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Travel to Venice, Italy: The brilliance of St. Mark’s Square and Basilica

Written By | Jun 21, 2018

VENICE, ITALY:  The canals, the centuries-old buildings, the history, food, and romance.  Love reigns in Venice and visitors need more than a one or two-day trip to fully explore it’s many charms.  However, the most recognizable sight visitors want to see are the iconic St. Mark’s Square and Basilica.

Napolean once called St. Mark’s Square “The drawing room of Europe.”  Day and night, St. Mark’s is a must for those traveling to Venice.

Venice’s Neighborhood

Venice is a collection of three main islands and seven sestieri or neighborhoods. – Cannaregio, Castello and San Marco on the largest island.  Santa Croce, San Polo and Dorsodouro on a second island and Giudecca.




Each neighborhood offers a uniquely Venetian experience and travelers, before you leave, should explore what each has to offer. ‘

St. Marks and the Venice most often viewed in travel publications is found on San Marco and along the Grand Canal of Dorsoduro.

On the above map, the Piazza San Marco, St. Marks, is found on the St. Mark’s Basin, where the Grand and Giudecca canals meet before flowing into the Adriatic Sea.

The Treasure of St. Mark’s

Venice’s original patron saint, St. Theodore, represents the Byzantine church that 800’s era Venetians wanted to distance themselves from. St. Theodore was the dragon-slaying buddy of St. George and the sculptures, paintings and other images of St. Theodore usually triumphant over a large, dead, flying reptile. The Lion of Saint Mark represents the evangelist St Mark, Venice’s newer patron saint.  Images of a winged lion holding a Bible represent St. Mark in paintings, atop of buildings and in statues. The story of how St. Mark, who died in 68 AD, became a Venetian in the 800s is amusing.

It is also telling of the Venetians sense of justice.

Merchants of Venice

Merchants from Venice, the story goes, went to Alexandria in 828. Upon leaving the Egyptian city they carried the stolen bones of St. Mark in a basket, covered by a layer of cabbage and pork. When Muslim officials asked to inspect the chest, they yelled out in horror at the sight and smell of the pork, allowing the merchants to steal the saint’s bones.

However, if you ask a Venetian about the “stealing” of the bones, they will quickly let you know they were not stolen. It was God and St. Mark’s will that allowed them to remove the bones from Alexandria to the safety of Venice. The Venetians, who seem to be idly overwhelmed, did lose St. Mark for a while. The bones were misplaced when the first church to his honor was rebuilt.

However St. Mark’s remains were found and re-interred beneath the basilica. In 1835, the Patriarch of Venice, Giacomo Monico exhumed St. Mark once again and had them placed in a sarcophagus on the high altar in the church where they remain today.

Or do they?

Andrew Chugg, a respected authority, and a British historian is questioning if the venerated tomb of St. Mark in Venice contains not the great evangelist but the body of the most famous warlord in history, Alexander the Great.




Visiting St. Mark’s

The suggested method of visiting the Basilica is an “after hours” tour with an informed tour guide.  Purchase the tour that ensures a small group and a knowledgeable historian.  With a smaller group, questions are answered, objects are viewed and areas, such as the high altar and the magnificent Pala d’Oro, the retable of the high altar of the church that glorifies the Evangelist and contains his relics, can be viewed at leisure and without fighting for space.

By Gérard - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40077038
The Piazza San Marco – St. Mark’s Square

Venice in the fourteenth century, some feel, was quite possibly the wealthiest city in Western Europe. With its location at the of the Adriatic Sea, Venitian merchants not only transported goods, but it also acted a “marketplace” for Europe and the East.

Merchants involved in the trade economy offered spices and luxury wares from the East. Closer to home were traders in staple items, food, and household goods.  Those merchants were able to access Venice via inland waterways of the Lombard plains whose Northern edge connected Switzerland to the sea.

St. Mark’s Square has been and is still today, social, religious and political center of Venice. The square, which is actually in more or less a trapezoid shape, is bordered by historic buildings that today house shops filled with Merano glass and Venitian mask.

Thomas Coryate (c. 1577 -1617) is one of the earliest recorded travel writers, The Englishman was a writer during the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean age. He left two volumes of writings describing his travels through Europe and Asia.  In 1611 Coryate describes Venice as “the fairest place of all the citie”.  As it still is.

