St. Mark's Basilica
Its shadowy, mysterious interior gleams with treasures -- golden mosaics, colored marbles, emeralds, and pearls -- making St. Mark's one of Europe's most glorious and exotic cathedrals. Because it is Byzantine in style and holds riches that a powerful Venetian state looted from Constantinople, St. Mark's has been called a "glittering robbers' den, the only church in Christendom that would not look out of place in Xanadu."
The basilica mingles the decorative styles of East and West into an
Asian fantasy of domes, mosaics, glittering jewels, and carvings.
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Consecrated in 1094, the basilica is surely Venice's holiest shrine; beneath the high altar rest the mortal remains of Saint Mark the Evangelist. These bones were another prize of plunder, stolen in 828 from their tomb in Alexandria, Egypt.
Venice declared Saint Mark the city's patron saint and enshrined his bones in an earlier basilica on the same site. When that church was destroyed by fire in 976, Saint Mark's remains were thought lost. But in the 11th century, it is said, the Evangelist miraculously reappeared during mass at the new basilica, thrusting his hand out of a pillar.
The building is laid out like a Greek cross, with five bulging domes and five arched entrances. Its most famous treasure stands behind the altar in the sanctuary -- the Pala d'Oro, a golden altar screen encrusted with jewels. Fabricated in Constantinople for the doge in 976, it was later embellished by Venetian goldsmiths. In the basilica's treasury lie more riches, primarily looted from Constantinople but diminished over time by plundering and sell-offs to raise funds.
The church's museum houses a team of four gilded bronze horses that for centuries stood proudly atop St. Mark's as emblems of Venice and its unrestrained power. Due to the dangers from modern air pollution, these originals have been moved inside, replaced outside by replicas. The horses look so natural that Petrarch said he expected them to "neigh and stamp their feet." Spoils of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the team is said to have come from Constantinople's Hippodrome, an ancient racecourse.
St. Mark's Basilica -- filled with artworks that glitter like treasure in the perpetual twilight of the interior -- continues to delight the world with the storybook spell of Xanadu itself.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.