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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Basilica di San Marco, Venice

Basilica di San Marco, 1881, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The church at
its best in the mid-day sun. He even included impressionist pigeons.
Come mid-June, my wife and I will be vacationing in Venice, Italy. The city has been on my "bucket list" for years, moreover it's one of those places that we're advised to see while we still can, before it sinks into its lagoon. Actually, ankle-deep water in the Piazza San Marco once or twice a year is almost taken for granted. Waist deep and it becomes a minor inconvenience. Venice has sunk some five inches since 1970 and even now drops about two inches each decade. Add to that rising sea levels due to global warming and the entire city may soon have to take up permanent residence on the second floor. In 1966 a rainy spell put the Basilica of San Marco under more than six feet of water.
This seldom happened in Renoir's time.
San Marco Basilica Cathedral, and particularly it's campanile (bell tower), is the iconic visual symbol of Venice. From its outside, the church is not a particularly beautiful piece of religious architecture (inside its even less so), despite centuries of ornamentation, restoration, preservation, and acres upon acres of gold leaf. Some might say it's notably unattractive because of all that. Perhaps, but the main reason has to be that it's a very old church. The first San Marco was constructed on the site in 828. A larger church was built in 832, which burned in 976. The present structure resulted from the rebuilding of 978, finally reaching its present visage a number of years later in 1976. Any building, church or otherwise, under construction for over a thousand years, suffering through periodic fire and water, wars and peace, political and religious upheavals, not to mention changes in architectural tastes, can't help but suffer as a result. San Marco has probably suffered more than most.

San Marco and the Doge's
Palace plan. The cathedral is
in the upper left area.
Architecturally, San Marco has evolved into a Greek cross floor plan attached to the strikingly beautiful Doge's palace. It was the Doge's private chapel until 1807. I think the reason San Marco strikes myself and others as rather odd looking is that it does not fit our aesthetic mold as to what a cathedral should look like. It's not Gothic, it's not Renaissance, it's not even Romanesque of Venetian. It's Byzantine, and worse, it has just enough of those other elements stirred in to make this stylistic oddity all the more notable. There's an old saying, "too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth." The same can be said of architects beginning with Doge Dominico Contarini and including such notables as Jacopo Sansovino and Baldassarre Longhena.

San Marco cross-section. The
magnificent gold plated domes
seen from the outside, are largely
fake shells covering much smaller
hemispheric domes on the inside.
Added to the eclecticism of architectural styles is the fact that San Marco was something of a giant curio cabinet of sculptural bounty from Venice's many wars with its neighbors. In reading the history of the place you might get the idea half the cathedral was stolen. Most notable along this line are the four Greek horses looted from Constantinople in 1204. Napoleon stole them again in 1797. The French government was kind enough to return them in 1815. The ones now gracing the loggia roof are copies, in case anyone is contemplating stealing them again.

This is my take on Venice and San Marco from visiting the Internet. During the coming weeks I shall be doing several other similar items on notable artistic, architectural, and historic places to go and things to do in Venice (as well as other Italian environs). Then, after I've been there, done that, so to speak, I'll cover part two of each item, hopefully conveying new, more accurate, more personal insights into the arty sights, sounds, and symbols of the Italian boot.

The Campanile, or rather, the 1912
reconstruction of the original after it
collapsed into the Piazza killing dozens
of bystanders. The structure's foundation 
is currently being reinforced to prevent
another such a disaster as this 323-foot brick lighthouse/watchtower/bell tower
sinks unevenly into the Venetian mud.
As compared to numerous other European cathedrals, San Marco has the
look and feel of an overdressed, overly made up, sadly aging dowager.

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