Though the great brick lion-adorned campanile is easily the most visible landmark in Venice, a more intriguing sight can be seen if the viewer looks just below the tower. A cluster of gray domes rises over the flat rooftops like petrified bubbles. Amidst the square and squat palazzos, which, befitting of a city raised from where there should never have been one, have the straight lines and rectilinear forms of artifice, the domes are strikingly organic. Even in this most peculiar of places they seem otherworldly. They belong, of course, to St. Mark’s Basilica.
Last summer I visited Italy and made sure to include on my itinerary major landmarks of architecture and engineering. Over the coming months I will write a series of articles about the places and buildings that I found the most astonishing. The first of these is the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, a building as unique as the city itself.
The city of Venice is just as much an astonishing feat of engineering as any of its buildings. Before its urbanization, it was a marshy collection of sandbars in a lagoon pervaded by malaria whose settlement was a necessity due to the advance of barbarian tribes. However, the people who did make their homes in the lagoon were not content with merely surviving here temporarily; they wanted to thrive. Initially the few sizeable islands in the lagoon, like Torcello were major ports, but as salt marshes grew around them, the Venetians moved out onto the water.
These people created land to build upon by sinking pine timber posts, or piles, up to eight meters into the mud, which prevents them from rotting. The tightly packed piles in turn support wooden “rafts”. As ingenious as this system was, it was not as strong as solid ground, and the Venetians built using light materials. The architecture of Venice is sometimes called “lacelike” (a good example of this is the Ca d’Oro.) This too may be a result of necessity. I could not find any figures relating to the piles beneath the basilica, but over a million support the nearby Santa Maria della Salute.
The nave of the basilica
A basilica existed on the site of St Mark’s since early in Venice’s history; like many major structures of the age, it gained its current form over the course of several major modifications. Fascinating models in the basilica’s upper-floor museum (which also affords views over the piazza and contains the copper horses of Saint Mark, and is definitely worth the extra few Euros to enter) illustrate the additions made to the building over the centuries. The current structure was completed in the eleventh century, and is a masterpiece even by Venetian standards. The actual facade is obscured by hundreds of columns (many of which were pillaged from Venice’s enemies) and sculptural finals. Inside, it immediately becomes obvious why the building is known as the “church of gold”- shimmering Byzantine-style mosaics entirely cover the walls and domed ceiling. The sight is so overawing that one might miss the smaller details, like the wooden choir, richly carved stonework, and patterned floor. The visual richness, which rivals even that of St. Peter’s in Rome, was a product of Venice’s lucrative trading empire.
The basilica’s heavily columned exterior
A model of additions made to the basilica
The basilica is unique not only because of its golden excess but also because of its eclectic mixture of architectural styles, a fusion seen nowhere else in Italy or the rest of Europe. The final structure was built shortly after the great schism, in which the Roman Catholic Church separated from Eastern Orthodoxy. The Schism led to a loss of connection between eastern and western Europe. The last bridge was the maritime empire of Venice. The basilica reflects this in its combination of Byzantine architecture and the Romanesque and budding Gothic styles of France and Germany. The western styles are seen in the many arches throughout the building and the cross-shaped plan, which would later become a staple of Gothic cathedrals. The Byzantine style can be seen most prominently in the domes. Not only do they have an oriental-inspired “onion” shape, but they are supported by pendentives- arched corners, first built at Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, that allow the domes to be constructed on square bases. It might be assumed that the bright colors are a Byzantine feature as well. However, the Gothic style was also highly colorful- people who admire the great French and English cathedrals for their austerity would be shocked to know that they were once brightly painted but their luster has faded.
A more Gothic section of the exterior
One of the domes, with pendentives around it.
St. Mark’s basilica is a must-see for visitors in Venice. Unless you are only in the city long enough for a stroll around the canals, there is no excuse not to visit, for the only thing in Venice that is as spectacular as the structure is the city in and of itself.
The courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, with the domes of St. Mark’s on the right
All photos by author
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