It does not seem possible for the mind of man to conceive anything more gloriously beautiful than the sight here presented to us. The flock of pigeons near us is a striking and unique feature of the grand Piazza. They have existed here so long that their origin is quite forgotten. They were formerly maintained by a provision of the Republic, but now subsist by means of a fund derived from a legacy left for the purpose by a rich Venetian lady, and by the gifts of grain and peas given them by strangers. They may be called the sacred birds of Venice, for they are protected by the almost superstitious care and affection of the people ; and a handful of grain thrown upon the pavement by a visitor will always attract a great number of them, who settle down about their benefactor like a white and fluffy cloud. They never show any signs of fear, but run before you as you walk, and perch upon your outstretched hands and shoulders. At night they lodge under the eaves of the surrounding buildings.
This famous and beautiful piazza, considered by Ruskin to be the finest square in the world, is the center of the business and amusement of the city. In front rises the gorgeous cathedral, a very dream of splendor with its airy domes, graceful spires, delicate fluted columns, and magnificent façade ablaze with ruby and opal and gold. Observe that there are five vaulted porches, and while there are an equal number of domes, only four of them can be seen by us. There are one hundred and fifty noble columns built into the façade of the building, most of them having been brought from the East, and their Syrian and Armenian inscriptions show that they were taken from older buildings. For many years while the cathedral was being erected, the first question asked of the captain of any ship coming from eastern ports was, ” What new treasure have you brought for the building of St. Mark? ” and unless he had some contribution to offer to the structure, he was not allowed to land his cargo.
Over the central entrance of the church are four famous bronze horses brought by Augustus from Alexandria, and placed by him upon his triumphal arch at Rome. Afterward they were removed in succession by Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Septimius Severus and Constantine to their own arches, and finally carried by the last named emperor to his new capital at Constantinople, from which city they were brought to Venice. Napoleon took them to Paris to adorn the Arch of Triumph in the Place du Carrousel in 1797, but they were brought back here in 1815. If you stood beside the horses they would appear heavy and clumsy, but from the pavement of the piazza they are as light and graceful as Arabian steeds. Back of the horses is a vaulted space, a field of clearest blue shot through with countless stars.
The five outer doors are of bronze, bearing an inscription which says that they were executed in the year 1300 by Bertuccio, a Venetian goldsmith. In the vestibule of the church, near the central entrance, is a lozenge of red and white marble, marking the spot where Pope Alexander III and the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa were reconciled on the 23d of July, 1117, through the intervention of the Venetian Republic.. When the Emperor saw the Pope, he threw off his imperial robes and prostrated himself before him. Alexander with tears raised him up and gave him the kiss of peace. Thereupon, within the beautiful cathedral, swelled out the Te Deum, and the Emperor, hand in hand with the Pope, entered the building, where he received the Papal benediction.
The church was begun in 83o, merely as a chapel attached to the Doge’s Palace; and the walls of the present edifice were rebuilt after a disastrous fire in 975, but the façade was not completed until the fifteenth century. It is in the form of a Greek cross and is two hundred and fifty feet long and one hundred and sixty-eight feet wide. Within and without it is adorned with five hundred marble columns and forty-five thousand square feet of mosaics.
The Byzantine architect, who was brought from Constantinople to plan and direct the erection of the cathedral, was an ugly, bow-legged dwarf, who undertook to raise a building of unparalleled’ magnificence on the condition that his statue be placed in the most conspicuous position in the church The agreement was reluctantly macle, for his statue would not add to the beauty of the structure. But one day the Doge, who stood watching the uprearing of the building, overheard the architect say that owing to certain obstacles thrown in his way, he did not intend to execute the work in the manner planned. “In that case,” exclaimed the Doge, “we are absolved from our promise!” and instead of giving it the most conspicuous place, they put it in a corner of the structure where the dwarfish statue of an old man on crutches, with his finger on his lips, represents the designer of St. Mark’s.
“A multitude of pillars and white domes cluster into a long, low pyramid of colored light; a treasure heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother of pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, sealed with fair mosaic and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory,- sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and grapes and pomegranates, and birds clinging and fluttering among the branches, all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes; and, in the midst of it, the solenin forms of angels, sceptered, and robed to the feet, and leaning to each other across the gates, their figures indistinct among the gleaming of the golden ground through the leaves beside them, interrupted and dim, like the morning light as it fades back among the branches of Eden, when first its gates were angel-guarded long ago.”- RUSKIN.
Around the walls of the porches are pillars of variegated stones, marble, jasper, porphyry, and, above them, in the broad archivolts, are sculptured angels and the signs of heaven, and still above these a row of glittering pyramids, beneath which are placed statues of apostles, and over the center of the arches and between the pinnacles are yet other marble statues, to which Mr. Ruskin refers when he exclaims ” until at last, as if in ecstacy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers on the Lido shore had been frost-bound before they fell, and the sea-nymphs had in-laid them with coral and amethyst.”
Observe in front of St. Mark’s the three tall flag-staffs. They are made of larch wood, painted red, and rest upon beautiful bronze standards decorated with elaborate reliefs of sea-nymphs and tritons, and these in turn are supported by granite pedestals. The staffs are surmounted by winged lions, but so lofty is their elevation that you can scarcely make them out. From these masts once floated the three gonfalons of silk and gold, emblematical of the three dominions of the Republic, Candia, Cyprus and the Morea. These in recent years have been displaced by the flags of the city and of united Italy.
The north side of this piazza – the side on the left – is bordered by the Clock-tower and other stately buildings resting upon an arcade of fifty arches, within which are the finest and most expensive shops in the city. These structures were erected in 1517 for the dwellings of the Procurators of St. Mark’s, the church wardens or trustees, very important personages in the ancient Republic. They were called the Procuratie Vecchie.
On the south or right side of the square-the side of the Campanile – stands another row of fine buildings, the Procuratie Nuove, once used as a library, and the side of which we saw from the Piazzetta.
The side of the square facing St. Mark’s was built in 1810 by Napoleon, and its ground floor contains the finest shops and most brilliant cafés.
This world-famed square, surrounded on all sides by magnificent buildings and paved most elaborately with marble, is an animated scene on winter afternoons and on summer evenings, at which times a military band plays here ; and among the memories of a Venetian visit that linger longest through the years, as if loth to fade away, is that of a summer night spent in this piazza when the moon was full and the soft strains of ravishing music floated out through the silvery light over city and sea ; and when the piazza, filled with a brilliant company of olive-skinned and gaily dressed Venetians among whom mingled tourists from every land, had as its background the great church glistening like a mountain of snow, and giving a touch of romantic and Oriental splendor to the scene.
We will now take a look within the Cathedral.