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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Venice, Italy - Basilica Di San Marco

Byzantine- St Mark's Basilica, Venice.Image via Wikipedia

By Harry Preston
Venice's most visited sight was originally the doge's private chapel, but since 1807 it has been, deservedly, the city's cathedral church. Its makeup is an eclectic mix of cupolas, spires, sculpture and mosaics, leading Mark Twain to compare it to "a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk". The Quadriga, four horses that adorn the front, are copies of statues looted from the hippodrome in Constantinople. The originals are in the loggia of the cathedral. Its altar is said to house the body of St Mark, smuggled from Alexandria in AD 829 by two merchants and adopted as the city's patron.

The building itself is built on the plan of a Greek cross. While the structure of San Marco has altered little since 1063, its decoration has changed repeatedly as more and more treasures were brought back from the Orient. Columns, capitals and friezes were added on an ad hoc basis until the basilica's ancient brickwork disappeared under marble and carvings.

The interior is dark and dense with 4,OOOsq m (4,3056sq feet) of mosaics, including bronze and gold tiles. In candlelight, the nave has an other-worldly feel but beware the uneven floors, the result of centuries of flooding and subsidence. The mosaics of the narthex (above the central doorway) show Old Testament scenes including the Creation, while the interiors of the main domes show Pentecost, the Ascension, and Christ Pantocrator. The Baptistry (usually closed to the public) is richly decorated with mosaic scenes from the life of St John the Baptist.

The multiple choir lofts were the inspiration for the early development of a Venetian style of "polychoral" music in which different groups of singers answer each other. As a result, the post of maestro di cappella at San Marco was much sought-after in the music world. The Gabrielis, Andrea and Giovanni, ran San Marco in the 16th century; one of the earliest opera composers Pietro Cavalli (1602-1676) was both chorister and organist and Tommaso Albinoni (1671-1751) is said to be buried somewhere inside the basilica.

The whole complex has been referred to as the world's biggest display of stolen property. Among the plundered Byzantine silver and gold is the Pala d'Oro, a jewel- encrusted altarpiece covered with over 3,000 precious stones. The Tetrarchy, a porphyry statue of three emperors on the south side of the building, was taken from Constantinople in 1204 and presented to San Marco. The foot missing from one of the emperors was discovered recently in Istanbul - but is being kept there. Visit early to avoid the crowds and follow the signs to Loggia dei Cavalli. From here, even if you don't visit the horses and loggia, you can look down into the basilica and get a clear idea of its shape.

For an online guided tour of Venice, Italy, or for more information about the city of Venice, visit For an online guided tour of Dubai, UAE, or for more information about the city of Dubai, visit

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