Why should I visit Saint Mark’s Basilica?St Mark’s Basilica is a testament to the power of medieval Venice. It houses some of the remains of St Mark the Evangelist, stolen from Alexandria in 828. It blends Byzantine and Islamic elements of architecture, though it was largely built by Italian craftsmen. Many of the key pieces of art were stolen from other countries in the Mediterranean and were added to the cathedral to symbolize the power of Venice. The four horses which stand on the balcony were taken from Constantinople during the 4th Crusade, as was the statue of the Four Tetrarchs which is set into the wall of the basilica. The interior is covered with 86,000 square feet (8000m²) of huge mosaics made out of ground gold. Unlike other Italian churches, the use of mosaics went on until the 19th century and the cathedral never really moved over to the traditionally painted frescoes you’ll see in other churches. All that gold and plunder means that the basilica is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the history of Venice, as well as those with a magpie’s eye for shiny things!
What are the other things to see in the basilica complex?On the upper floor of the basilica is St Mark’s Museum which is home to items from the history of the cathedral, including the original bronze horses which stood above the basilica’s door, fragments of mosaics, vestments, tapestries, and much more. The Treasury of St Mark’s contains 283 pieces made of gold, silver, and precious gems, including precious objects looted from Constantinople and liturgical objects from the cathedral’s own history. The last additional element inside the basilica is the Pala d’Oro, which is the high altar retable (or altarpiece) which was created in three stages between 1102 and 1345 and shows scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and St Mark the Evangelist made out of enamel, gold, silver and 1,927 precious stones. The Pala d’Oro is only opened during liturgical celebrations, but you can see the stunning exterior on your visit. The basilica itself is free to enter but the museum, treasury, and Pala d’Oro all require separate tickets. Outside the basilica, you can also visit the Campanile di San Marco for an additional fee.
What is the Campanile?The Campanile di San Marco or St Mark’s Campanile is the bell tower of St Mark’s Basilica. In English, it’s referred to as a ‘campanile’ largely because it’s a free-standing structure, not attached to the church. Originally built in the 9th century, the structure was rebuilt and amended several times over the centuries, most recently in 1912 after it collapsed in 1902. Today visitors take an elevator to the top, 323 feet (98.6m) above the square below, where you’ll get to enjoy fabulous views of the basilica, the lagoon, and the whole of Venice. Plus you’ll get up close to the 5 bells, each of which has its own purpose. During the time of the republic, one sounded for executions, one for a session of the Senate, one still rings daily at noon, one called the council to meetings, and the final bell rang at the beginning and end of each working day. The tower has recently started to lean, due to the unstable foundations it was built on, so there are ongoing works to stabilize it. Visitors are still able to go to the top of the tower while the works are ongoing.
How long will a visit take?You should plan 10 minutes for a visit to the basilica itself (plus queuing to get in), maybe 20 minutes if you know you’ll want to linger. The museum takes another 30 minutes to explore, and if you also look at the Palm d’Oro and Treasury then the whole visit will take about an hour in total.