Above: The Basilica. Photo: Marie Cooley
There’s so much I could say about this building. My first sighting of it was literally in the first 2 hours of my first trip to Europe. I met up with my brother and his wife in the apartment they had rented for Carnival, and after a couple of glasses of water and a change of clothing, we set off, winding our way through alleyways and onto San Marco Square, the Grand Central for Carnival. We turn the corner, and the landscape fills with the domes and towers of the Basilica. It takes my breath away.
The Basilica is not as tall as I imagined, but far more ornate than my camera can capture. We walk up to the facade. Bells start to toll — first from the church tower on the left, then from the taller tower on the right. The setting sun is glinting off the gold-tiled domes. A flock of birds fly up into a perfect shade-of-blue sky. The sudden transition is overwhelming.
The Basilica was started in 1063, on the site of the previous church which was destroyed by fire in 976. It was consecrated in 1094 with the reburial of St. Mark, patron saint of the city, who had been buried in the original church in the 9th century. It is said that there are about 2 acres of mosaic covering the surfaces of this church, much of it gold leafed glass tile, dating as far back as the 13th century. The books also go into great detail about the specific iconography of the mosaics, which I will spare you here.
Three days later, Marie and I would tour the interior, happy that there was no line to queue up in. Our eyes are immediately drawn up to the vaulted, mosaic ceilings, intricate in detail and sparkling with gold. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Marie reminds me to spend half of my time looking at the floor, where mosaics and geometrics meet our every step. The floor is nearly as incredible as the ceiling. I reach down several times to touch the marble, the sardonyx, the lapis. The floor is much smoother than I expected, for it being made up of so many angular cuts of stone.
I am stunned to find “The Lady in Red” in the same style of dress that “Mary on the Cross” was wearing in the triptych in the Doge’s Armory. For some additional interior views, click here and here.
And then, we enter the Treasury — a depository of treasures brought back to Venice from the looting of Constantinople in 1204. An Egyptian vase, 4th century Roman glass, numerous Roman and Byzantine chalices carved from stone and gilded and jeweled, lamps and pails carved from clearest rock-crystal. The piece that made the greatest impression on me was a simple milk-glass plate from China, dating to the 13-14th centuries. I fantasize Marco Polo’s fingerprints being on the edges of it.
I did not choose well when I opted out of going upstairs, which I later realized was the San Marco Museum — the Doge’s Banquet Hall which now houses tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and on the balcony, the four bronze horses that you can see from San Marco Square. But by that time I had nearly burned my retinas with the details of this place, and was pretty overwhelmed. I returned to the Basilica to light candles for two family members who died the previous year. I make note of a rifle mounted in a glass case, and would later learn it was an offering of thanks from a woman for the safe return of her husband from war.
We exit through a back entrance, and watch birds bathing in a large stone fountain just steps from the Basilica. We find relief for our retina-burned eyes in a clear and cloudless sky.
St. Mark's Basilica is open year round, Monday-Saturday starting at 9:30 AM. From April 16 to October 28, on Sundays and public holidays, it closes at 4:30pm. From October 29 to April 15 the hours are 9:30 AM – 5 PM. Last admission time is 15 minutes from the closing time. Timing are subject to change on the High Holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Best months to visit are December to January, during the week rather than on weekends. Best times to visit are either early morning or late in the day when the sun fills the Basilica and fully illuminates the ceiling. Bring a bottle of water with you. I also found binoculars helpful, or the zoom feature on your camera. Dress respectfully (i.e. no Carnival costume)
To reach St. Mark’s Basilica, you can hop on a vaporetto, the boats that run the transportation across Venice. If you are going from Piazzale Roma, which is situated at the end of the Ponte della Libertà, it will take you about 20-30 minutes to reach the San Marco or San Zaccaria stops. If your starting point is the train station (Santa Lucia), you will reach in 25 minutes.
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Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.