Spolia, Reliefs, and Adaptations
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.”
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.
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.”
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. 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.