Changing Venice

During the 11th Century, the plaza was bisected by a canal allowing craft to glide along through the marketplace and for riders to disembark for shopping and sociability,

When standing in the center of the  Piazza, look opposite of the Basilica toward the Ala Napoleonica. Napoleon built this wing of the square’s buildings in the early 1800s, creating a state ballroom. Today the Museo Correr, also known as “The Museum of the City and Civilization of Venice” occupies the building.  Turn clockwise and peer down the longest continuous arcade walk, the Procuratie Vecchie.

This wing was originally occupied by the Procurators of St. Mark, the highest officials of the Venetian Republic after the Doge.

 The ground floor is occupied by shops and other businesses with its most famous being the Caffè Quadri. Here Austrian occupation troops took their Turkish coffee during the first half of the 19th Century.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

St. Marks Square looking toward the Napolean Wing. Insert the arcade walk Image by Jacquie Kubin for CommDigiNews

The clock tower to the right of Quadri is named the Torre dell’Orologio. Turn again to face the Basilica di San Marco, a grand building made of Byzantine domes, mosaics, and plundered treasure from the Near East and Asia.

To the right of the Basilica is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, an example of Venetian Gothic architecture whose rather clean exterior belies the grandiose treasures of art, sculpture and Venetian history.

The Campanile de San Marco

Turn now toward the Campanile di San Marco, a 99-meter (325-foot) guard tower from the 8th Century that was rebuilt after a sudden collapse in 1902. You can take an elevator to the top for a great view of the city and the lagoon.

Behind, in the Procuratie Nuove, are the Museo Archeologico and the state library known as the Libreria Sansoviniana or Biblioteca Marciana.

Another slight turn, and you’ll see well-heeled tourists and locals sipping drinks at the Caffè Florian, which opened for business in 1720 and has been a hangout for the likes of Byron, Balzac, and Henry James.

There, you’ve seen St. Mark’s Square, and you can move on to other sightseeing attractions or, better yet, find a table and order a glass of chilled Prosecco while other visitors take their tourist turns amid the pigeons.

Today St. Mark’s Square draws tourists and natives alike to sit, watch the pigeons or enjoy a gelato on the steps that surround the plaza. In the evening, various eateries host bands that perform classical to pop music with extraordinary skill. As one band finishes their set, the next in rotation begins.

As in all things here, it is civilized chaos.

The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark – St. Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

Detail of the gable showing Venice’s patron apostle St. Mark with angels. Underneath is a winged lion, the symbol of the saint and of Venice. Image by Petar Milosevic for Wikipedia CCO License

St. Marks Basilica is massive. Inside and out. The church plan is a Greek cross. The architecture model is the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople. That building was destroyed in 1462.

The church was originally built as the doge’s private chapel, not becoming the people’s cathedral until 1807.  The Venetians being great liberators and collectors of all things gold, shiny and pretty have added spectacular sculptures, mosaics and ceremonial objects increasing the church’s wealth.

Over the centuries, additions of sculpture, mosaics, and ceremonial objects have increased the church’s richness.

It was the doge’s private chapel until 1807, when it became the city’s cathedral.

St. Mark’s exterior

The Italo-Byzantine architecture of the exterior features lower and upper levels of the building and the domes. The lower aspects include the five arched entrances.

Decorated with Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic art, the arches are supported by clusters of columns whose capitals were carved in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The delicate pinnacles and other decorations at the top of the facade are Gothic additions of the 14th and 15th centuries.

There are many fascinating details to enjoy on the exterior, thanks to its incorporation of a wide variety of artworks dating to antiquity to the Middle Ages.

St. Mark’s Mosaics

The oldest exterior mosaic (1260-70) is located over the northernmost door on the west facade. Its subject is The Translation of the Body of St. Mark and it includes the oldest known depiction of San Marco Basilica.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

The translation of St. Mark – Image by Jacquie Kubin for CommDigiNews

The mosaics at the top of the arch farthest to the left (facing) the basilica depicts the Venetians liberating the bones of St. Mark’s from the Muslim inspectors of Alexander.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

Venetians taking the bones of St. Mark out of Alexandria – Image by Jacquie Kubin

Around the exterior of the building are marble columns, five-hundred in total, and decorative capitals, of various colors. The greater majority of the columns date back to the Byzantine period between 6th and 11th centuries are representative of the Byzantine and Ravenna art movements of that time.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

