It is not in mere size a very large church ; but it is so vast, in the sense of being varied and complex, that it can only be grasped in full after long study. I advise you, therefore, to begin by walking round and through the building, in order to obtain a comprehensive idea of the architectural ground plan, both from without and within, before you proceed to the examination in detail.
In general shape, as shown in the annexed rough diagram, the church is a Greek Cross, of four equal arms, duly oriented; that is to say, with its façade to the West, and its High Altar and Presbytery at the East End. Carefully bear in mind this fact of its orientation ; it will save you much trouble.
In addition, however, to the real or inner church, which has thus the shape of a cross with four equal arms, the West Arm is girt on its three outer sides by an Atrium or Vestibule, which reaches only to the height of the first floor or Gallery. This Atrium is open in its Western and Northern branches, and, like the church itself, is gorgeously decorated throughout with mosaics. The Southern branch of the Atrium, on the other hand, has been enclosed, in order to form the Baptistery and the Cappella Zen. This outer Vestibule, with the parts cut off from it, is shown in the diagram by a thinner line. Recollect that the lower part of the façade, on all three of its exposed sides, is formed entirely by this outer or vestibular portion ; the upper façade, on the contrary, belongs to the Greek Cross, or true church of the interior. Hats may be worn in the Vestibule.
Above the Atrium, and around the whole western arm of the inner church, runs an outer gallery. On this gallery, over the Main Portal of the outer and lower façade, stand four magnificent antique * Bronze Horses, forming a quadriga, or team of four, for a chariot. These horses are so important in fixing the date of various portions of the church, that I will briefly describe them here. They make the only known remaining example of an ancient quadriga, and opinions differ as to their date and origin. They are believed by some antiquaries to be Greek works of the school of Lysippus, but others hold that they are of Roman origin. It is almost certain that they once adorned the triumphal arch of Nero, whence they were transferred to that of Trajan and other subsequent emperors. When Constantine founded Constantinople, he took them there to adorn the Hippodrome of his New Rome. In 1204, Doge Enrico Dandolo conquered Constantinople, and the Podestà Zen sent these trophies to Venice, where they were set up on the Ducal Chapel in the place where you now see them. This date of 1204 is very important for the identification of the period of certain mosaics. The horses remained where Dandolo set them up till 1797, when Napoleon, having extinguished the Republic, took them to Paris, and employed them to decor-ate the summit of the triumphal arch he had erected in the Place du Carrousel. In 1815, however, on the final establishment of the European peace, the Emperor Francis I. of Austria, to whom Venetia was assigned, restored them to St. Mark’s. They are noble specimens of ancient sculpture, though defectively cast, portions having been hammered in to conceal the imperfections. They should be carefully examined, from above and from below, by those who are interested in antique sculpture. An ugly inscription on the main archivolt of the central door beneath records, not their early history, but the trivial fact of their restitution by the Austrians.
The inner or true church itself consists of four nearly equal Arms and a rectangular Central Portion. Over each Arm, and also over the Central Portion, stands a Dome, of which there are thus five in all, without counting the minor cupolas. I strongly advise you to enter the church on your first day in- Venice, and spend one afternoon in looking about it, so as to form general impressions, before you set out upon your detailed examination. The following brief notes may assist you in shaping these impressions.
The West Arm consists of a Nave and Aisles, the latter separated from the former by glorious Byzantine arcades, carrying an open gallery. The Nave has a Dome, and two large Arches span its outer and inner ends. It is entered from the Vestibule by the Door of St. Mark. The L. or N. Aisle is entered from the Vestibule by the Door of St. Peter, who, as we shall see hereafter, was regarded as St. Mark’s spiritual father. The R. or S. Aisle is entered from the Vestibule by the Door of St. Clement. Each of these doors has above it, externally, a mosaic of the saint whose name it bears.
The Central Area has a Dome covered with ancient mosaics. To R. and L., at its East End, are two magnificent early Pulpits, or ambones. A Screen topped by four-teen statues separates it from the choir or Presbytery.
The Transepts, like the Nave, are provided with Aisles, which are separated from the main portion of each Transept by arcades carrying open galleries. These galleries answer to, or foreshadow, the Triforium of Northern cathedrals.
The N. or L. Transept has a Dome, also covered with mosaics. It is approached trom the N. branch of the Vestibule by the Door of St. John. Its East End forms a separate Chapel, formerly dedicated to St. John, but now to the Madonna. The little Chapel at the end of the W. Aisle of this Transept is that of the Madonna dei Mascoli.
The S. or R. Transept has also a Dome, with very few mosaic figures. Its East End contains the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, where the Host is exposed, with a light continually burning before it. This was formerly the Chapel of St. Leonard.
The East Arm of the cross consists of three portions, each with an Apse at its extremity.
The Central Part of the E. End, behind the Screen bearing the fourteen mediaeval statues, is the Presbytery. It contains the High Altar, covered by a rich canopy, which is supported by four curiously-sculptured columns. Under this High Altar rests the Body of St. Mark, to whom the whole church is dedicated. In the semicircular Apse at the back is another altar, that of the Holy Cross.
The Asidal Chapel to the L. of the Presbytery is that of St. Peter. The Apsidal Chapel to the R. of the Presbytery is that of St. Clement. Each is approached by a small vestibule or ante-chapel.
Do not attempt to fix all these points at once in your memory, but endeavour to gain at first sight as clear a conception as you can of the four main arms of the church, with their aisles or side-chapels. Remember that the whole building falls into five main portionsthe Centre, and the North, South, East, and West branches, each marked by its own Dome. Other points will become clearer in the sequel.
I do not think it well for the visitor to attempt to grasp the general scheme of the decoration till after he has examined much of the church in detail. I therefore postpone the consideration of the meaning and relation of the various parts till we have inspected together many of the mosaics and sculptures. Those however who prefer to understand these leading principles beforehand, and: to use them as a clue on their way, will find them on page 76.
Fuller information about St. Mark’s as a whole will be found in Canon Pasini’s Guide de la Basilique St. Marc: an admirable account of the mosaics is given in Corn. Saccardo’s Les Mosaiques de St. Marc. Both books can be procured at Ongania’s in the Piazza (S. W. corner).