Our second stop during our day in Venice was St. Mark’s Basilica or, as it is known in Italian, Basilica di San Marco. Of course, this church is most famous for being the home of the bones of Saint Mark, which were smuggled into the city around 830 A.D. Since Venice was a very secular trading city it was not exactly smiled upon by the Pope. So, by procuring the bones of such an important Saint, the citizens ensured themselves religious importance so that they would not be subject to the whims of the clergy. Quite an aggressive strategy to be sure, but when you are the most influential center of trade in Italy you can get away with these sorts of acts.

However, I did not find this fascinating history of sacred blackmail to be the most interesting part of my visit to the Basilica. For me, the most awe inspiring part was the building itself. From the massive porch which overlooks Piazza San Marco, to the small museum which houses the infamous bronze horses of Alexander the great, and (my favorite) incredible mosaics it truly was glamorous.

Thanks to “Rick Steve’s” guidebook to Italy, we were able to bypass the intimidatingly long line outside of the church by using a free baggage claim ticket. A little known fact to most tourists is that slightly behind and to the left of the basilica is a place to store your bag while touring San Marco’s. Simply go there and they will give you a claim slip that is valid for one hour and allows you to skip the line. What they do with the bag after an hour I don’t know. However, that little stub was worth its weight in gold as it allowed us to get into the basilica with ease.

Once inside, we quickly made our way up to the veranda to look at the veritable sea of people filling the piazza for Carnevale. Napoleon allegedly called Piazza San Marco “Europe’s greatest drawing room.” I don’t think he ever saw it during Carnevale, as the place was a madhouse. I honestly don’t believe I have ever seen that many people jammed into one spot.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed the view from the balcony, along with the replicas of Alexander’s bronze horses, and then headed inside to see the real stallions. While plenty beautiful to look at by themselves, knowing the history behind them enhanced the experience that much more. Made during the reign of

The Horses

Alexander the great, they were later taken to Rome by Nero. Next they were commandeered by Constantine and taken to Constantinople and then later brought back to their original home of Venice by Venetian crusaders. They then went on one last sabbatical some years later when Napoleon took them to Paris, but finally came home for good after his reign. Today, the originals sit in the museum located in the church away from the elements and let their replicas stand guard at their post on the porch.

The museum within the church is not solely home to the horses, but also showcases many tapestries and paintings made to adorn the basilica throughout the ages. I spent quite a lot of time reveling in the tapestries showing the creation story and Christ’s crucifixion, and gazing intently at all the beautiful paintings of saints, Mary, and other biblical figures. However, awesome as these were, they simply quailed in comparison to the Mosaics adorning the entire church.

Glistening down from the ceilings and walls, the golden mosaics are simply sumptuous. While the biblical scenes they depicted did not seem to be placed in any sort of order, they were still very easy to follow. The artists were adept enough at their job that captions are not needed. You can simply look up and go “Oh! There’s Noah and his ark” or “look there’s that slimy coward Judas.”

A large part of this was a result of the incredible attention to detail in the murals. A mosaic is simply a portrait composed of shards of stone, glass, and metal. Yet, the artists were able to achieve incredible detail in their works; even down to shading! I doubt many people who enter the cathedral could even achieve such detail using a pencil and paper. Just imagine how difficult it was to do with rocks!

Adding to this whole ambience of splendor was the sounds of a choir singing traditional Catholic chants and music. There was a service going on while we were there, after all it was Sunday. So not only did I have the privilege of seeing the Basilica of Saint Mark’s mosaics, but I got to do so with an authentic soundtrack. I had to pinch myself to make sure that I hadn’t gotten hit by a crazy Italian driver and was actually in Heaven’s halls. It was truly a fantastic experience; one I hope to never ever forget.