29 August, 2006

96. A marble collage

When you get up close and look at the fa├žade of St Mark's Cathedral you would think that it was made out of a motley collection of all kinds of second-hand bits and pieces some of which must have fallen off the back of a truck. And you would be right, it was.

Because of Venice's unique situation, every square inch of building material had to be imported, floated in on a boat. The cost of carriage was the same for sandstone as it was for jasper or porphyry, so it made sense to ensure that each shipload was as valuable as possible. Venetian merchant ships became effective scavengers of the ancient world, buying an old marble column here, bartering for a load of bas relief carved panels there, purloining whatever piece of alabaster that wasn't nailed down somewhere else. As the Venetian empire grew, the ships of war brought home even more prize building materials from other civilizations, and gradually, the facade of St Mark's became encrusted with this confusion of stonework from here, there, and everywhere, seemingly almost at random.

It literally is a potpourri, a hotch-potch of colours and textures and shapes that weren't designed to go together at all, an eclectic mix of variegated stuff, every piece of which competes for your urgent attention when you are close enough to see the separate elements of this fantastic encrustation. It ought not to work at all, but it does, and amazingly well.

When you get back far enough for the separate components to start to blur into one another something magical happens, and the whole cathedral becomes so much more than the sum of its parts. The colours and shapes blend and shimmer and are transformed as the light changes minute by minute so that the surface of this most unusual cathedral almost breathes with life and colour, sometimes tinged with this hue, sometimes dominated by that, but always presenting itself as a cohesive whole.

The serious architects of northern Europe built their soaring cathedrals from a uniform grey lime stone or beige sandstone, or in the case of St.Peter's in Rome from almost white marble, but the Venetians would have nothing to do with anything so uniformly conservative and boring. Instead they injected their joie de vivre into this church with every different type of stone they could find, colouring and texturing it with their Mediterranean passion until its soul sings at you whether you like it or not.

How could you not love it?


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