also known as the “Triumphal Quadriga,” was originally part of a monument depicting a “quadriga” or a racing chariot pulled by four horses. The sculptures are thought to date back to classical antiquity and are attributed to the Greek sculptor Lysippos who lived around 4 BC. The horses were placed on the façade of St Mark’s Basilica after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, was looted by Napoleon in 1797, and then put back in 1815. They have since been taken down from the facade and placed inside the church instead, to preserve them. The ones currently on the façade are replicas.
The Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs
This is a group sculpture of four Roman emperors that dates back to about 300 BC and is believed to have originally been part of the decorations of an important public square in Constantinople known as the Philadelphion. Since the Middle Ages, however, it has been installed in a corner of St. Mark’s. The theme of this sculpture is a throwback to the age when the Roman Empire was ruled by four rulers, two senior emperors (or “Augusti”) and two younger emperors (the “Caesars”). An Augusti and a Caesar presided over a half of the Empire’s territory which was then divided into East and West.
The Narthex (or Porch)
Found in the western section of the basilica, the narthex was added in the 13th century and is known for its gilded interior on which scenes from the bible’s Genesis are depicted in mosaic. Other subjects include the lives of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joseph. This section also features some of the oldest mosaics in the building which date back to the 11th century which used to be on the façade of St. Mark’s before it was moved inside later on.
The upper levels of the basilica’s interiors are covered in mosaics, consisting of an area that totals about 85,000 square feet which is the size of almost two American football fields. Most of the mosaics involve the use of gold glass tesserae (the little tiles or cubes used in mosaics) which is what gives the completed images their gleaming and shimmering effect. The oldest mosaics on the premises date back to as early as 1070 and most likely originate from Constantinople, based on the marked Byzantine styles. Over the centuries and many periods of extension, renovation, and restoration, the interiors of the basilica were continually improved and changed. To name just a few of the mosaics of note would be images that depict the life and miracles of Christ, the life of the Virgin Mary during Christ’s infancy, scenes from the lives of various saints, church fathers, as well as virtues and angels. Almost the every section of the basilica is filled with mosaics, so feel free to explore.
The Holy Relics and the Pala d’Oro
In the presbytery, there is a high altar that is surrounded by magnificent columns, sculptures, bronze statues, paintings, and other breathtaking embellishments and piece of art. This altar houses Saint Mark’s relics and is therefore considered as the heart or focal point of the whole basilica. For such an important section, it therefore only follows that the altarpiece is the church’s main treasure, the famous Pala d’Oro, or “Golden Cloth”. Made of gold and studded with 300 emeralds, 400 garnets, 300 sapphires, a hundred amethysts, 1,300 pearls, as well as a good number of rubies and topazes, all on both sides, the Pala d’Oro is a wondrous treasure in every sense of the word. It is recognized as the finest example of Byzantine craftsmanship in the world.
For lovers of religious music (or just good music), try to catch a mass or festival where the St. Mark’s Basiica’s own choir and musicians will be performing. Known as the Cappella Marciana, this choir traces its roots to the Baroque musicians of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Tesoro (Treasury) and Museo Marciano (St. Mark’s Museum)
These two pay-to-enter sections of the church showcase an extensive collection of various gold and silver items, most of which were part of the plunder that was brought back to Venice by the Crusaders who sacked Constantinople.
Tips and Advice
- This being an active church, please wear appropriate clothing, and try to keep your voice down so as not to disturb worshipers. No sleeveless tops or very short skirts and pants. Bring something to cover up with, if necessary. Visitors who are not dressed appropriately or loud individuals may end up escorted outside.
- Photography and filming of any kind is PROHIBITED.
- Luggage and large bags are not allowed inside the basilica (yes, this includes backpacks), so leave your luggage at your hotel first and just bring a smaller bag with some essentials. If absolutely necessary, however, you can deposit your bags at the Ateneo San Basso which is located in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini (if you’re facing the church, it’s the wing directly to its left). The service is free, but do take note that the baggage counter is open on Mondays to Saturdays from 10 am (hours past the basilica’s opening hour which can be inconvenient for those on a morning tour) to 4:30 pm (which is BEFORE the church and bell tower closes), while on Sundays, its hours are 10 am to 4 pm.
- In the months of April to October, you can just pop in and join the free daily guided tours (excluding Sundays and holidays) that are organized by church administration and begin at 11 am. Just head to the basilica’s atrium next to the center doorway, on the right side. For groups, a reservation is required.
- For those who wish to hear mass, it is celebrated every hour from 7 am to 10 am in the baptistery, and again at 11 am and 12pm in the main area of the church (except during July and August). There is also an evening mass at 6:45pm which is preceded by Vespers and the rosary. This schedule applies for weekdays and Saturdays. On Sundays and holidays, hourly morning masses are held from 7 am to 9am, as well as 12 pm. There is also a mass at 10:30 am, which is a sung mass with brief remarks in various languages, held at St. Mark’s Chapel. Sunday evening mass is held at 6:45 pm, and often features foreign guest choirs.
- November to March/April (Easter) hours are:
- Basilica: 9:45 am – 5:00 pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm (free entrance)
- St. Mark’s Museum: 9:45 am – 4:45 pm (entry ticket: EUR 5 , reduced EUR 2.50*)
- Pala d’oro: 9:45 am – 4:00 pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm (entry ticket: EUR 2 , reduced EUR 1*)
- Treasury: 9:45 am – 4:00 pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm (entry ticket: EUR 3 , reduced EUR 1.50*)
- March/April (Easter) to November hours are:
- Basilica: 9:45 am – 5:00 pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm (free entrance)
- St. Mark’s Museum: 9:45 am – 4:45 pm (entry ticket: EUR 5 , reduced EUR 2.50*)
- Pala d’oro: 9:45 am – 5:00 pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm (entry ticket: EUR 2 , reduced EUR 1*)
- Treasury: 9:45 am – 5:00 pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm (entry ticket: EUR 3 , reduced EUR 1.50*)
- Bell Tower viewing hours are:
- October: 9:00 am – 7:00 pm (entry ticket: EUR 8 , reduced EUR 4*)
- November – March/April (Easter): 9:30 am – 3:45 pm (entry ticket: EUR 8 , reduced EUR 4*)
- March/April (Easter) – June: 9:00 am – 7:00 pm (entry ticket: EUR 8 , reduced EUR 4*)
- July – September: 9:00 am – 9:00 pm (entry ticket: EUR 8 , reduced EUR 4*)