Spolia, Reliefs, and Adaptations

With the foundations completed the following decades were devoted to the decorating of the basilica. At the end of the twelfth century the west façade was ornamented with a great number of multi-colored marble columns and capitals, the majority of which had been taken from the East. All of the great façade piers and walls were covered with veneer made from rare marbles. The decoration process greatly increased in 1204 with an influx of booty from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade, including the relief carvings that decorate the façade today. It is often hard to discriminate between original Venetian or Eastern booty, “because of Venice’s close cultural links with the Eastern capital, blended stylistically with the indigenously-produced works.”[1] Just like the Pink and White stones from the Mamluk civilization, there are ornamentations that have been taken directly from Byzantium or the Islamic East as well as Venetian works produced in the Eastern style.

Byzantine Spolia:

Venice wanted to represent its relationship with Constantinople and the East as well as show its own wealth on its great civic and spiritual building. No longer was the basilica a plain-faced brick construction, for the crusades allowed for the removal of byzantine spolia that were placed on the façade of San Marco. Among the spolia are the central and the sourthern portal bronze doors that were taken from Constantinople (Figure 1). Also, one of the most famous pieces the quadriga (Figure 2), the four bronze horses, taken from the Hippodrome and placed on the porch of the Basilica. The four porphyry Tetrarchs (Figure 3) were taken from Philadelphion and placed on the corner of the basilica that connects the church to the doge’s palace. The tetrarch’s are meaningful not only because they are spolia but also the fact that they are representations of the four sons of Constantine as well as symbolizing political harmony. They were taking from Philadelphion, the central street in imperial Byzanitum further tying the two cities together. Right by the tetrarchs are two columns taken from the church of St. Poleyktos. San Marco received the Nicopeia (figure 4), the guardian image of the Byzantine church, which held great symbolic and spiritual meaning to the Eastern Church. Less specifically, most of the reliefs on the walls of the Treasury of San Marco, the marble and onyx, and most of the columns and capitals were also taken from Byzantium. This great addition to the façade after the fall of Constantinople sent a clear message, “they were an artistic assertion that the center of empire was now in Venice, and that Venice had conquered and taken possession of Byzantium, the memory and sovereign magnificence of which she carried significantly.”[2]

Figure 1: Central Portal Door San Marco, from Constantinople, Venice, Italy. http://flickr.com/photos/adraskoy/255295388/

Figure 1: Central Portal Door San Marco, from Constantinople, Venice, Italy. http://flickr.com/photos/adraskoy/255295388/ Figure 2:The Horses of St. Mark’s. Museo Marciano, from Constantinople, Venice, Italy. http://www.lipolifarm.com/art.html

 

Figure 3: The Tetrarchs, red prphryry, from Constantinople, fourth century, Venice, Italy. http://www.fpa.ysu.edu/~slsmith/ecbyzwebpage/tetrarchs.jpg
Figure 3: The Tetrarchs, red prphryry, from Constantinople, fourth century, Venice, Italy. http://www.fpa.ysu.edu/~slsmith/ecbyzwebpage/tetrarchs.jpgFigure 3: The Tetrarchs, red prphryry, from Constantinople, fourth century, Venice, Italy. http://www.fpa.ysu.edu/~slsmith/ecbyzwebpage/tetrarchs.jpgFigure 3: The Tetrarchs, red prphryry, from Constantinople, fourth century, Venice, Italy. http://www.fpa.ysu.edu/~slsmith/ecbyzwebpage/tetrarchs.jpg

Figure 4: Nicopeia Madonna, from Constantinople, Venice, Italy. http://www.mariaoggi.it/Venezia,%20Nicopeia,%20sec.%20X-XII.htm

Figure 4: Nicopeia Madonna, from Constantinople, Venice, Italy.

The Islamic East

The Islamic East wasn’t plundered as much as Constantinople but many of their styles were copied and integrated into the façade. Islamic themes ranged from mere references to almost carbon copy sculptures on the façade. One of the more obvious assimilations can be see when comparing San Marco’s The Months, (1240) (Figure 5), carved around the main portal, to Egypt’s Labours of the Months (Figure 6). The style of the Venetian relief references the wood and ivory carvings used throughout the East as well as having an identical theme to the Egyptian relief. The use of wood and ivory as medium is common in the East but what is a greater indicator is the similar narrative and style of the two reliefs. Both produced in the same period with the Egyptian work being slightly older, art historians feel the correlation is not coincidental but whoever the Venetian artist was used the Egyptian work as a template to produce his work. Another example of more deliberate assimilation of Islamic art is the Saracenic-type portals that were added during the thirteenth century. The Porta dei Fiori on the northern façade shows the pointed arches common to Islamic art (Figure 7). There are three located throughout the façade and their location has been suggested to designate the way a foreigner should visit the basilica. The first appears on the north side of the basilica, the entrance to the church. Upon entering the next Saracenic-type portal can be found around the door of the treasury, the next stop on a visitor’s tour and finally the last surrounds door on the south façade marking an exit. The Islamic style was utilized by the Venetians to designate the path in which those familiar with the doors to follow.

