16 June, 2006

24. Booty from Byzantium: Part 1

Inside the portico and to the right of the main entry door to San Marco Basilica there is a narrow and steep staircase. Near it, there is a sign saying that it leads to the museum, but it gives you no good reason for making the climb. At the top of the stairs is a turnstile and a cashier taking entrance money. While I was there, several tourists made it all the way to the top of the stairs before they realised that they had to pay several euros to go any further, at which point they turned around and walked down the stairs again.

They didn't know what they had just missed, and what great value they would have received for some loose change. Apart from the fact that you can look down into the whole of the magnificent interior of the cathedral from just the other side of the turnstiles, and that the museum is full of wonderful mosaics and other artworks, going through the museum is the only way you can get out onto the balcony over the front door of the Basilica.

From this open portico roof area, you can see the whole of Piazza San Marco, and the whole of the Piazetta, and the Campanile, and the Doge's palace, and the lagoon beyond. It is the best view in Venice and should not be missed by any visitor.

After Doge Dandolo led his expedition in 1204 to Constantinople, laid siege and broke into the capital and heart of the Byzantine Empire, he sent back to Venice some major prizes. One of the most spectacular things he stole was a set of four sculpted horses, harnessed for a pairs or quads chariot race. These were installed up here, where everyone in Venice could see them, and here they stood for nearly 800 years (apart from a brief holiday in France when Napoleon took them from here in 1797, only for the French Government to return them in 1915, after Napoleon had been defeated).

They would still be up there today, if they hadn't been replaced late in the 20th century with fiberglass replicas because of the increasing acidity of the atmosphere. Yes, these actual horses are not the real ones at all. These are plastic.

Fortunately, the real ones are still here inside the San Marco museum, out of the acid rain, about 20 meters behind these replicas.


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