St. Mark’s Basilica
If the Doge’s Palace was the heart and head of Venice’s great maritime empire, St. Mark’s Basilica was its soul. Venetians have always proudly invested their wealth into their patron saint. As their maritime republic grew and prospered over some 400 years the Basilica di San Marco grew in beauty and ostentation right along with it. Originally built in 832 to house the (stolen) relics of Mark the Evangelist, it also served as the Doge’s private chapel. Though the early building was somewhat more humble, by the 11th century it was already going by the nickname “Chiesa d’Oro” or “Church of Gold”. Today it is considered one of the best examples of the immensely opulent Italo-Byzantine style of architecture. Given the influence of the Byzantine empire and other Eastern cultures on the architecture of Venice, this is a building unlike any other in Italy.
Visiting St. Mark’s Basilica: What to See
The Horses of St. Mark
The Horses of St. Mark’s are an interesting footnote in the history of Venice because they don’t come from Venice at all. Instead, they were plundered during the 4th crusade when Venice supplied the entire fleet for an ill-fated endeavor to “take back” the holy land. Due to troubled planning and lack of funds they ended up sacking Constantinople, instead. This was somewhat surprising for just about everyone, given that Constantinople was a Christian city at the time. The Catholic Church, in particular, was not happy, but Venice grew immensely wealthy from all the plunder. Until then the four bronze horses had stood in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, apparently made sometime around the 4th century BC, perhaps by the Greek sculptor Lysippos. Once they were set up in from of St. Mark’s Cathedral in 1254, they became emblematic of the power and wealth of the republic. The ones you see when visiting Venice today are actually replicas, installed in the 1980’s because air pollution was doing untold damage to the real ones. You can see the originals inside St. Mark’s Museum.
Whereas most of the church ceilings in Italy are decorated with paintings or frescoes, St. Mark’s Basilica drew on the Byzantine heritage of the Venetians and used mosaics. 85,000 square feet of them to be exact. The backgrounds for most are made from small tiles of glass called “tesserae” to which gold leaf has been applied. The porch and entranceway to the church contain scenes from the Old Testament of the Bible while the mosaics in the interior of the church depict mostly the new Testament.
Perhaps the most famous mosaic, on the left-most portal to the entrance of the church, shows a scene from what might be called the “Venetian Testament”. It depicts the theft of St. Mark’s relics from Alexandria by two unnamed Venetians. As the story goes, the two men hid the remains of the saint in a barrel full of salted pork. The Muslim inspectors, whose religion forbade them to touch the meat, kept their distance and the Venetians brought their relics back unimpeded. Although a knowledge of the Bible and a dash of Venetian history help to appreciate these particular Venetian attractions, you don’t need to be an expert in either to enjoy gazing up at the exquisite craftsmanship and artistry of the mosaics. The ceiling itself appears to glow with gold leaf, casting an awe-inspiring aura over the entire space.
The Treasury of St. Mark’s Cathedral
The Venetians picked up a lot of nice things in their travels, and never more so than when they helped sack Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. They came back with a king’s ransom of Byzantine metalwork which is generally considered the finest in the world. It includes icons, chalices, bowls, lamps, and a golden altarpiece called the Pala d’Oro which, at least to the Venetians, is the most valuable item of the bunch.
The Bell Tower
St. Mark’s bell tower has been standing since the 9th century, although it has been rebuilt a few times, most recently in 1903, when it collapsed. Luckily, the newest tower is sturdier than ever and it offers some of the best views of Venice.
Tips for Visiting St. Mark’s Basilica
The schedule of opening times for St. Mark’s Cathedral and its associated attractions (the St. Mark’s Museum, Pala d’Oro, and Treasury) is, rather fittingly, byzantine. The hours for just the Basilica vary according to the season. From November through the end of Easter (which changes every year) it’s open from 9:45am to 5:00pm Monday through Saturday and 2:00pm to 4:00pm Sundays and Holidays. From the end of Easter to November, the hours are the same Monday through Saturday but on Sundays and holidays, it’s 2:00pm to 5:00pm.
Most of the other attractions have similar but slightly different versions of those hours:
November – March/April (Easter):
St. Mark’s Museum: 9.45am – 4.45pm
Pala d’oro: 9:45am. – 4:00pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00pm – 4:00pm
Treasury: 9.45am – 4:00pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00pm – 4:00pm
March/April (Easter) – November:
St. Mark’s Museum: 9:45am – 4:45pm
Pala d’oro: 9:45am – 5:00pm. – Sunday and holidays: 2:00pm – 5:00pm
Treasury: 9:45am – 5:00pm – Sunday and holidays: 2:00pm – 5:00pm
The Bell Tower has a slightly more varied schedule than the rest:
October: 9:00am – 7:00pm
November – March/April (Easter): 9:30am – 3:45pm
March/April (Easter) – June: 9:00am – 7:00pm.
July – September: 9:00am – 9:00pm
Entrance to St. Mark’s Basilica is free of charge but the associated attractions require different entrance fees:
St. Mark’s Museum: €5.00 (€2.50 for groups over 15 people)
Pala d’Oro: €2.00 (€1.00 for groups over 15 people.)
Treasury: €3.00 (€1.50 for groups over 15 people)
Bell Tower: €8.00 (€4.00 for groups over 15 people)
St. Mark’s Cathedral is a place of worship so visitors are expected to dress appropriately and will be refused entry if their shoulder and knees are not covered (this goes for both men and women).
The Best Time to Visit St. Mark’s Basilica
Venice is infamously crowded for most of the year and St. Mark’s Cathedral is probably the biggest attraction in the city. That said, lines to get in can vary greatly. In the winter, you will typically wait no more than 20 minutes whereas in the summer the wait can last over an hour. The organization that runs the church estimates the general wait time to be around 45 minutes. There are two ways to definitively avoid the wait. First, you can go with a guided tour that offers skip-the-line access. Second, you can reserve an entrance at the church’s website. They are only €2.00 and can be booked up to ten minutes before you want to go. However, they do tend to fill up a month or so in advance so if you want to use this option book early.
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