St. Mark and the Basilica: A look at the myth of Venice through the medium of mosaic at San Marco
The decoration of the Basilica of San Marco is a celebration of the self-made and appropriated myths of Venice. For example the mosaic programs of the exterior and interior portray narratives of St. Mark’s miracles and Venice’s success in obtaining a relic by stealing St. Mark’s body and thus legitimizing themselves as an important city in a medieval world. The mosaics of St. Mark also demonstrate an amalgamation of decorative techniques, styles and iconography adopted from areas of major influence on Venice such as Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople. The amount of influence from these areas can be determined by looking at the design and completion of the medieval era mosaics at San Marco.[i]
The popular myth depicted in mosaics at San Marco is that Venetian merchants found and removed the body of St. Mark from his tomb in Alexandria. An Alexandrian monk Stauracius and a priest called Theodorus helped the two Venetian merchants, Tribunus and Rusticus. They then took Mark’s body hiding it on their ship by placing pork on top of the container to stop Muslim Guards in Alexandria from preventing the merchants from taking the remains. During the journey back to Venice the merchants experience a miracle as St. Mark saved their ship from wrecking.[ii] Mark’s remains were then brought to Venice and San Marco was rebuilt and decorated to serve as an architectural reliquary for the saint. This myth cycle is portrayed not completely intact in both the Chapel San di Pietro and the western Façade. In 1063 during the rebuilding the myth is that St. Mark’s body was lost but recovered when he appeared and pointed out where he could be found in 1094 this moment is memorialized in mosaic in the South Transept dating to the 13th-century.
The choice of St. Mark as a patron saint of Venice and the creation of the myths surrounding him and the city developed due to ecclesiastic politics and the stresses these politics placed on a more independent and dominate Venetian state. Mark was first associated with Venice and the surrounding area in the 6th and 8th-centuries.[iii] At the time the Church at Aquileia was in competition with the church at Grado for ecclesiastic supremacy in the area. A rivalry existed between these two cities as well as among them and other cities such as Milan and Ravenna, all wanted to trace their heritage to apostolic times.[iv] Early on Aquileia associated itself with St. Mark through the Bishop Hermagoras, the first Bishop in the area. This was a strong connection to the papal seat in Rome since Mark was originally a follower of Peter that is alleged to have left Rome to establish a church at Aquileia then returned to Rome before going to Alexandria. Mark’s activity is important because Rome insisted on Petrine Authorization for a church or city to gain patriarchal authority.[v] Any affiliation to St. Mark would have provided a medieval city in the with a higher status. Mark was connected to Rome beyond his association with Peter because he supposedly spent time their writing his Gospel for the Italians.[vi] Paul the Deacon first wrote about Mark’s apostolic missions in Liber de Episcopis Mettensibus in 783 and names Hermagoras as Mark’s substitute at Aquileia.[vii]
Venetian merchants removed St. Mark’s remains from Alexandria not by chance, but as an attempt to gain freedom from ecclesiastical interference from Aquileia particularly as they were gaining their autonomy from the Byzantines and extending their authority over islands and the coast in the Northern Adriatic including Grado.[viii] Initially Venice had associated itself with St. Theodore who served as a warrior in the east.[ix] With the greater separation from the Byzantine east Venice may have thought it in their best interest to acquire an affiliation with an Italian saint and linking themselves to the west. In doing so they were able to go against the authority of Aquileia and begin to generate a new identity separate from both the east and the west.[x] Aquileia responded by appropriating the relics of Hermagoras from Grado to combat Venice having the relics of one of the evangelists. They placed the relics of the first Bishop of the region in the new Cathedral at Aquileia in 1063.[xi] Both Aquileia and Venice went on to use the cathedral and basilica respectively through decoration to validate their ownership of the relics they had gained through dubious means.
