Paper Rough Draft

Riches of the East: Political and Economic Factors Affecting the Exterior Ornamental
Architecture of San Marco


Otto Demus wisely stated that the church
of San Marco “mirrored the rise of the Venetian Republic” and its architecture represents
the historical forces associated with its rise to power in the East and the
Venice’s established its power through commercial relations and trade expeditions
throughout the East.  Religious,
financial and political matters and activities centered on the maritime city’s
commercial successes.  Venice established
its trade relations with the Byzantine East in the sixth century and
established relations with the Islamic east as early as the ninth century.  However, after Venice’s involvement in the
Fourth Crusade, Venice truly began to integrate both Byzantine and Islamic
architectural elements into the buildings of the city.  The Church of San Marco was mostly enhanced
and embellished with these architectural elements in the thirteenth century, a
period of economic success, after Venice’s involvement in the Fourth Crusade,
the sack of Constantinople and the creation of the Latin Empire.  The Venetians flaunted their success and
power to the rest of the Western world by embellishing the church of San Marco
with spoils from the Byzantine East and emulations of Islamic architectural
details.  After a brief discussion of
mercantile politics between the Byzantine and Islamic East and Venice which led
to the Fourth Crusade and sack of Constantinople in 1204, an examination of
various architectural details added to the exterior of San Marco in the
thirteenth century will prove these additions symbolize Venice’s supremacy in
the Byzantine and Islamic East and are the visual manifestations of Venice’s
changing political and economic identity.

The location of Venice on the eastern
coast of Italy allowed it to function as a hub for a multitude of
commerce-related expeditions throughout the Byzantine Empire and the Near East
throughout its history.  However, Venice
began as a province of the Byzantine Empire.
In 535 AD, not too long after Venice’s mythical origins in 421 AD, the
Emperor Justinian brought the Veneto and therefore Venice, under the rule of
the Byzantine Empire, recognizing its advantageous location as a valuable
maritime defense location for its eastern and western holds.  As compensation for keeping their ports open
and available for Byzantine imperial ships, Venice was awarded trading
privileges throughout the Empire.[2]  Thus began Venice’s lucrative trade with the Byzantine
East.  As a result of this commercial
focus and the wealth which trade brought to the city, Venice built a stronger
fleet.  This fleet, with ships
constructed for both military and mercantile purposes, allowed Venice to
establish itself as a powerful maritime city through trade and commercial
expansion.[3]  Venice protected the Byzantine Empire from a
variety of different invasions, but Venice always ensured that her involvement
was rewarded with beneficial agreements with terms that enabled and furthered
her trade prospects.  In 991, Doge Pietro
Orseolo II recognized an expanding market in the Islamic world.  Byzantine trading ports no longer seemed
enough. The Doge recognized the benefits of multi-fronted mercantile relations:
greater economic prosperity and unaffected resources if relations with the
Byzantine Empire deteriorated.   Whether Venice’s
trading partners were Christian or Muslim, Venice only wanted their business
for her benefit.  The Doge thus sent
ambassadors throughout the Levant and other areas under Islamic rule: Spain,
Cordova, Palermo, Sicily, Cairo, Kairouan, Aleppo, and Damascus.  Ambassadors and Islamic leaders made various
agreements and Venice officially enjoyed trading relations with the Muslim

The most important political agreement
between Venice and the Byzantine Empire, however, is the chrysobull of
1082.  In the years preceding, the
Venetian fleet came to the aid of Constantinople, under attack by the
Normans.  For their service in the defeat
of the Normans, they were greatly rewarded by the Emperor Alexius.  The chrysobull consisted of a variety of
different items, including annual financial grants and grand titles, but the
most important clause involves Venetian trade status throughout the Byzantine
Empire.  It was this clause of the
chrysobull in which Emperor Alexius granted “Venetian merchants the right to
trade in all manner of merchandise in all parts of his empire free of any
charge, tax, or duty payable to his treasury.”[5]  The Venetians were essentially given a
monopoly on Mediterranean trade, especially since they already possessed
lucrative trade relations throughout the Islamic world.  Because trade relations gave Venice her power
and wealth, she recognized their importance, and looked to protect these
relations and was hesitant to join the First Crusade which began in 1095.[6]
Trade formed the basis of her power, and a failed Crusade could potentially
upset the relations with the Islamic states the crusaders attacked.  Venice did not join the first crusade until
1099, when profits and trade expansion were all but ensured.  After the Crusade, when Christians occupied
previously Islamic strongholds, Venice continued to expand her markets and
relations further into Islamic territories.[7]  Venice did not play a large role in the
Second and Third Crusades, but Venice was integral in the planning, execution,
and the aftermath of the Fourth Crusade.

