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St. Mark's Basilica in Venice

St. Mark’s Basilica: a Byzantine masterpiece in the heart of Venice

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Follow Captain Ulysses on a tour of St. Mark’s Basilica! 📷

Short history lesson

St. Mark, holy patron of Venice

While it might now seem rather obvious that St. Mark is the holy patron of Venice, it wasn’t always the case.

Up until the 9th century, the ‘Serenissima’ was indeed under the protection of Saint Theodore.

But in 828, two Venetian merchants, Buono de Malamocco and Rustico de Torcello, stole the remains of St Mark from Alexandria and brought them back to Venice, on the orders of Doge Giustiniano Participazio.

The Republic of Venice then abandoned St Theodore and made St Mark its holy patron.

The first churches dedicated to St. Mark

In 832, the first church dedicated to St. Mark was built on the site of the chapel of the Doge’s Palace (also called Palazzo Ducale) , but it was destroyed in a fire in 976, and rebuilt in 978. Unfortunately this second church was also short-lived.

😍 Top sights & activities in Venice 😍

St. Mark’s Basilica since the 11th century

The construction of St. Mark’s Basilica as we know it began in 1063.

Doge Domenico Contarini, who administered the city of Venice at the time, wanted the future basilica to symbolize Venetian strength, and drew inspiration from the basilicas in Constantinople, especially the Church of the Holy Apostles. The Doge is even said to have entrusted the construction of the basilica to Byzantine architects.

After many years of construction work, St Mark’s Basilica was consecrated in 1094. But the basilica was embellished and tranformed over the following centuries and collected countless riches and treasures – among which the horses of St. Mark adorning its sumptuous façade – brought back from the far reaches of the East.

St. Mark's Basilica in Venice

Visiting St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

Exterior of St. Mark’s Basilica

With its monumental dimensions (76.5 meters long, 62.6 meters wide and 45 meters high), its five domes and its sumptuous facade adorned with mosaics and sculptures, St. Mark’s Basilica is an architectural marvel beautifully blending gothic and byzantine influences.

The facade of the basilica is so intricate that it can be quite difficult to know where to look! Among the splendid ornaments that adorn the building, do not to miss:

  • the Horses of St. Mark, which were brought to Venice following the sack of Constantinople in 1204 (the horses adorning the façade are actually copies of the original bronze statues, which are on display in the Museum of St. Mark)
  • the five portals of the basilica, each crowned with carved arches and mosaics, the oldest of which dates back to the 13th century
  • the statue of the Four Tetrarchs representing four Roman emperors, nestled in the south-west corner of the basilica.

Inside St. Mark’s Basilica

Structure of the basilica

Like its Byzantine models, St. Mark’s Basilica is based on a Greek cross, with each arm surmounted by a dome. The central dome stands at the crossing of the four branches.

Mosaics

The interior of the basilica displays sumptuous golden mosaics, to which it owes its nickname of “Golden Basilica”.

They cover a total area of 4,240 sqm, making St. Mark’s Basilica one of the largest mosaic ensembles in the world!

Most mosaics date from the 13th century, – although some, especially on the façade, are more recent (16th – 18th centuries) -, and represent the history of Christianity.

St. Mark's Basilica Venice

The marble floor

Don’t forget to look down!

The marble floor of the basilica is also a work of art in its own right! The pavement is a clever assemblage of marble and coloured stones forming various patterns, some of which even give the impression of being in relief.

Ancient columns

Inside, the Basilica counts some 2600 ancient columns of different shapes and colors, made of marble, porphyry, jasper, serpentine or alabaster. 500 of them date back to the 3rd century AD.

These columns, which have an essentially decorative purpose, were brought back from Venetian wars and conquests, in Constantinople for the most part.

The high altar and the iconostasis

Be sure to take a look at the high altar, adorned with a canopy, and the iconostasis (which separates the nave from the sanctuary), surmounted with sculptures by Italian artist Dalle Masegne.

Attention, sailors!
Looking for more tips and suggestions for your trip to Venice ? Check out the Capitain’s article on the the best things to do in Venice!

Pala d’Oro

Located behind the high altar, the Pala d’Oro (€2) is one of the jewels in the crown of St. Mark’s Basilica. This exceptional altarpiece (3.45 metres wide and 1.40 metres high) is a silverware masterpiece.

It is adorned with 1927 gemstones and 80 Byzantine enamels depicting scenes from the Gospel and the lives of the Saints, arranged around the central figure of a Christ Pantocrator (a Christ in glory).

Designed in 976 by Byzantine artists, the Pala d’Oro was embellished over the following centuries before reaching its definitive shape in 1342.

St. Mark’s Museum

If you want to have a look at the original Horses of St. Mark, head to St. Mark’s Museum (€5). The museum also exhibits fragments of mosaics which are over 7 centuries old.

