UPDATES November 17, 2019 : This week, Venice experienced one of the most devastating floods in history. St. Mark’s Square and the Basilica were closed to tourists. They have recently reopened but the city is still on high alert for more flooding. If you plan to travel to Venice, be aware. Read up-to-date information about the flooding.
Venice! It’s a city with an aura of mystery and romance. The bridges crisscrossing the canals, the gondolas gliding silently over the water, and the exotic architecture all add up to a city unlike any other in the world.
Discover Basilica San Marco
Being a curious sort, I wanted to dive a little deeper into the waters of Venice. To help me discover Venice and decipher its long history, I booked a walking tour with Context Travel, called Venice and the East.
The three hour tour focused on St. Mark’s Cathedral (Basilica San Marco) with a little time spent on Piazza San Marco and stops at Corte del Milion and the Rialto Bridge.
I didn’t know it at the time of booking, but I couldn’t have chosen a better tour for learning about the history of Venice. Why? Because in my opinion (formed as a result of the tour), you can’t really understand Venice if you don’t know anything about Basilica San Marco.
To understand Venice you must have knowledge of Basilica San Marco
Our guide, Erika, explained how Venice developed and became one of the richest and most powerful cities in the world at that time. Located in a lagoon that opens onto the Adriatic Sea, and with direct trade routes to China, Africa, Turkey, and Greece, Venice became an important maritime power.
By the 11th century, Venice was a major player and the Byzantine government granted Venice the right to free trade throughout the empire, creating the opportunity for Venice to become very very rich.
Geographically located between the Asian influences to the east and the Latin influences of the west, the architecture of Venice reflects many Islamic design details. Until the 1400s, this type of architecture was very popular and is often referred to as Venetian Gothic.
On the east side of the Doge’s Palace, next to the lagoon, you can observe more of the eastern influence in the faces carved into the cornices of the columns. The broader features and fuller lips clearly depict people from a different culture.
All that glitters is gold
Now let’s turn our attention to the focus of the tour, Basilica San Marco, where all that glitters really is gold! It is said that if you laid all the mosaics out side by side, they would cover an acre. Regarded as the most important example of Byzantine architecture in the world, it may be the most opulent church I’ve ever seen.
Besides the mosaics, there’s the Pala d’ Oro, a spectacular altarpiece commissioned in the 12th century. The panels depict religious scenes and are made of gold, silver, and gemstones – many stolen from Constantinople. The Venetians had really good taste and only stole the best.
The cathedral has been the most important place in Venice since 828, and according to legend was originally built to house the remains of its patron, St. Mark. The mosaics on the exterior tell the story of smuggling his remains out of Alexandria in a basket filled with pork to ensure the Muslims would not go near it.
The cathedral burned down on two occasions and was rebuilt. In 1094, it was consecrated and given to the city of Venice to be the people’s church. This is the church you see today with its sparkling facade and many domes and turrets. St Mark’s represented the independent power the Republic of Venice had become.
This important building was also the personal chapel of the Doge of Venice until 1807. Can you imagine having your own personal gold mine, priceless art collection, and cathedral?
In spite of the beauty and art, it felt a bit heavy to me…possibly due to the history of religious wars attached to it? Or perhaps it felt heavy due to the cold, grey, day outside, and the fact that they don’t turn on all the lights until almost noon! Needless to say, the lights reflecting from the gold mosaics brightened up the interior considerably.
We completed our tour of the cathedral with a visit to the balcony and a great view over Piazza San Marco, politically and socially the most important place in Venice.
Our tour then concluded with a brief walk over to the home of Marco Polo (famous for his silk and spice trade route) and the Rialto Bridge which crosses the Grand Canal. The original house burned down, and there is some controversy about this being the location of the original house, but it makes sense that a merchant family’s home would be located in this area near the Rialto Bridge and on a canal.
The Rialto Bridge is perhaps the second most famous landmark in Venice. It was the first bridge to connect the islands and was rebuilt several times before it became what you see today. An interesting trivia tidbit: the designer of the current bridge’s name is Senoré Ponte – ponte means bridge! The Rialto was built with market stalls on each side, which remain in use today. It is one of only four bridges that cross the Grand Canal.
I am glad I waited to go inside Basilica San Marco with a guide. The place is huge and the lines are long. With a guide you won’t have to wait in line as long, nor will you waste time waiting in the wrong line! Also, I might have missed the Pala d’ Oro, Comprised of over 250 enamels and covered in precious stones it was totally worth the extra 2 euros we paid to see it.
I would recommend this tour for anyone who is interested in history, architecture, art, culture, and gold!
This tour was provided by Context Travel however the review and all opinions are my own. Interior photographs provided by Context Travel and the creative commons. All other photos are mine.