VENICE’S ST. MARK'S SQUARE AND THE BASILICA
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St. Mark’s Square has a long history as one of the most popular things to do in Venice, Italy. Its legacy goes back to the Middle Ages, when the remains of St. Mark were brought to Venice from Alexandria. Walk in the footsteps of Venetian aristocracy and conquerors, such as Napoleon in the only Venice square that’s considered a true piazza (the others are referred to as campi).
As you explore Venice—nicknamed the Serene City—you may find the spectacle at St. Mark’s Square overwhelming. It is high on the list of things to do in Venice because it is a cluster of Venice’s most iconic buildings and tourist sites, namely Doge’s Palace, the Campanile, and the Libreria Sansoviniana. However, St. Mark’s Basilica is the centerpiece of this man-made wonder.
Explore Venice and St. Mark's Basilica (Basilica di San Marco)
As trade with the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East made Venice a European mercantile powerhouse in the late Middle Ages, St. Mark’s grew from a chapel for the city’s rulers into the ornate cathedral we see today. Built to emulate the Byzantine architecture of the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles (destroyed in the 15th century) in Constantinople, St. Mark’s was completed in the 11th century. However, the church was further decorated and adorned over the years as the city’s fortunes rose. Many pieces date back centuries before the church’s construction, transported to St. Mark’s from the far corners of Venice’s trading empire.
St. Mark’s Basilica highlights:
- The original façade, still seen in places, is constructed of Byzantine bricks. The ornate marble carvings and statues covering much of the exterior were added later. The floorplan is that of a Greek cross, with a dome at the center along with one on each of the four cross arms.
- St. Mark’s is widely known for its golden mosaics (covering over 20,000-square-feet of space), most dating to the 11th and 12th centuries.
- There are more than 500 columns within the Basilica — with several from the Roman period.
- The Treasure of St. Mark's contains over 200 pieces, including gold and silver work, paintings, ornamental glass, and precious stones. Much of it was brought to Venice following the sack of Constantinople in 1204.
- The Basilica’s most holy and precious treasure is the Pala d'Oro (Golden Cloth), the high alter retable depicting the life and works of St. Mark that also contains his relics.
- The St. Mark’s Museum was recently reopened with exhibits of Persian carpets, illuminated manuscripts, and ancient mosaics. The prized Quadriga of St. Mark's, four bronze horses cast during Greek antiquity, is now housed in the museum.
- Tips for exploring Venice, St. Mark’s Square and the Basilica: On rare occasions during the fall and winter, the acqua alta (high water) may flood the square for several hours at a time. Raised platforms are put in place to allow access.
- Pigeons are a fact of life as you explore Venice; however, they can be unusually numerous in St. Mark’s Square. The city has recently outlawed the feeding of pigeons and is working to curb their impact on the Square and its architectural treasures.
- The lines can be long to get into the Basilica, so consider reserving tickets ahead of time.
- Mass at the church can be attended free of charge; however, you cannot tour the premises during services.
There are many things to do in Venice, Italy besides St. Mark’s square. See it for yourself. Explore Venice on a cruise to Europe with Holland America Line.