However, it is important to examine the
architectural developments of the Church of San Marco before discussing
Venice’s involvement in the Fourth Crusade because following the aftermath of
the Crusade, San Marco’s exterior looked extremely different.  The Church of San Marco was rebuilt three
different times throughout its history.  In
832, the first building was consecrated after two merchants stole the body of
Saint Mark from the Egyptian city of Alexandria and smuggled it back to Venice
in 828.[8]   The
building functioned as a sepulcher, or as a reliquary for the Saint’s remains,
and continues that role even today.  A
fire in 976 destroyed this structure, and repairs and some expansions began on
the second, larger building.  In 1063,
Doge Domenico Contarini decided to demolish this second structure and replace
it with an ambitious, five-domed, Greek cross design, modeled after the church
of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.  Contarini
hired an anonymous master architect from the Byzantine Empire and brought him
to Venice to execute his plan.[9]  The building took over thirty years to
complete. It was finally consecrated in 1094, but it looked very different from
the structure seen today.  The building
was constructed entirely in brick, had five low profile domes, similar to those
of the Roman Pantheon or the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and aside from
columns, it lacked ornamental decoration.[10]  However, the magnitude of the structure represented
the extent of Venice’s power in 1094.  Venice’s commercial empire had grown immensely.  The Basilica parallels this economic
expansion, for it similarly grew in size and prominence in Venice since the
construction of the first church in 828.
Further, since Venice owed so much of its success to the trade agreements
and privileged forged between the Byzantine Empire and itself, the structure of
San Marco expressed a Byzantine influenced Venetian political and economic
identity.   After the fourth crusade
however, the Venetian identity expressed by San Marco drastically changed.

Venice’s involvement in the Fourth
Crusade was much like that of the First, she was involved to protect and expand
her own interests and wealth.  The
original plan of the Crusade was to enter the Islamic states through Egypt, the
weakest of Muslim occupied areas.[11]  The Crusaders planned to sail to Egypt, but
were financially inept due to a lack of interest in attacking Egypt instead of
the Holy Lands directly.  However, the
crusaders knew that Venice was the only western power to possess a fleet large
enough to ferry them there.[12]  Venice, however, did not want to join for fear
she would lose her trade relations with the Egyptians.  The current Doge, however, Enrico Dandolo,
was ambitious in character, and from the beginning of his reign, was interested
in acquiring old and new trading ports for mercantile expansion.[13]  Dandolo made and agreement with the
crusaders: if they would help Venice regain the port of Zara and allow Venice
one half of any conquests the crusades may achieve, Venice would delay their
payments for the use of their fleet.[14]  The Crusaders eagerly accepted, and after the
recapture of Zara, Venice once again proposed a deflection to Constantinople,
instead of moving into the valuable trading regions of the Levant, promising
even further glory and riches.[15]  This was met with the same enthusiasm.  Constantinople was sacked and pillaged by the
Venetians and the other European Crusaders by April of 1204.  Enrico Dandolo deflected every unfavorable
development for Venice into an advantage, and with the sack of Constantinople,
established the Latin Empire, a majority of which was under her control.[16]  Many of the architectural embellishments of
San Marco are spoils and riches taken during the sack of Constantinople.  Robert de Clari, a soldier of the crusade
described the riches of Constantinople:

