Piazza San Marco is dominated by St Marks Basilica, a unique architectural masterpiece that is some 175,5 metres long. The mosaic (said to be of Saint Alipio) that overlooks the first portal on the right hand side dates back to 1260. It tells the story of two merchants: Rustico from Torcello and Bruno from Malamocco who in 828 secretly stole the body of San Marco from Alessandria (Egypt).
From the picture you can see the two merchants avoid the Muslim guards by hiding the body of St Mark underneath pork meat, (food considered dirty according to Islam) and calling out ‘canzir' that in Arabic means pork. The disgusted guards reacted by not inspecting the load, enabling the corpse to be taken aboard the ship that set sail immediately for Venice.
This is just one of the many mosaics on the façade. Climb up the 42 steep steps to reach the terrace where the copy of famous horses of Constantinople are displayed. The originals are found within the museum inside the basilica. It seems impossible that these bronzes arrived here after 23 centuries and 10 very long and dangerous journeys.
To make transportation easier their heads were separated from their bodies. Each horse weighs 835 kilos. In 1204, after the fall of Constantinople, Doge Enrico Dandolo brought them to Venice where they originally finished in the ‘Arsenale' and then on the façade of the basilica.
With the fall of Napolean and the Republic, before leaving the city, 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.
As you enter St Marks Basilica through the main portal over which sits the lion of St Mark, where in 1177 the Emperor Federico Barbarossa kneeled down before pope Alessandro III. Discover the marble of the columns, an excellent sample of ores and minerals that arrived from the most famous quarries of the ancient world. It is estimated that mosaics cover 8,500 square metres of the surface of the Basilica. There are even mosaics on the pavement protected by heavy synthetic carpets.
The treasury of St Mark has it's origins around 1204 after the conquest of Constantinople, enriched by spoils of war from the last five centuries, gifts from the Pope and heads of state. The priceless collection was attacked on several occasions by fire and theft. When the Republic fell in 1797, it was Napolean who plundered the treasury and melted down jewellery masterpieces to make them unrecognisable.
The treasury was built up again by 1832 and today boasts one of the most interesting collections of jewels in the world. A visit to the treasury ends in the ‘santuario' (sanctuary), a tiny chapel where 110 relics are conserved within 11 niches amongst which is a beaker that is said to contain the blood of Christ and a reliquary that contains a bone from San Giorgio's arm.
St Marks Basilica is well known for it's ‘Pala d'oro' one of the richest and most precious alters covered with more than 3000 precious stones and enamel icons inlaid in gold. A small fee is charged to view this incredible piece of art. There is always a long line to enter St Marks Basilica, so why not consider taking our small group Essence of Venice Walking Tour that ensures no queues to enter the famous church and 45-minutes inside the church which is only possible on this small group tour.