The glory of Christ – Image by Jacquie Kubin for CommDigiNews

Walking into the Basilica, looking up you will see 8,000 square meters of incredible gilded mosaics that date back to the 12th century.  These mosaics depict the glory of Christian salvation through the stories of the New Testament including the Virgin Mary, the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Clement, the lives of St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist and St. Isadore, the archbishop of Seville, all saints venerated by Venetians.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

The Pentecost Mosaic, in the center is the dove of the Holy Spirit with the twelve apostles below. This is one of the oldest mosaics in the church dating from 1125. By Dennis Jarvis – Flickr: DGJ_1547 – Pentecost Mosaic, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14574773

Looking down is a 12th century mosaic of marble and stone laid in geometric patterns and animal design that is, like the mosaics on the ceiling, nothing short of amazingly precise.  Particularly when one considers the hand wrought nature of the designs and the work.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

Floor mosaics at St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice Ital

 

The Ala Napoleonica

Find a spot in the middle of the Piazza and look back toward the Ala Napoleonica. The late Mr. Bonaparte had this wing built in the early 1800s to house a state ballroom. Today, the building is occupied by the Museo Correr, also known as “The Museum of the City and Civilization of Venice.”

Turn 90 degrees to your right, and you’ll be looking at the long wing of the Procuratie Vecchie. These buildings were originally occupied by the Procurators of St. Mark, the highest officials of the Venetian Republic after the Doge.

 The building has been rebuilt at various times in the intervening centuries. The ground floor is full of shops and other businesses. Its most famous tenant is the Caffè Quadri, where Austrian occupation troops took their Turkish coffee during the first half of the 19th Century.

The Torre dell’Orlogia

Notably on the Piazza is St. Mark’s Basilica. To the left of the church, is the Torre dell’Orlogia that has been chiming the hours of the day, and night, since 1499. The Clock Tower stands over the entrance to Venice’s main shopping and financial centers.  Beneath the tower you can find money exchanges and ATM’s safe to use.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

The Lion of St. Mark

On the sides of Piazza are long arcades, the covered walkway lined with shop, restaurants, bars and gelateria’s serving creamy egg-rich cold treats. It is a travel tip to try them all. Gelato in Italy is delicious. However, the best Gelato is found along the streets that crisscross Venice versus the tourist-rich purveyors on the square.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, Venice, Italy, Jacquie Kubin

Torre dell’Orologio, ringing out the hours since 1499 TOP IMAGE: The “Moors” striking the hours; The Virgin and Child and two blue panels showing the time IN Roman numerals; The Clock face with the astrological signs. The Three Magi following the Angel Gabrielle parade before the Madonna. The Magi only appear on Epiphany and Acension Day.

The clock tower to the right of Quadri is named the Torre dell’Orologio and has been ringing out the hours since 1499.

Rotate another quarter-turn, and you’ll be facing the Basilica di San Marco: a grandiose and magnificent hodgepodge of Byzantine domes, mosaics, and plundered treasure from the Near East and Asia.

Look off to the right of the Basilica for a glimpse of the Venetian Gothic Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace.

In front of the basilica is the  99-meter (325-foot) guard tower from the 8th Century,  Campanile di San Marco. The original tower was rebuilt after a 1902 collapse.

Across from the Ducal Palace are the Museo Archeologico and the state library known as the Libreria Sansoviniana or Biblioteca Marciana.

Take time to sit in St. Mark’s Square

While on the square, make time to stop at the Caffè Florian. In business since 1720 notables such as  Byron, Balzac, and Henry James have all dined at the cafe.

There, you’ve seen St. Mark’s Square, and you can move on to other sightseeing attractions or, better yet, find a table at Cafe Florian and order a glass of chilled Prosecco while other visitors take their tourist turns amid the pigeons.

While Venice, Italy loses some of its charm with the cruise ships and boat’s laden with day tourists, if you know when to go, where to look, eat, and stay, you can find yourself falling in love with the city known for love.

Next Article: Hotel Monaco where love reigns in Venice

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award-winning writer and wanderer. She turns her thoughts to an eclectic mix of stories - from politics to sports. Restless by nature and anxious to experience new things, both in the real world and online, Jacquie mostly shares travel and culinary highlights, introduces readers to the chefs and creative people she meets and shares the tips, life and travel information people want to read.