The mightiest of Venetian monuments, the one that really shows the greatness of Venice is undoubtedly the Basilica of San Marco. It was built over several centuries, frequently transformed and enriched with precious treasures, often from the Far East. Its architecture, a mixture of Byzantine, Roman and Venetian, is the work of artists and craftsmen coming from all over. It can be considered a real laboratory, a living organism, developing and transforming over the centuries.
The story goes that Mark, one the four Evangelists together with Luke, Mathew and John, was given the task of writing his Gospel by Peter himself and did so in Rome. The Venetians chose him as their patron saint because of his ties with Rome thus declaring their independence of the Byzantine Church.
Venetian merchants, along the Eastern routes, often stopped at Alexandria to pray on the saint's tomb. And it was in 828 A.D. that two Venetian merchants stole his remains and brought them back to Venice by ship, after hiding them in a chest full of vegetables and pork to avoid strict Muslim control. When the saint's body reached Venice it was welcomed in triumph and the Doge had a new church built as his tomb.
The Basilica was supposed to be inspired by the Byzantine model, the ancient Church of the Apostles in Constantinople. The Doge's decision turned out to be a strategic, decisive choice for Venice's prosperity: it musn't be forgotten that in the Middle Ages, owning a saint's remains meant great earnings for a city. Veneration, at times of just a few bones, meant increased trade and cultural exchange. Furthermore, there are twelve Apostles, but only four Evangelists. Owning the entire body of one of them was an exceptional fact for Venice. The symbol of St Mark, a winged lion armed with a sword, became the city's emblem. A simple symbol to represent civil virtues, strength and courage.
The church facade is a gothic masterpiece, a rich composition of columns, arches, spires and reliefs that as in all medieval churches often represent characters, crafts or scenes from daily life. It even shows an old man biting his hand: legend has it that this is the church architect, removed from his position when he said that he could have built an even more beautiful one.
The Church structure is enormous: five great arches support five gigantic domes. Yet all this architecture seems just to dissolve into the golden gleam of the mosaics, the most extraordinary, engaging sight. To obtain this splendid effect, all the tiny squares lean in different directions in order to better catch and reflect the light from no matter which angle.
The San Marco mosaics are a precious illuminated Gospel. They are a long, marvellous tale covering over 8,000 square metres, that for us could seem difficult to understand, but for the faithful of that period was certainly familiar.
San Marco's Treasure is a huge collection of pieces of gold, silver, glass and other precious materials. Many of these items come from the conquests in the Holy Land when Venice was at the peak of its glory. At the end of the XII century, Venice took part in the Fourth Crusade and brought back bounty of inestimable value.
But the collection's most precious piece can be seen behind the high altar: the famous Golden Pala, an altar pala made from hundreds of pieces of enamel stuck onto a golden leaf. It was started around the year 1000 and enriched during the following three centuries with all kinds of precious stones: sapphires, garnets, pearls, emeralds, amethysts, rubies, agate and topaz, a total of 1927 stones. Luckily it survived the Napoleonic raids thanks to the courage of a Venetian citizen who kept it hidden in his house for months, and today this is the only example really large gothic jewellery that is still intact.
The four famous horses on the San Marco facade are also part of treasure coming from the Holy Land. The original ones can be admired in the Church museum situated at the level of the large external terrace. They are four beautiful horses and were immediately considered a perfect symbol for the great Venetian Republic in their declared expression of strength and freedom. They were taken from the Church by Napoleon as war booty but luckily came back to Venice when the empire ended.