The Basilica di San Marco ("Saint Mark's Basilica" in English), right next to Saint Mark's Square and near the Doge's Palace, is the most famous of Venice's churches, and is among the world's best-known examples of Byzantine architecture. The basilica is today considered a living monument to the heritage of the Byzantine, Roman, and Venetian cultures.
The Basilica di San Marco has gone through many changes in its 1200-year history. It was initially constructed as a temporary building in 828, for the purpose of housing holy relics of Saint Mark the Evangelist, believed to have authored the Gospel of Mark. These were transported from their discovered location in Alexandria, Egypt, in 829. A permanent church was erected and consecrated in 832—this was rebuilt after being damaged by fire in 976, due to a revolt against the then Doge (leader) of Venice, Candiano IV. A second rebuilding of the church commenced in 1063, but it was not until 1094 that the church was consecrated. Since then, the core structure of the basilica has remained unchanged.
While the building's structure has not changed substantially in the intervening years, adornment of its interior has altered over the years. Each succeeding artistic period saw new decorative elements added, with new columns, marbles, and carvings added both to the interior and the exterior.
The interior walls are covered with Byzantine and Gothic mosaics, and the floor, added in the twelfth century, is a geometrically-designed mixture of marble, and mosaics inlaid with gold and bronze, with animal designs interspersed within the patterns. This richly-decorated floor covers more than 2000 square meters, and altogether, the interior walls and floor of the basilica are covered by more than 8000 square meters of mosaics created between the eleventh and nineteenth centuries. The narthex, or entrance, of the church displays scenes from the Old Testament. Within the basilica itself, scenes from the New Testament are the predominant theme. These mosaics depict events in the lives of Saint Mark and other saints, Christ, and the Virgin Mary.
The basilica is also rich in sculptural art, some created expressly for the church itself, and some obtained elsewhere and placed within the church. These include altars, columns and statues, made of bronze, marble and oriental alabaster, which represent Biblical figures and events in their lives.
The construction of mosaics was initially begin in 1071, and has continued off and on for several centuries. In the thirteenth century, during the Fourth Crusade, many marble sculptures and works of art were transported to the basilica after Constantinople had been conquered. These include relics, crosses, chalices, and icons which are today held in the Treasury of the basilica. Further statuary was added during the fourteenth century, and the exterior of the building was redecorated in the Gothic style in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries with the addition of spires, and sculptures of saints and angels.
Even though the basilica displays decorative elements from an eclectic range of locations and historical periods, the end result is remarkably cohesive and well-structured—the Basilica di San Marco is simply a beautiful building both inside and out.
St. Mark's Museum, situated above the north-west atrium of the basilica, was established towards the end of the nineteenth century. The museum contains a variety of exhibits, including Persian carpets, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, and ancient mosaics. One of the most interesting pieces is the quadriga of St. Mark's, a statue of a four-horse chariot which once adorned the façade of the building. The quadriga was re-housed in the museum during the last restoration of the basilica.
The Basilica di San Marco can be reached by water-bus lines from both the railway station and the Piazzale Roma. By foot, the journey takes around forty minutes from either place. The basilica is open from approximately 10am to 5pm each day. Guided tours are available every day (excluding Sundays and holidays) from April through October (reservations are required for groups).