Saint Mark's (Venice)
SAINT MARK'S (VENICE)
To Western eyes the most "Oriental" church in Italy, the appearance of Saint Mark's derives from both Byzantine workmanship and native imitation. The first structure on the site was erected to house the relics of St. Mark taken from Alexandria in the early 9th century. Doge Giovanni Partecipazio (826–837) brought from Constantinople the concept of a church modeled on the Byzantine Apostoleion, a cross plan with arms of equal length and its elevation topped by domes creating two lofty, intersecting halls in the interior. Alterations by Doge Domenico Contarini (c. 1070) and further decoration in the 13th century raised the domes, making them visible from the piazza that acts as the church's atrium.
The sacking of constantinople (1204) and the Venetian claim to a portion of the Byzantine Empire produced the four bronze horses, the marble slabs that now encase the church, and a mosaic program designed to reinforce the historical validity of the claim. The appearance of Contarini's church, however, survives in an older mosaic on the Porta Sant'Alippio.
The aesthetic effectiveness of the exterior derives from defiance of both Byzantine practice and architectural good sense. The domes rise from behind a façade of ogival pinnacles and a colonnade gallery running around the structure. This, in turn, depends on an essentially Romanesque first story.
The highly variegated exterior, superb in the color contrast of its porphyry columns and green marble jambs, is matched by the diversity inside. As in a middle Byzantine church, the four central piers are penetrated by arched openings that correspond to the arcades in the nave and transepts. As at St. Sophia, the church is lit by windows in the domes that rise from barrel vaults springing from the piers.
The mosaic sheathing of the doors and walls incorporates Eastern Christian elements (Christ Immanuel and the Virgin Orans, the Ascension and the Pentecost) distributed however in a fashion that is quite un-Byzantine. Greek iconography is so far adapted as to substitute St. Mark for St. John Baptist in the Deësis mosaic. The narthex decoration consists of the lives of Joseph and Moses and a presentation of Genesis derived from an early Christian rotulus. In the baptistery, the Crucifixion includes a kneeling Doge Andrea Dandolo (1343–54) below Latin and Greek inscriptions. The story of the Baptist exemplifies the Gothic conquest of Venetian mosaic: Herod appears in the guise of a medieval Western monarch. Renaissance adornments include mosaics by tintoretto, but the essential form of the structure is determined by its function as state church of the Venetian empire. Political religiosity made of St. Mark's a heterogeneous but aesthetically triumphant anomaly in the history of architecture.
See Also: church architecture, history of, 2. early christian; byzantine.
Bibliography: o. demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice: History, Architecture, Sculpture (Washington 1960); Die Mosaiken von San Marco in Venedig, 1100–1300 (Baden 1935); "A Renascence of Early Christian Art in 13th Century Venice," Late Classical and Med. Studies in Honor of A. M. Friend, Jr., ed. k. weitzmann et al. (Princeton 1955). p. toesca, Storia dell'arte italiana nel medioevo, 2 v. (Turin 1927). p. toesca and f. forlati, Mosaics of St. Mark's (Greenwich, Conn. 1958).