…And it was so
rich, and there were so many rich vessels of gold and silver and cloth of gold
and so many rich jewels, that it was a fair marvel, the great wealth that was
brought there.  Not since the world was
made, was there ever seem or won so great a treasure or so noble or so rich,
not in the time of Alexander nor in the time of Charlemagne nor before or
after.  Nor do I think, myself, that in
the forty richest cities of the world there had been so much wealth as was
found in Constantinople…And each one of the rich men took gold ornaments or
cloth of silk and gold or anything else he wanted and carried it off…[17]


Similarly, Geoffroy of Villehardouin, a
knight of the Crusade also described the riches of  Constantinople:

The rest of the
army, scattered throughout the city, also gained so much booty; so much, indeed
that no one could estimate its amount or its value.  It included gold and silver, table services
and precious stones, satin and silk, mantles of squirrel fur, ermine and
miniver, and every choicest thing to be found on this earth.  Geoffroy de Villehardouin here declares that,
to his knowledge, so much booty had never been gained in any city since the creation
of the world.[18]

In addition to gold, silver, silks,
jewels, and fur, the Venetians brought back larger spoils from the fallen
capital city of the Byzantine Empire.
The four bronze horses, porphyry columns and the porphyry reliefs of the
four tetrarchs are all spoils brought to Venice from Constantinople.[19]

These spoils brought back to Venice, and affixed to
the west façade of San Marco, symbolize the dominance of Venetian power in the Mediterranean
with the establishment of the Latin Empire.
Instead of a province and ally of the dominant Byzantine Empire, Venice’s
identity was now the main power in the Mediterranean.

the return from the East, the Venetians adorned the brick exterior of San Marco
with the spoils from the Crusade, but also with Islamic ornamental motifs.  The Venetian’s ability to maintain a
relationship in two mercantile spheres, Byzantine and Islamic, doubled their
wealth and power in the Mediterranean and Levantine regions, and thus gave them
the means to successfully conquer Constantinople.  The Byzantine spoils, now held on Venetian
soil, symbolized the power of Venice as dominant over the lands and trading
ports of the new Latin Empire.  The Islamic
elements, not physically taken directly from the source dominance over the
Byzantine Empire represent the means by which Venice was truly able to conquer
Constantinople.   The Byzantine
architectural elements which will be examined are the four horses, the porphyry
Tetrarch sculpture and the porphyry columns.
The Islamic elements that will be examined are the Domes,  and the stone grates and arches of the Porta
Sant’ Alipio and the Porta dei Fiori.

[1] Otto Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, (Washington: Dumbarton Oaks
Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University, 1960), 3-4.

[2] John Julius Norwich, A History
of Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 8-9

[3] Ibid., 85.

[4] Ibid., 51.

[5] Donald M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice A Study in Diplomatic
and Cultural Relations,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988),  61

[6] John Julius Norwich, A History
of Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 77.

[7] Ibid., 83.

[8] Ibid., 31

[9] Ettore Vio, ed.,  The
Basilica of St. Mark in Venice,
(New York: Riverside Book Company Incorporated,
1999), 19.

[10] Domenico Crivellari and Maria Da
Villa Urbani, Basilica Di San Marco, (accessed November 11 2011)

[11]John Julius Norwich, A History of
Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 127.

[12] Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades, (London: Hambledon
and London, 2003), 153.

[13] John Julius Norwich, A History
of Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 125.

[14] Donald M. Nicol, Byzantium and Venice A Study in Diplomatic
and Cultural Relations,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 128.

[15] Jonathan Harris, Byzantium and the Crusades, (London: Hambledon
and London, 2003), 154.

[16] John Julius Norwich, A History
of Venice, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 141.

[17] Robert of Clari, The Conquest of Constantinople, trans.
Edgar Holmes McNeal, (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1936) 101-102.

[18] Joinville and Villehardouin,
trans. M.RB. Shaw, Chronicles of the
, (Baltimore: Penguin Books),92.

Charles Freeman,  The Horses of St. Mark’s: a Story of Triumph
in Byzantium, Paris and Venice
, (New York: The Overlook Press, 2004) 88-89.

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