“There rises a vision out of the earth; a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of coloured light; a treasure heap, it seems, partly of gold and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory.”
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, Description of St Marks.
Built to house the body of St Mark, which had been stolen in 828 from Alexandria by two enterprising Venetian merchants, the basilica of St Marks impresses the visitor with its crowd of domes, flamboyant carvings and dazzling mosaics. Henry James wrote that Venice was as “changeable as a nervous woman" and St Mark’s façade appears to change colour in response to changes in weather and the seasons. Although it is called a basilica, the ground plan is in the form of a Greek cross, much more Byzantine than Roman and when we step inside, William Dean Howells observed, “the architectural structure of the Basilica almost disappears under the thunderbolt of the Gold”. The gloriousness of the mosaics and of the famous Pala d’Oro reflect the fact that St Mark’s was conceived as a royal chapel and reliquary rather than a cathedral. Its crowning glory are the famous bronze (in fact gilt copper) horses which were removed from Constantinople during the 4th Crusade of 1204 and in turn by Napoleon who took them to Paris. For conservation reasons, they are now on view in the museum and have been replaced on the outside by copies. St Mark’s inspired one of Ruskin’s finest descriptive passages in Stones of Venice, but not all visitors have been as enthusiastic. Mark Twain likened the basilica to a “vast warty bug taking a meditative walk” and it offended the classical notions of proportion of some eighteenth-century visitors such as Joseph Spence and Edward Gibbon.
To find out more about the history of the building and the story of the removal of the body of St Mark, to hear some very contrasting responses to the building, play the audios below.