There have been three different phases of building at San Marco, the second version was originally built in 830 but was destroyed in 976 by a fire and eventually rebuilt in 1063. The interior decoration including the mosaics was likely finished by 1094.[xii] The façade decoration was finished last which shows a decision by the administration of San Marco to reiterate their connection to St. Mark by duplicating a program relating to the saint’s remains coming to Venice. Throughout its history San Marco has gone through many restorations. In the 16th and 17th-centuries changes were made to the mosaics that conflict with the original medieval architecture. The new Renaissance mosaic aesthetic was out of scale and clashed with the architectural lines of the building.[xiii]
After Venice acquired St. Mark’s remains they changed the focus of the design of the building from that of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to be rebuilt in imitation of the Apostoleion in Constantinople where the last Roman Emperor Constantine’s dynasty was interred beside the bodies of the Apostles.[xiv] The decoration of San Marco was used by the Venetians to make a visible statement about the authenticity of their appropriation of Saint Mark’s body.[xv] In the 11th and 12th-centuries this took the form of the miracles of St. Mark and the translation of the body in the Chapels of San di Pietro and San Clemente.
San Marco Basilica is decorated in more than 6,000 square meters of mosaics[xvi] and only 1/3 of the mosaics can be considered original due to the various restorations that were meant to follow the ideas laid out in the 11th and 12-century mosaics.[xvii] On the western façade facing the Piazza only one portal remains original from the 13th-century and depicts the façade with many of the attributes it would have contained in the narrative displayed on the mosaic of St. Mark being carried into the Basilica. The style of the facade of San Marco and its decoration in the 1260s was decorated in a way that brings to mind an ancient Roman hippodrome because of the marble paneling and the four bronze horses.[xviii] In this instance Venice adopted the Roman hippodrome as more than a racing track but a meeting place or as Fabio Barry refers to it as a “pressure valve” for different factions of the city where they were under the scrutiny of the government; in ancient Rome they would have been under the watch of the Emperor.[xix] The facade of San Marco was used as a monumental display for the four horses and as a backdrop for the piazza, which was seen in some ways to resemble a Roman forum.[xx] The facade would have been influential in displaying Venice’s power in a public space that saw traffic from all over Western Europe and the east and was important as a statement for Venice serving as the new Rome. This was displayed through spolia that decorated the facade of San Marco. Spolia on the facade was made up of stolen, purchased and gifted items.[xxi] However, with the amount of spolia they were always careful to avoid any sacrilege issues, issues that also come along with the appropriation of the holy relics of others.[xxii]
An integral part to the mosaics decorating the interior and exterior of San Marco is where the material came from and who the mosaicists were particularly when considering the 12th and the 13th-century mosaics. It is not clear who was labeled the mosaicist when considering these early mosaics, the creator of the actual design or the craftsmen who implemented the design or whether the same person completed both. The questions brought up by studying the materials and artists are barely touched upon by Demus and many art historians have taken his opinions on the matter as fact. However further research into glass making in Venice and identifying stylistic influence and technique is allowing more credit to be given to Venetian craftsmen for the earliest mosaics in San Marco. The pervading theory is that Venice employed both mosaicists and glass material from Byzantium and Byzantines trained Venetian craftsmen who worked on the mosaics.[xxiii] Demus credits the Byzantines as being the best in the art of mosaics at the turn of the century and gives Venice the title of best provincial style mosaics.[xxiv]
There is evidence of importation of pre-made glass tesserae in the city before glass was being manufactured in Venice, which was either brought from Constantinople, salvaged from older mosaics or brought from mosaic workshops in both Levant and Tyre.[xxv] Glass may have also been included in the spolia that was used in the decoration for San Marco that incorporated marble, sculptures, pillars, icons and relics.[xxvi] Excavations at nearby Torcello provide evidence for glass making industry in the area during late antiquity and the medieval period; therefore it is not too unlikely that these skills continued on in the local area and contributed to the glass used in the San Marco mosaics during the 11th, 12th and even the 13th-centuries.[xxvii] A connection exists between glass being made on the Italian peninsula and Venice because the chemical makeup of the tesserae found at Torcello matched that of glass made and found in Italy and may have again been used in San Marco.[xxviii] The Byzantines themselves may have even procured glass through trade in addition to or instead of manufacturing it.[xxix] Venetians could have used their own wide spread commercial contacts and gone directly to the source of raw glass ridding themselves of a dependence on Byzantine glass if this is the case.[xxx] The plausibility of this is supplemented by the fact that Venice in the 12th and 13th-centuries was working towards greater autonomy from Constantinople, when the mosaics depicting St. Mark on the facade and Zen Chapel were being made.
