Venice is my city of soul and St Mark?s square is the soul of this city. There is nothing quite like the feeling I get when I stand in this piazza with the lagoon water lapping on one side, and I am surrounded by amazing man-made beauty and architectural genius…
Settlements arose in the lagoon in the early medieval period as a place of refuge from barbaric invasions on the mainland. This area of refugees became, by the 13th century, a force to be reckoned with and a significant naval power. The Venetians controlled the Dalmatian coast (modern day Croatia), Crete, and were the door to the east from the west.
The Venetians have always understood the power of the image. Venetian merchants stole the body of St Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, smuggling him past customs by burying the body under a layer of pork. Revolted by the meat forbidden by their Islamic faith, the customs officers passed it through the check point. Once in Venice, the city constructed the myth of St Mark. They said that when he had passed through the lagoon on a boat en route to Rome in the late first century, an angel had appeared to him and announced ?Peace be with you. Here your body will rest.?
The Christian superstar upstaged the virtually unknown previous patron saint of the city, St Theodore, and a chapel was built next to the Doge?s palace to house his body. These are the origins of St Mark?s Basilica, which is now the cathedral of Venice ? but originally it was the private chapel of the Doge (the head of the Republic) and the mausoleum of St Mark.
The cathedral of the time was located at the far end of Venice (called San Pietro in Castello), and this in itself speaks a thousand words. Venice comes first and is above the authority of the church ? they almost have a direct line to heaven. Napoleon made St Mark?s Basilica the cathedral in 1804.
St Mark?s Basilica was the mantle piece of the Venetian republic. It was where the most precious objects were displayed for all those who came to the city to admire and be impressed by. Few columns are the same stone or provenance because they were mostly taken from pre-existing buildings from all over the Mediterranean and there are bas-reliefs inserted within the marble facing of the basilica?s structure ? these all show the republic?s prowess and power.
Just as we put our favourite photos and ornaments in a prominent position for all guests to see, so too did the Venetians display their trophies of conquered lands, travels and wealth. The basilica was born to house the stolen body of St Mark and it was bejewelled with spoils from the republic?s exploits.
St Mark?s Basilica does truly speak a thousand tales of a thousand years, and every time I walk through this square I feel the pulse of the city?s power and strength of once upon a time.