A History of San Marco Basilica

San Marco is the symbol of Venice as a Republic, serving as the heart of the city’s spirituality, an important political center with its role as the doge’s church as well as the social center of the city. While significant both spiritually and politically, it is also a standing testament to the relationship Venice had with Byzantium and Islamic world. Like so much of Venice the church itself embodies the relationship held with the East. The architectural structure of San Marco is Byzantine but it holds the remains of St. Mark making it of great importance to the Christian West. It also is the place of great ceremonies for the Venetian public as well as the private chapel of the doge. This multi-faceted cultural embodiment is symbolic of the unconventional makeup of Venice itself.[1]

The structure and façade today has been greatly altered throughout Venice’s history but it still holds many of the structural and ornamentation that was created and added during the early years of Venice’s history. When the two mariners returned from Alexandria in 828 a simple shrine was started and Mark became the patron of Venice. The church was built between 829 and 832 by Doge Giovanni Particaiaco I at the behest of Doge Giustiniano Partciaco who provided for the chapel in his will. This chapel was erected between San Todaro and the castrum of the doges, two important political and religions structures that once stood close to modern day San Marco. Little is known about this church but it most likely would have been decorated with marble and other materials taken from ruins from the Terrafirma. This church was destroyed by a fire in 976 that broke out due to a revolt against Doge Candiano IV but restored by Doge Pietro Orseolo. Modifications on the original were made such as the addition of the vaulted roof which had once been open space. This church stood for a hundred years until the newer, now standing church was constructed. While there is no conclusive evidence on the form and appearance of either church archaeologists think they both would have taken on a basilica form, similar to the Cathedral of Torcello (Figure 2). From 976 to 1056, the wealth and population significantly increased and a newer, grander church was needed to honor their patron saint[2].

The third Basilica of San Marco began construction in 1063 under Doge Domenico Contarini and much of what stands today is from this time, with many of the decorations added over the next four centuries. The major construction took approximately thirty years to complete. There are three major phases of construction to build San Marco. The first phase is in the Greek style and completed under Doges Contarini, Selvo and Falier. Contarini began the construction in 1063, Selvo started the mosaic decoration in 1071 and Falier consecrated and dedicated the church to St. Mark on October 8.1094. At this time the church would have had five flattened domes and was decorated with columns, cornices and capitals built in Byzantium as well as textured brick walls in the Romanesque style. Covered up in later years, the unadorned brickwork can be seen on the exterior of the apses and transepts today. During the second phase of construction, the existing walls of St. Theodore and the Doge’s Palace were connected through the incorporation into the north and south facades to reinforce the domes. The final phase was ornamentation.[3]

[1] Richard Goy 148-149

[2] Richard Goy149

[3] Vio, St. Mark’s 140-144.

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I posted my San Marco photos on my blog Katherine’s blog today in case you’d want any-

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