Byzantine Venice: St. Mark’s

THE primitive patron of the town of Rivo Alto, and of the Republic of the Venetians, was the martyr St. Theodore, whose ancient figure still tops one of the columns in the Piazzetta. A church dedicated to this ancient saint is said to have occupied (nearly) the site of St. Mark’s before the 9th century. But in the year 819, (or 813,) when the seat of government of the Republic was fixed in Rivo Alto, the first Doge’s Palace was built on the spot where its successor now stands, and a Ducal Chapel was erected beside it. This chapel was still in all probability dedicated to St. Theodore. The body of St. Mark, however, was then preserved at Alexandria ; though, after the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in 64o, the church of St. Mark’s in which it was kept was exposed to continual insults from the victorious infidel. In 829, the Khalif decided to destroy the church, for the sake of its marbles. Some Venetian merchants who happened to be then at Alexandria (a proof of the early maritime commerce of the town) succeeded in carrying off the body of the saint, and conveying it to Venice. On its arrival, it was received in state and housed in the Ducal Chapel ; while, in order to show due honour to the Evangelist, St. Theodore was deposed from his place as patron, and St. Mark was made the tutelary saint of the Republic. The old church of St. Theodore was also destroyed, and a new church of St. Mark’s, the predecessor of the present building, erected in its place.

This first church was burnt down in 976, and with it, humanly speaking, the body of St. Mark ; though its iraculous preservation and subsequent rediscovery are matters of history. Towards the close of the 10th century, the existing edifice was begun after the fire : it continued to be erected under Byzantine architects for nearly a hundred years. The body of the great church as we now see it be-longs essentially to this early period. But it has been largely remodelled and altered in its decorations, especially as regards the pinnacles of the exterior and the mosaics, during the Gothic reaction. The original portions, which will be pointed out in detail in the sequel, belong to the pure Byzantine style, and closely resemble parts of St. Sophia at Constantinople, on which edifice the church was mainly modelled. About the close of the 14th and first half of the 55th century, when the Gothic style had superseded the Romanesque and the Byzantine, several Gothic adornments were incongruously added, in the shape of pinnacles and pointed gables above the chief arches. In the 16th century and afterward, many of the beautiful old mosaics were ruthlessly destroyed, and replaced by jejune Renaissance compositions, which have no decorative value, and which jar with the architecture. But as a whole the church is still essentially Byzantine-Romanesque, with only just sufficient intrusion of the Gothic element to add a certain touch of bizarre extravagance.

The walls are of brick, but they are coated or incrusted throughout with thin slabs of many-coloured marble and alabaster ; the slender columns are of jasper, serpentine, verd-antique, porphyry, and other rare stones, mostly de-rived from earlier buildings ; and the whole is profusely adorned with gold and mosaic. To the mediaeval Venetian, St. Mark was not only the patron but the embodiment of Venice ; wherever the Venetian fleets went, they brought home in triumph columns and precious stones and reliefs and works of art for the further beautifying of the great shrine of their protector. St. Mark’s is thus a museum of collected fragments, as well as a gallery of Venetian mosaic-work. Its richness of colour is one of its greatest attractions.

Nevertheless, throughout the whole flourishing period of Venice, the shrine of the Evangelist was officially nothing more than the domestic chapel of the Doge’s Palace. The relatively unimportant church of San Pietro di Castello remained the cathedral till 1807, at which date St. Mark’s superseded it.

In examining St. Mark’s remember especially three things. First, it is the shrine of the body of St. Mark the Evangelist, the protector of the Republic, whom every Venetian regarded as the chief helper of Venice in times of trouble. Second, it is the private chapel of the Doge’s Palace. Third, it is essentially an oriental building, as befits what was really an outlying western fragment of the eastern empire.

Very many visits should be paid to St. Mark’s. It would be impossible within the limits of these Guides adequately to describe all the architectural points, the mosaics, and the sculpture ; but in the succeeding account I have tried first to call attention to the main features, and then to treat in detail a few portions of the building as specimens, giving the reader some main clues by means of which he may work out the meaning of the rest of the building for himself on similar principles. St. Mark’s is of course by far the most important thing to see at Venice, and as much time as possible should be devoted to repeated visits. Do not run about after minor churches before you have thoroughly grasped the keynotes of this marvellous building.

The motto of Venice is “Pax tibi Marce, Evangelista meus “—” Peace to thee, Mark, my Evangelist.” It will occur often on buildings or pictures.

Whenever you visit St. Mark’s, take your opera glass.