29 May, 2006

3. The Basilica of San Marco

The Basilica of San Marco . Here is the bling-encrusted west-facing facade catching the last rosy rays of the twilight sun on a cold January afternoon.

You will often see the word 'Moorish' used to describe this wonderful cathedral, but there is no Islamic influence at work here, like there is in some of the grand buildings of Cordoba or Granada in southern Spain. The five-domed Greek Cross design with its rounded arches are the result of Venice being a vassal state of the Byzantine empire when this church was first built. Incredibly, this building was the third church dedicated to St Mark on this spot, and yet it was begun in 1063. To put that date in perspective, it was before the First Crusade, before the English King Harold lost the Battle of Hastings to William the Conqueror's Norman invaders, and 500 years before Michelangelo designed St Peter's in Rome.

This church is therefore twice as old as St Peter's, and was built before the breakaway Latin Catholics attained their dominant power in western Europe. Like the Christian church in Rome itself until 1054, this church owed allegiance to the then vibrant centre of Christianity, the Constantinople-based Greco-Roman Church, better known now as the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is no wonder that visually it echoes the multi-domed St Basil's in Moscow, or Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, far more than it does the familiar perpendicular gothic designs of Chartres or Salisbury, or the single-domed Renaissance cathedrals of St Peter in Rome or St Paul in London.

Surprisingly, it wasn't until 1807 that this Basilica officially became the cathedral of the city of Venice. Until then, this church had always been the private chapel of the Doge of the Venetian Republic, who lived in the adjoining ducal palace. Which gives you some idea of the wealth and power held by the Dukes of Venice.

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