Some art historians, Demus included, do not believe that a Venetian mosaic style is discernable until the 14th-century.[xxxi] However Demus does categorize the 12th-century as the most important time period particularly for the interior mosaics of San Marco.[xxxii] He also attributes many of the stylistic and material changes seen in the mosaics from this period as a result of the changing relationship between Venice and Byzantium.[xxxiii] The iconography is attributed to the Byzantine style.[xxxiv] Two Byzantine styles have been identified as present in the mosaics featured in San Marco and can be seen through the mosaics associated with St. Mark.[xxxv] The mosaics in the sanctuary are both lively and picturesque dating from the 12th-century and the mosaics in the vault leading into the Zen Chapel portraying the second series of scenes from the life of St. Mark date to the 13th-century and the façade are similar in style.[xxxvi]
St. Mark is depicted in the Chapel San di Pietro, the Chapel San Clemente, the vault before the Zen Chapel, the South Transept and on the façade of San Marco. The interior overall acts as an affirmation of Christian faith whereas the narthex serves as an introduction with the story of the creation displayed in mosaic.[xxxvii] The mosaic program on the façade, which primarily features St. Mark over four different entrances, serves as a patriotic installation. In all of its decoration, but particularly in its mosaic programs, San Marco is used to document Venetian and biblical history.[xxxviii]
[i] Liz James, “Mosaic Matters: Questions of Manufacturing and Mosaicists in the Mosaics of San Marco Venice,” in San Marco, Byzantium, and the Myths of Venice, ed. Henry Macguire and Robert S. Nelson (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010), 229.
[ii] Otto Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 200.
[iii] Thomas Dale, “Inventing a Sacred Past: Pictorial Narratives of St. Mark the Evangelist in Aquileia and Venice, Ca. 1000-1300,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers48 (1994): 7.
[iv] Dale, 7.
[v] Dale, 8.
[vi] Dale, 8.
[vii] Dale, 9.
[viii] Dale, 9.
[ix] Labatt, Annie. “Saints and Other Sacred Byzantine Figures”. InHeilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/snts/hd_snts.htm (October 2004)
[x] Dale, 9.
[xi] Dale, 10.
[xii] Edgar Waterman Anthony, A History of Mosaics. (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1968), 191.
[xiii] Anthony, 191.
[xiv] Fabio Barry, “Disiecta membra: Ranieri Zeno, the Imitation of Constantinople, the Spolia
style, and justice at San Marco”, 7.
[xv] Barry, 7.
[xvi] James, 227.
[xvii] Demus, 18.
[xviii] Barry, 13.
[xix] Barry, 14.
[xx] Barry, 14, 19.
[xxi] Barry, 22.
[xxii] Barry, 23.
[xxiii] James, 228.
[xxiv] James, 228.
[xxv] James, 230.
[xxvi] James, 232.
[xxvii] James, 231.
[xxviii] James, 231.
[xxix] James, 232.
[xxx] James, 232.
[xxxi] Anthony, 192.
[xxxii] Demus, 3.
[xxxiii] Demus, 3.
[xxxiv] Anthony, 193.
[xxxv] Anthony, 194.
[xxxvi] Anthony, 196.
[xxxvii] Anthony, 192.
[xxxviii] Barry, 32.