With its five huge domes, a ceiling covered in oppulant golden mosaics and a classical era statue of four horses adorning its facade, St. Mark’s Basilica is no ordinary church. This unique Byzantine influenced edifice has dominated the Piazza San Marco for over a thousand years. The current building was consecrated in 1093 and has been added to over the centuries. Many of the additions were stolen, usually from Constantinople. Venetian Christians weren’t too hot on the whole ‘Thou shalt no steal’ bit.
This was especially the case in 828 when a group of daring and possibly slightly unhinged Venetian merchants stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria in Egypt. They hid him in a barrel full of pork designed to dissuade the local Muslim authorities from investigating too closely. Stealing a few statues is one thing; stealing an actual saint is quite another! The Doge of Venice then ordered a church to built to house the stolen relics in 832. This original church was built on the site of the current basilica.
Perhaps the most famous piece of Venetian war booty however is the sculpture of four horses which look out over Piazza San Marco from the loggia above the entrance to the church. This imposing piece was brought to Venice from Constantinople after the sack of the city during the fourth crusade in the early 1200s.
Napoleon Bonaparte took a shine to them and they briefly adorned the top of the Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris before they were returned to Venice after his defeat at Waterloo. These are some seriously well travelled horses. The ones you now see outside are actually replicas with the originals stored safely inside away from the prying hands of vertically challenged French Emperors.
St. Mark’s Square is one of those rare places that actually lives up to and even surpasses the expectations of the first time visitor. When I caught my first glimpse of the Square through the arches at the western end, it genuinely took my breath away. It is simply a stunning sight. It’s almost seems too perfect, like a theme park.
I spent a few minutes sitting on the steps opposite the basilica trying to take it all in: the ornate basilica itself with the neighbouring Campanile bell tower soaring over the square, the local police half-heartedly chasing the resident pickpockets around the square and the wide eyed tourists wondering which kidney to sell after they’d been handed their bills at one of the restaurants that spill out into the piazza.
All the while, the music from tiny orchestras drifts through the night air. Mind you, the mood is somewhat spoiled by the fact that these orchestras were playing ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ by Queen. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m a big Queen fan but a song about the influence ladies with large behinds have on the earth’s rotation didn’t quite fit the mood. What the great Venetian composer, Antonio Vivaldi would have made of this is anyone’s guess.
My own attempt to visit the interior of the basilica was cut somewhat short by my one and a half year old son who didn’t quite appreciate the Italo-Byzantine architecture and golden frescos as much as I’d hoped. It turns out toddlers don’t really like dark medieval churches all that much. Venice hadn’t experienced screams like this since Napoleon’s unwelcome visit over 200 years previously. It seems he much prefers Peppa Pig and chasing pigeons around the piazza……. my son that is, not Napoleon.
I took this photo on my first night in the city. St. Mark’s Square was still covered in large puddles from the previous days flood or ‘acqua alta‘ as the Venetians call the regular (and in my opinion rather rude) incursions of the Adriatic Sea into their city.
Large puddles like this are a dream for photographers as they provide the perfect opportunity to capture reflections. I waded into the puddle to set up my tripod and used a wide angle (10-20mm) lens in order to capture the whole facade and it’s reflection in the frame. I think it was worth getting soggy feet for.