Visiting the San Marco basilica in Venice in a private setting is a unique opportunity to admire the brightly lit, dazzling mosaics. On top of that, a guide can captivate you with stories about all the details, more than any guidebook or travel blog. Also for a frequent visitor who knows the city’s history, a visit with a knowledgeable guide adds a lot of value.
Even though I must have admired the San Marco basilica thousands of times, I only visited it twice. My first visit was 15 years ago and I used my Lonely Planet to grasp as much information as I could. The second time was a few years ago. As there were exceptionally no lines when I passed by, I decided to enter for a quick visit. When I got invited by Dark Rome to join one of their night tours, this was a perfect opportunity to revisit the basilica and get detailed information from a guide.
In this post, I will first share with you the elements which I remember most from this visit to one of the landmarks of Venice. I won’t go in depth on the history, the architecture or the mosaics, as this has been described in depth numerous times. I will also tell you how you can join one of these private evening tours on your next trip to Venice.
INSIDER TIP: If you want to read more on the basilica, I suggest the books The Basilica of St. Mark in Venice or St. Mark’s: The Art and Architecture of Church and State in Venice. As it’s not allowed to take pictures inside the basilica, these books are also ideal if you want to browse pictures at home.
A glittering monument on Piazza San Marco
Merely looking at the size of the San Marco basilica, it’s hard to believe that this used to be the private chapel of the doge. The original church was however much smaller and built in wood. It was consecrated in 832 in honour of San Marco, the new patron saint of Venice. In 976, it was destroyed by a fire during a citizens revolt against the doge. A similar wooden church was built in substitution, but was later dismantled to construct a more prestigious basilica. Hence, the current basilica is the third church on this location. It was inaugurated as the private chapel of Doge Vitale Falier in 1094. It took more than 500 years to gradually transform it to its current size with a combination of Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles. The 5 domes are inspired by the domes in Constantinople and are positioned in the shape of a Greek cross. The San Marco basilica became the official cathedral of the city in 1807 (more info in ‘Castello: Mark these hidden gems on your Venice map’).
If you look closely at the more than 500 pillars and capitals of the basilica, you will notice that there are many differences. There are classical 3rd century capitals, Byzantine pillars from the 6th until the 11th century as well as medieval imitations or creations. The reason behind this mixed lot is that these have been looted during the Venetian raids on Constantinople. A similar story lies behind the 4 horses on the balcony as you can read in my post ‘San Marco: 12 surprising facts about the Piazza of Venice’.
The 4 arches with the mosaics just above the entrance portals tell the story of the body of San Marco. You should read it from the right to the left. The first episode shows how the body of San Marco, who was buried in Alexandria after his martyrdom, was stolen and hidden in a basket under pork fat. The story continues with the arrival of the body in Venice, the reception by the doge and the procession to the basilica. The latter mosaic is the only original 13th century mosaic.
A blinding interior
These mosaics are however just an appetizer of what you can expect inside. As soon as you enter, you will be overwhelmed by more than 8,000 m² of shining mosaics. When the lights are lit to admire them in detail, you will be awe-struck. Many mosaics are made with 24 carat gold leaf which creates the divine light and reflections. If you look closely (for instance at the entrance), you will notice a difference between the type and style of mosaics depending on when they were added. The older mosaics are much smaller and the figures are more naive. The scenes on the more recent mosaics are more realistic. Unfortunately, in the past, when something was broken, they replaced it and they didn’t restore it. Conservation wasn’t considered as important as it is now. You can find more information on the art of creating mosaics in my post ‘Three thousand and one colours of mosaics in Venice’.
Each mosaic depicts a story, so you can spend quite some time inside if you want to admire them one by one. One of the mosaics on the left side of the basilica continues the story of San Marco. During the reconstruction works of the old wooden church, the authorities had moved his body to protect it. However, when the new basilica was finished, they couldn’t remember where they had hidden it. The mosaic shows how the entire city of Venice, from the working class people to the high society and the doge, is united in a prayer for a miracle. Luckily, the body was found when the new basilica was inaugurated. The mosaics on the ceiling of the basilica tell stories of the old and new testament.
DID YOU KNOW? Originally, there were no chairs in the basilica. Men were allowed to sit downstairs, on the ground or on the bases of the pillars. The black line on the wall indicates where they leaned their head against the wall. The women had to sit in the galleries upstairs.
Behind the main altar, there is a panel which hides a real treasure on the back. The Pala d’Oro is only turned to the audience on a few festive days such as Christmas, Easter, the Festa di San Marco and the Festa della Sensa. Luckily, our tour allowed us to admire it from the rear side. The altarpiece is made of more than 2,000 precious stones such as emeralds, amethysts, sapphires, rubies and pearls, which are laid in gold. It was created in Constantinople in 976 and later embellished in Venice. According to a legend, Napoleon was told that it was a showpiece of the glassmasters of Murano and these weren’t real precious stones. This should explain why it wasn’t confiscated at that time. As the Pala d’Oro is so precious, it is impossible to insure it. Hence, the art work cannot be moved from its location for restoration.
A mysterious cellar
Below the basilica, you can find the remains of the first churches. The relics of San Marco used to be buried in this crypt until the 19th century. They are now located at the main altar. In this musty area, you will also see one shining and modern cross. It is a gift from the glass blowers of Murano to the basilica.
The evening tour of the basilica is one of the tours which Dark Rome organizes in Venice. The practical organization runs very smoothly. You can book the tour online via their website for 76 euros per person. We were greeted by the team of Dark Rome at the Ponte della Paglia, next to Palazzo Ducale. You need to bring your confirmation mail so they can check your name on the list. You will then receive a headset to follow the explanation of the guide. There were 2 groups of Dark Rome, each with approx. 16 participants, when I followed the tour.
The total tour lasts approx. 90 minutes. It starts with some explanation about the history and exterior before entering the basilica. It opens exclusively for their group during that time slot, so you can admire the beauty of the mosaics at your ease. You spend approx. 1 hour inside. The lights are lit when the group is inside and the mosaics are illuminated for approx. 45 min.
Our guide Martina was amazing. She was very knowledgeable and also very enthusiastic. She’s a great storyteller, and you will be all ears. Even as a frequent visitor, I learned quite some new elements as you have read in this post.
If you want to know more about the architecture, the mosaics and the history of the basilica, you can also find plenty of information on the website of the basilica.
Enjoy the visit!