St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco) is the most renowned of the churches of Venice and is often considered as one of the finest specimens of Italo-Byzantine architecture. And this time around, the historical and architectural legacies of the medieval structure are rather bolstered by a successful restoration that was focused on the almost-thousand-year-old mosaics inside the narthex (porch) of the church. To that end, the comprehensive 5-year long project entailed the reinforcing of the mosaic supports (that mitigated the chance of their detaching from the wall) and then cleaning the mosaics themselves.
In terms of the sheer scale, the mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica are estimated to cover an interior area of 86,000 sq ft (which is equivalent to 1.5 times the size of an American football field). The majority of these incredible artworks are accentuated by the background of gold glass tesserae, and as such wondrously depict a range of religious motifs – like Biblical scenarios (including the Virgin and the Child), representation of patron saints (including St. Mark in his papal attire), and their associated iconography and symbolic arrangements. Interestingly enough, the earliest surviving specimen of these mosaics (dating back to circa 1070 AD) was possibly created by a workshop that was originally based in Constantinople.
As for the history of the church itself, the first building dedicated to St. Mark was possibly constructed at the site in early 9th century AD, after as legends say, Venetian merchants brought back the remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist all the way from Alexandria. Quite intriguingly, a particular mosaic inside St. Mark’s Basilica depicts this episode by portraying how the sailors covered the venerable relics with a layer of pork and cabbage leaves, so as not to arouse any suspicions from the Muslim guards. In any case, suffice it to say, the church and its various segments were expanded, modified, and restored over the centuries, with Venetian conquests in Greece bringing in more Eastern Roman (Byzantine) elements for the embellishment of the structure.
The enlargement of the core structure, along with the exquisite decorative features and mosaics of the interiors, fueled the rise of St. Mark’s Basilica’s popularity in Venice, so much so that it was lauded as one of the remarkable landmarks of the city since the medieval times. Many memorable events from history mirrored such a heritage status, with examples presented by Italy Magazine –
In 1177, Pope Alexander III met with emperor Frederick Barbarossa after the Battle of Legnano; in 1201, soldiers coming from all of Europe on their way to the fourth Crusade met right in the Basilica. St. Mark’s Basilica was everybody’s church: people gathered here in times of celebration, and also in times of danger – they took refuge in 1797 during the Napoleonic invasion of the city.
And lastly, the good news for history and architecture enthusiasts is that the restorative works of the mosaics will continue in sections adjacent to the narthex of this magnificent Italo-Byzantine church.
All Images Credit: Steven Zucker/Flickr