The ticket to the museum also gives access to a gallery where you can have a closer look at the mosaics adorning the basilica, as well as a terrace offering panoramic views on St. Mark’s Square.

St. Mark's Horses in St. Mark's Museum

Treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica

The Treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica (€3) exhibits a collection of liturgical objects, icons, ancient remains, relics and silverware, the majority of which was brought back to Venice after the sack of Constantinople.

Treasury of St. Mark's Basilica

Access

Getting to St. Mark’s Basilica

St. Mark’s Basilica is located in the very centre of Venice, on St. Mark’s Square, a stone’s throw from the Doge’s Palace and the Venetian lagoon.

The nearest vaporetto stations are San Zaccaria and San Marco, just a few hundred metres away.

Opening times

The basilica is open:

  • late October to mid-April: from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Sundays
  • mid-April to late October: from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays

Admission and guided tours of St. Mark’s Basilica

Admission to St. Mark’s Basilica is free, but you’ll have to buy tickets to access the Pala d’Oro (2 euros), the museum (5 euros) and the treasury (3 euros).

Beware: the city of Venice is very touristy and the queue to access St. Mark’s Basilica can be quite long. To avoid waiting too long, Captain Ulysses recommends:

  • that you get up early and start queuing before the opening of the Basilica
  • or that you opt for a skip-the-line ticket, which can be booked online.

When visiting the basilica, there’s a lot to see! If you don’t want to miss anything, That’s why Captain Ulysses suggests opting for:

Before visiting St. Mark’s Basilica

Please note that proper dress is required to enter St. Mark’s Basilica. Make sure your shoulders and legs are covered (you can bring a scarf or a shawl to cover yourself during the visit if you are wearing shorts or a tank top).

Backpacks are not allowed inside the basilica. Free lockers are available at the Ateneo San Basso, in an alley located to the right of the basilica.

Are you looking for more tips and suggestions to plan your trips to Venice? Check out Captain Ulysses’ articles:

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Accommodations
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Venice is a very touristy city and you’ll have plenty hotels to choose from, but, be warned: they are overall rather expensive. If your budget is tight, Captain Ulysses suggests staying in Mestre, just outside of Venice, where hotels are much more affordable and you’ll find regular buses to Venice. Find out more here. For intermediate budgets, Captain Ulysses highly recommends Hotel  Le Isole: ideally located a few steps from St. Mark’s Square, this beautiful hotel boasts spacious and elegant rooms. And if you’re looking for a more luxurious option in Venice, then Captain Ulysses most definitely recommends the Londra Palace   nestled in a Venetian palace on the Riva degli Schiavoni.

Activities
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Tickets, guided tours, gondola tours, day-trips… There are plenty of things to do in Venice. But the city is often packed with tourists, which is why Captain Ulysses recommend  that you book your activities online and opt for skip-the-line tickets. The Captain suggests having a look at Musement and Tiqets, which are online platforms specialised in selling tourist activities  worldwide.

Cruises
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Venice is synonymous gondola and vaporetto. As an accomplished sailor, Captain Ulysses can only recommend that you embark on a boat ride on the Venetian canals. But beware of  cams: some gondoliers tend to take  advantage of tourists! That’s why the Captain advises that you book  your boat tour on a reputable website like here or here.

Citypass
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If you’re planning on visiting all of Venice’s top sights, Captain Ulysses recommends you to opt for a Citypass,which will give you access to a selection of the city’s must-see sights and monuments. There’s a variety of citypasses to choose from. Find out more here.

Transfers
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To get to Venice from the airport, you’ll have four  poptions: the bus, the vaporetto (orange Alilaguna Arancio line), the taxi or the water taxi. It’s up to you to  choose the option that works best for you!  🙂 Be aware, however, that the historic centre is pedestrian, and buses and taxis are not allowed to operate there.

Transports
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Get ready to walk. The historic centre is not accessible to buses or cars. The local type of public transport is the  vaporetto: boats travelling on the water. If you’re planning on using the vaporetto regularly (in Venice or to visit the surrounding islands like Murano and Burano), or if you are staying in Mestre and have to take the bus to Venice everyday, you might want to consider opting for a Public Transport Pass. You can book it here.

Flights, trains & buses
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Venice is a city easily accessible by plane, train and bus. To book your plane tickets, Captain Ulysses recommends Skyscanner, which allows you to compare countless flights to find the best deal. If your dates are flexible, you can also compare prices over several months to find the cheapest flights possible. Overnight trains are also a great way to save time (and money) ! For more information, visit Trainline.com.

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St. Mark's Basilica

Credits
Brad HostetlerAlbertRichard MortelC K LeungDimitris Kamaras

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