6 Fascinating Facts About St. Mark’s Basilica

November 13, 2012

St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most-visited sights in Venice, and a must-see on any traveler’s Italy itinerary! But with a history that stretches all the way back to the 9th century A.D., it’s also a church with a lot of interesting stories and legends behind it.

Here are six of the most fascinating facts about St. Mark’s Basilica!

01. The basilica began with a swashbuckling tale of kidnapping

The first St. Mark’s Basilica was built on this spot in the 9th century to house very sacred relics—relics that had been stolen! In 828, merchants from Venice stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, one of the four Apostles, from Alexandria, Egypt. According to the legend, they snuck them past the (Muslim) guards by hiding them under layers of pork in barrels!

St. Mark's Basilica

St. Mark’s Basilica

While at sea, a storm almost drowned the graverobbers and their precious cargo, it’s said that St. Mark himself appeared to the captain and told him to lower the sails. The ship was saved, and the merchants said they owed their safety to the miracle.

The entire story is pictured on the 13th-century mosaic above the left door as you enter the basilica.

02. There is enough mosaic to cover 1.5 American football fields!

There are more than 85,000 square feet (or 8,000 square meters) of mosaic in St. Mark’s Basilica… or enough mosaic to cover over 1.5 American football fields! The mosaics were done over 8 centuries, mostly in gold, and the result is astonishing. Enter the basilica at different times of day to see how the light makes the colors, and scenes, look different.

Mosaic in cathedral of St. Mark

Just one of the dozens of mosaics in St. Mark’s Basilica…

03. There are more than 500 columns

Just another example of the sheer size, and amount of amazing stuff, in St. Mark’s is the number of columns. There are more than 500 columns and capitals in the basilica, and most are Byzantine, dating between the 6th and 11th centuries. Some classical, 3rd-century capitals are mixed in, too!

The impressive exterior of St. Mark's Basilica

The impressive exterior of St. Mark’s Basilica

04. A lot of the basilica’s treasures came from the Crusades & from Constantinople

The Fourth Crusade, in particular, gave St. Mark’s Basilica a windfall. After all, this was the Crusade that ended, in 1204, with the conquest of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

The bronze horses of St. Mark's Basilica, originally from Constantinople!

The bronze horses of St. Mark’s Basilica, originally from Constantinople!

The result? A lot of treasure was shipped to Venice, and installed in St. Mark’s Basilica—including the four bronze horses, icon of the Madonna Nicopeia, enamels of the Golden Altar-piece, relics, crosses, chalices, and patens!

05. The Pala d’Oro puts the Crown Jewels to shame

Forget the glittering gems at the Tower of London: The Royal Family has nothing on St. Mark’s Basilica! The Pala d’Oro, a Byzantine altar screen of gold, is studded with hundreds of gems – literally. They include 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts, plus rubies and topazes.

The Pala d’Oro, a Byzantine altar screen of gold

The Pala d’Oro, a Byzantine altar screen of gold

06. That bell tower? It collapsed once…

The 323-foot (98.6-meter) campanile of St. Mark’s dates back to the 9th century… but it had to be rebuilt in 1903. The reason? It collapsed! It had been reworked in the 16th century, and apparently not that well.

It collapsed on July 14, 1902. (To be fair, it had survived several earthquakes before that!). Although it buried the Basilica’s balcony in rubble, fortunately, the church itself was saved. But the incident was embarrassing enough!

The belltower of St. Mark’s Basilica towers high above the square

The belltower of St. Mark’s Basilica towers high above the square

From 1903 to 1912, the belltower was rebuilt exactly as it had been… except with better, safer techniques.

Want to find out more about St. Mark’s Basilica? Check out our experiences in Venice of both St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace—or, for a really VIP visit, access St. Mark’s Basilica after hours, when it’s closed to the public!

by Walks of Italy

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Show Comments

3 responses to “6 Fascinating Facts About St. Mark’s Basilica”

  1. A lot of interesting facts. I didn’t know the tower had to be rebuilt. I wonder how many times water threatens the basilica from all the acqua alta? Especially since it’s going on right now.


  2. Jennifer Ferdico-Harrison says:

    I luv reading my history.im second generation American born.im Roman n Sicilian.second generation on my dad’s side and 3rd. On my mothers.so my history any further than this is in Rome and Sicily.it would be awesome to know my family bloodline going back to the 9th or 1st century.that would be really cool..

  3. Lynne Antosiak says:

    When I went to Greece, on vacation, there was no Athena Parthenon. I heard a reference that connected the GOLD taken from the Athena Parthenon with Venice (Either directly or indirectly {possibly another country stole the gold from the Parthenon, and Venice bought the stolen gold}.)….I wonder how much of the gold, in Italy is really has never been stolen!

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