Breaking Commandments at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy

May 2, 2012 8 Comments »

The Contraband of St. Mark's Basilica

St. Mark’s Basilica (right) in San Marco Square dominates Venice

“Thou shall not steal” is known as the eighth commandment – Christianity is built on the Ten Commandments. Yet somehow the most holiest of places in Venice, St. Mark’s Basilica, exists thanks to people breaking the 8th commandment!

“Borrowed” Contraband in St. Mark’s Basilica

To my surprise I listened to our guide Giussepina talk about how everything we were looking at in and on the basilica was stolen…or as she so kindly put it – “borrowed”. It starts with the outside marble façade, to the famous horses on the top of the basilica, and finally the namesake of the church was also stolen and interned here at the altar – St. Mark himself!

St. Mark’s Basilica is the centerpiece of Venice and served as the Doge’s private chapel for centuries. As you gaze at its beauty outside look very closely at the walls and columns. Focus in on the marble designs and seams of the walls – what you are looking at is actually a patchwork quilt made of marble. The whole exterior is covered in marble that was stolen from Istanbul and brought back square by square and column by column. The marble was then ‘stitched’ together as the facade of St. Mark’s. No one column is like the other – look closely and you’ll realize that there really is no symmetry to this structure.

The Contraband of St. Mark's Basilica

Look closely to see each ‘stitched’ together square of marble from Istanbul

A mosaic over one of the outside doors tells the story of how St. Mark’s body made it to the basilica as it’s final resting place. A few crafty Venetians went to Alexandria, Egypt where his body lay originally and stole it from the Muslims sneaking the body out by wrapping it in pork – quite a clever heist. Now St. Mark lies in the basilica at the altar.

Viewing the inside of the church is free yet there is normally a line. You can skip the line if you book ahead online for 1 Euro – a Venice tip many people aren’t aware of. The gold leaf mosaics at the entrance of the church have just been cleaned and restored and are looking particularly shiny. The inside is massive and full of more contraband marble from Turkey. But the real site to see is the altar where St. Mark rests.

The Contraband of St. Mark's Basilica

St. Mark’s final resting place – minus the pork products

St. Mark’s Basilica Tour

Pala D’oro Altar

Also at the altar you will find the ‘Pala d’oro’ one of the richest and most precious altars covered with more than 3000 precious stones and enamel icons inlaid in gold. Even though the entrance to the basilica is free, to view the altar you will have to pay a small fee. I thought it was worth it to see such a work of art. The ornate details and images were accompanied with large gems making me wonder just how much the Pala d’oro was worth!

The Contraband of St. Mark's Basilica

The Golden Altar of Venice – look closely past all of the gold to see the precious gems!

The Contraband of St. Mark's Basilica

The golden frescos of St. Marks are only lighted once a day starting at 11:30AM

Finally, we climbed the steep stairway in the front of the basilica to view the 4 bronze horses which were also originally stolen from Istanbul/Constantinople. In 1204, after the fall of Constantinople, Doge Enrico Dandolo brought them to Venice where they were placed on the façade of the basilica. However, with the fall of Napolean and the republic, the French looted everything they could carry including the four horses. They were returned to St Mark’s by the French government only in 1815. The famous horses had made a number of journeys but now are preserved and rest upstairs inside the Basilica. The ones outside are replicas.

The Contraband of St. Mark's Basilica

The stolen horses have been around the world but now are in their final resting place upstairs at St. Marks

The Contraband of St. Mark's Basilica

The 4 horse replicas outside on the balcony of St. Mark’s

Giuseppina took us out on the balcony overlooking San Marco piazza for the fabulous view and pointed out the various historical sites around the piazza wrapping up our 4 hour tour of the secret passageways of Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica. It was a long morning, but one filled with riveting stories and stunning sites.

My head was full, my stomach was empty, and my mind was swimming in the past.

This is the 2nd part of the Doges Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica tour I took with Walks of Italy.  Read Part 1

The Good:

• Our guide Giuseppina was great – engaging and very knowledgeable.
• The secret passageways were completely worth it. To go through these two worlds of public life and private sentencing was fascinating. It was great to see these rooms that very few people get to see and to feel that you are all alone.
• Giuseppina ensured we were at the basilica at the right time so that we could see the frescos lit up inside. The lights are on only for an hour or so each day where you can actually see the intricate work of the mosaics.

The Could be Better:

• The tour was jam packed with information on two slightly different subjects – the Doges Palace and the Basilica. I felt as if I had to sort of rush through the Basilica in a way (yet we were able to stay there at the end and wander around at our own pace). The two buildings are sort of related, but a part of me thinks that the Secret Passageways alone would have been enough . However, I’m not complaining as we were able to get a complete tour of both sites!

Would I Recommend It?

Yes, it was a reasonable cost for the amount of time and thoroughness of the tour. Plus, the special, private viewing of the Chancellor rooms holds a lot of value.

More Information:
Secret Passageways of the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica Tour
Cost – €98

Disclosure: Walks of Italy hosted my Secret Passageways Tour in Venice. However, all of the opinions expressed here are my own – as you know how I love to speak my mind!

The Contraband of St. Mark's Basilica

The Basilica from above

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