Figure 5: The Months, before c.1240, relief stone carving, Venice, San Marco, main portal.  Howard, Venice and the East, p103.

Figure 5: The Months, before c.1240, relief stone carving, Venice, San Marco, main portal. Howard, Venice and the East, p103.

Figure 6: Labours of the Monthes, eleventh-twelfth century, Fatimid ivory reliefs, Egypt, Florence, Bargello.  Howard, Venice and the East, p102
Figure 6: Labours of the Monthes, eleventh-twelfth century, Fatimid ivory reliefs, Egypt, Florence, Bargello. Howard, Venice and the East, p102
Figure 7: Porta dei Fiori, Venice, San Marco, thirteenth century.  Howard, Venice and the East, p105.

Figure 7: Porta dei Fiori, Venice, San Marco, thirteenth century. Howard, Venice and the East, p105.

Figure 8: Relief depicting peacocks and eagles, Venice, San Marco. Howard, Venice and the East, p 104.

Figure 8: Relief depicting peacocks and eagles, Venice, San Marco. Howard, Venice and the East, p 104.

Adaptation of Byzantine Reliefs

With the influx of spoils from Constantinople, copying images from the Islamic East, and Italian medieval traditions surrounding them, Venice began to emulate all of these arts and form their own, Byzantine-like sculptural program in their city. This is best seen in the many standing virgin reliefs. A popular figure in Byzantium art is the standing virgin. The sculptors of San Marco used this image many times over a number of years revealing the change in style over time. The earliest virgin located in the north aisle of the church follows the iconography and style of Byzantine art (Figure 9). This relief is dated to the 11th century or a bit later and was made in Venice. When comparing this work to a later thirteenth-century Madonna seen on the northwest pier of the main cupola (Figure 10), a shift from the Byzantine style and newly developed Venetian adaptations can be seen. There is a clear expression and more humanity to this as opposed to the stoic, lifeless earlier version. The lines of the drapery highlight the softness and curves of the body. Compared again to the more elaborate Madonna on the west façade (Figure 11) it is easy to see how “the mannerist phase of paraphrasing Byzantine models, which the Virgin of the west façade exemplifies was preceded by a phase during which Byzantine prototypes were carefully copied and cautiously varied.”[1]

Figure 9:Madonna della Grazia, Venice, North Aisle.  Demus, Church of San Marco, Image 36.

Figure 9:Madonna della Grazia, Venice, North Aisle. Demus, Church of San Marco, Image 36.

Figure 10: Orant Virgin, Venice, North Transept.  Demus, Church of San Marco, Image 37.

Figure 10: Orant Virgin, Venice, North Transept. Demus, Church of San Marco, Image 37.Figure 11: Virgin Orant, Venice, West Facade. Demus, Church of San Marco, Image 43.Figure 11: Virgin Orant, Venice, West Facade. Demus, Church of San Marco, Image 43.

Mosaics:

It would be nearly impossible to have a byzantine-style church without mosaics. While the most notable mosaics lie in the inside of the church, there are nine mosaics that lie amongst the spolia and decoration of the façade. Most of the original mosaics have been destroyed and newer ones were added in the thirteenth century but today mosaic above the northernmost mosaic survives from the original mosaic plan (Figure 12). This mosaic is significant on multiple fronts. First, it is a great example of how byzantine art was adapted by Venetians, second if provides a record of what the façade looked like in the thirteenth century and finally it brings in a reference to Alexandria. We can see that the façade was much simper at this time than it is today. The mosaic’s narrative is the bringing of San Marco’s body to the basilica. The narrative can be seen as another connection to Alexandria. For those who know the myth of San Marco, this would be known as the final step in the journey that the saint’s remains undertook that began in Alexandria.[2] While not a direct image of Alexandria, it was a reminder of how the city acquired the relics of St. Mark as well as the beginning of the relationship forged between the Islamic East and Venice. This focus on Alexandria is continued in the atrium mosaics where there is a focus on biblical stories that took place in Egypt and continue to depict the relationship between the two cities.[3]

Figure 12: The body of St. Mark carried in procession into the basilica, mosaic, thirteenth century, west façade.  http://home.planet.nl/~posth144/Posthumus/Photogallery/Italy/I_pages/venezia2.htm

Figure 12: The body of St. Mark carried in procession into the basilica, mosaic, thirteenth century, west façade. http://home.planet.nl/~posth144/Posthumus/Photogallery/Italy/I_pages/venezia2.htm


[1] Otto Demus. 123-135

[2] Richard Goy 153

[3] Deborah Howard, Venice and the East 79

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