One of the grandest, and certainly the most exotic of all cathedrals in Europe, Basilica di San Marco is a treasure heap of Venetian art and all sorts of booty garnered from the eastern Mediterranean. Legend has it that St. Mark, on his way to Rome in the 1st century A.D., was told by an angel his body would rest near the lagoon that would one today become Venice. Hundreds of years later, the city fathers were looking to replace their original patron St. Theodore with a saint of high stature, someone more in keeping with their lofty aspirations. In 828 the prophecy was fulfilled when Venetian merchants stole the body of St. Mark from Alexandria in Egypt (the story goes that the body was packed in pickled pork to avoid the attention of the Muslim guards). Today the high altar’s green marble canopy on alabaster columns is believed to cover the remains of St Mark (despite a devastating fire in 976), and continues to be the focus of the basilica, at least for the faithful.
Modeled on Constantinople’s Church of the Twelve Apostles, the original shrine of St. Mark was consecrated in 832, but in 976 the church burned down. The present incarnation was completed in 1094, then extended and embellished over the years it served as the doge’s personal church. Today San Marco looks more Byzantine cathedral than Roman Catholic church, with a cavernous interior gilded with Byzantine mosaics added over 7 centuries, covering every inch of both ceiling and pavement.
For a closer look at many of the most remarkable ceiling mosaics and a better view of the Oriental-carpet-like patterns of the pavement mosaics, pay the admission to go upstairs to the Museo di San Marco (the entrance is in the atrium at the principal entrance); this was originally the women’s gallery, or matroneum, and includes access to the outdoor Loggia dei Cavalli. Here you can admire a panoramic view of the piazza below and replicas of the celebrated Triumphal Quadriga, four gilded bronze horses dating from the 2nd or 3rd century A.D.; the Roman originals were moved inside in the 1980s for preservation. (The word quadriga actually refers to a car or chariot pulled by four horses, though in this case there are only the horses.) The horses were transported to Venice from Constantinople in 1204, along with lots of other loot from the Fourth Crusade.
The basilica’s greatest treasure is the magnificent altarpiece known as the Pala d’Oro (Golden Altarpiece), a Gothic masterpiece encrusted with over 2,000 precious gems and 83 enameled panels. It was created in 10th-century Constantinople and embellished by Venetian and Byzantine artisans between the 12th and 14th centuries. Second to the Pala d’Oro in importance is the 10th-century “Madonna di Nicopeia,” a bejeweled icon also purloined from Constantinople and exhibited in its own chapel. Also worth a visit is the Tesoro (Treasury), a collection of crusaders’ plunder from Constantinople and other icons and relics amassed over the years. Much of the loot has been incorporated into the interior and exterior of the basilica in the form of marble, columns, capitals, and statuary.
Preparing for the experience
Lines can be long at the basilica (average 45 min), but you can avoid waiting by reserving access in advance online (www.venetoinside.com; 3€), up to 10 minutes before your chosen entry time. This service is only available April through October; at other times try to arrive 30 minutes before opening time to avoid the worst of the crush (skip holidays altogether). You can also use the same website to skip the line at the Campanile di San Marco.
Between April and October, it’s worth taking one of the informative 1-hour tours Monday to Saturday (at least one daily, from noon; guides speak English). Book tours (25€–27€) online at www.venetoinside.com. The church also organizes free tours, but these run for limited periods (mostly late July)—see the website for details.
Important: The guards at St. Mark’s entrance are serious about forbidding entry to anyone in inappropriate attire—shorts, sleeveless shirts, cropped tops, and skirts above the knee. Note also that you cannot enter the basilica with luggage, and that photos and filming inside are forbidden.