Spoils from the Fourth Crusade

Basilica di San Marco

The original church built on this site was so built to house the relics (stolen or not) of Saint Mark the Evangelist, in the 9th century. It is believed to have been designed based on the Church of the Holy Apostles, which was once in Constantinople and was demolished in 1461.

After a fire in the 10th century, the Basilica was rebuilt, and again in the 11th century, when it was so enlarged and remodeled that it seemed a completely different building. That’s when the fun began. Originally built in stark brick, most of the exterior and interior was subsequently sheathed in a layer of marble and precious stones, and further decorated with columns, reliefs, and sculptures.

It is also a smorgasbord of spoils from the Fourth Crusade, as columns, reliefs, sculptures were stripped from the churches, palaces, and public monuments of Constantinople. A famous example is the group of four ancient bronze horses displayed over the entry, which were taken from the Hippodrome of Constantinople, and which are the only equestrian team to survive from classical Antiquity.

Some of the columns taken as spoils were further dismantled, while others were propped as they were. More spoils were brought into the city, and the Basilica, during the Venetian-Genoese Wars. The stolen items were mixed in with local copies, some so effective that one can scarcely tell the difference between them and the originals.

The interior of the church, though in my opinion poorly lit, is striking. The domes, the vaults, and the upper walls are all covered in gold-ground mosaics showing saints, prophets, and biblical scenes. All of these have been retouched, remade, and changed at some point, so that they represent eight hundred years of artistic style.

Prior to the fall of the republic in 1797, the Basilica was the chapel of the Doge and was subject to his jurisdiction, despite attempts by the Bishop of Olivolo/Castello to bring it under his own. It eventually became the episcopal seat of the Patriarch of Venice in 1807, replacing the earlier cathedral of San Pietro di Castello.

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