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St. Mark's Venice

( Originally Published 1915 )



St. Mark's is not a very large church, and owes its greatness to its variety of interest and to the multitude of its decorations, both without and within. Its color distinguishes it from all the other great buildings we have studied. Instead of gray stone, or even white and black, it is entirely covered with the richest of colored marbles, and adorned with many columns, rich with mosaic work, porphyry, and gold.

Comparing St. Mark's with any other church, we are apt to inquire why it is so different. Why this unheard of richness of color like a dream of the Orient? The reason for the oriental tinge to the architecture of St. Mark's will be seen in the fact that Venice was so situated as to have trade relations with the Orient, so that her merchants brought home many things that were oriental. The rich silks and highly colored stuffs thus brought in made the Venetians like such things. In their art, the Venetians, Titian, Tintoretto, and the rest, were the greatest of all colorists. Many of the colored marbles, so commonly used in Venice as a veneer over their brick walls, were brought in on the ships from foreign ports.

We have spoken of Sancta Sophia as the greatest triumph of Byzantine architecture. St. Mark's is a very close rival. St. Mark's was begun early in the ninth century, partly burnt in 976, and immediately rebuilt on its original plan.

Thus it remained until 1663, when it was so altered as to completely change its plan and appearance that is, it was then rebuilt as a Byzantine edifice. It has three facades, the chief one facing St. Mark's Square, another a marketplace, and the third the waters of the lagoon which is nearby. The facade, facing St. Mark's Square, has five large arches, over the central one of which are the famous bronze horses. These are believed to be of Grecian origin, but no one knows for certain. Napoleon captured them in 1797 and took them to Paris for the top of a triumphal arch; but after the peace of 1815 they were returned by France. A mere catalogue of the treasures contained in St. Mark's would make a large book, and anything like a description of the notable features of the outside would make another. In a wellknown historical guide to Venice nearly one-third of the whole is devoted to St. Mark's. More can be gathered from the picture than from any description. Ruskin says:

" There rises a vision out of the earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe, that they may see it far away : a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long, low pyramid of colored light; a treasure-heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic, and beset with sculpture and alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory."

Upon entering the church, all is lost in twilight, to which the eye must become accustomed before the form of the building can be traced. Exteriorly, Byzantine churches were generally plain, but San Marco is an exception. Hundreds of monoliths, or colonnettes, of rarest marbles and porphyry, cluster around its doors. For years it was the ambition of every wealthy Venetian to beautify his city; to make it the most splendid in the world. Whole areas of the exterior of San Marco are covered with veneering of the most precious and richly colored marbles imaginable. The great bronze horses, brought by Napoleon, prance over the porch, the domes gleam in the sun, the mosaics glitter from the lunettes above, the great flags flutter from the three poles in the square, the color is dazzling in the sun, the ensemble is the most fascinating facade in the whole world.

Consider, too, the surroundings ; the bay and its lagoons and rich red and yellow sails, and the songs of gondoliers. A step away are the Doges' palace and the courtyard attached, the famous clock-tower on the other side, the great campanile, and the royal palace, facing on the square of San Marco, a great paved open-air drawing-room where the band-concerts and lottery-drawings are held, and where the pleasure loving Venetians flock daily to sit in the thousands of chairs, or pace up and down in the sunlight in front. What a setting it is, for the most richly decorated church in all the world! It is a scene of splendor far removed from anything else we may see in all Western Europe. It is an architecture of color rather than form, we may say. Much of the beauty of a building is due to its location.

Emerson says :

" The pleasure that a noble temple gives us is only in part owing to the temple. It is exalted by the beauty of sunlight, the play of the clouds, the landscape around it, its grouping with the houses, trees, and towers in its vicinity.

In the " Lady of the Lake," Scott shows his sense of what an appropriate landscape is to a building:

On this bold brow a lordly tower, In that soft vale a lady's bower, On yonder meadow far away The turrets of a cloister gray.

There are also different kinds of beauty in the different points of view. When we draw near to a noble building the lines that made it pleasing from a distance fall apart, and we see the smaller details. It may be that the frowning battlements that " strike awe and terror on the aching sight " at a near view, will, from a distance, blend with a calm landscape, and create a peaceful sylvan scene, like Windsor.

The tapering spires and the broad-eaved cottages, that are so beautiful in the lakes and mountains of Switzeland, would look poor and absurd in Venice.

The buildings of Venice are mostly intended to be seen from the front only, where

The sea is in the broad, the narrow streets, Ebbing and flowing, and the salt seaweed Clings to the marble of her palaces.

The interior ornamentation, with which San Marco is almost completely covered, is mosaic (representing chiefly Biblical scenes), and costly marbles. The backgrounds of the mosaics were usually in gold. Slabs of rarest marble with rich carving cover the rest of the walls.

Ruskin says: " There opens before us a vast cave hewn out into the form of a cross and divided by many pillars into shadowy aisles. Around the domes of its roof the light enters only through narrow apertures, like large stars, and here and there a ray or two from some far away casement wanders into the darkness and casts a narrow phosphoric stream upon the waves of marble that heave and fall in a thousand colors upon the

What else there is of light is from torches or silver lamps burning ceaselessly in the recesses of the chapels; the roof sheathed with gold and the polished walls covered with rich alabaster, give back at every curve and angle some feeble gleaming to the flames; and the glories around the heads of the sculptured saints flash out upon us as we pass them, and sink again into the gloom."

St. Mark's has been called a jeweled casket. Its core is of brick. The beautiful marbles are veneer. In all, there are over 40,000 square feet of mosaic. The pavement, wavy and uneven from settling, 'is wrought in quaint and beautiful Byzantine designs.

The architect of St. Mark's is unknown and much controversy has been maintained on the question whether he was a native Venetian or an imported Greek.

An inscription in Latin, placed where it would be seen by the Doge entering from his palace, translated, reads in part :

" Love justice, give all men their rights, let the poor and the widow, the ward and the orphan, O Doge, hope for a guardian in thee. Be compassionate to all; let not fear nor hate nor love of gold betray thee."

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