— Venice Seminar Research

Revised Research Paper Draft

 St. Mark & 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 created and appropriated myths of Venice. 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 the medieval world. The mosaics depicting St. Mark also demonstrate an amalgamation of decorative mosaic techniques, styles and iconography adopted from areas of major influence on Venice such as Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople. The myth of Venice was developed due to ecclesiastic and political pressures the Venetian state faced. Mosaics depicting St. Mark visually show how these pressures influenced the Venetian identity and how much external influence was key in their use of iconography. Venice used St. Mark as a symbol of their independence from both the east and west and the mosaics placed prominently in public on the façade and interior of San Marco reminded visitors of this independence. However, they never artistically divorced themselves from the influence of Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople because they may have believed it was possible to demonstrate their importance through the mimicry of cities with historically imperial significance. The St. Mark themes are copied over four times in the decoration of the basilica, however discussed in this paper are the depictions relevant to the medieval period and the development of St. Mark’s role in the myth of Venice located in the Chapel Choir, the vault of the Zen Chapel and on the façade of San Marco.

            San Marco has had multiple building phases and its rise to becoming a palatine chapel mirrored the rise of the Venetian state itself.[1] There have been three different phases of building at San Marco. The predecessor to San Marco was a church dedicated to St. Theodore as early as 819 or before.[2] This original chapel was decorated in paintings and mosaics from inscriptions found. There is no visual reconstruction of this building available. However, Demus speculates that because the patron saint at the time was a Greek warrior associated with battles in the near east that the chapel may have had a domed roof in Byzantine style or had architecture influenced by Greek architects.[3] The first church of San Marco was begun in 829; around the same time the relics would have appeared in Venice.[4] There is a strong possibility that some of the first structure was used in the building of the later phase of San Marco.[5] There is no clear reconstruction of the plan it may have been based on a basilica style church or a cruciform church. What is most strongly believed is that it may have been similar in style to the Holy Apostles Church in Constantinople.[6] 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.[7]  This first version of San Marco was destroyed in 976 by a fire and a second eventually rebuilt in 1063. The interior decoration including the mosaics was likely finished by 1094.[8]

The choice of St. Mark as a patron saint of Venice and the creation of the myths surrounding him and city developed due to ecclesiastic politics and the stresses these politics placed on a more independent and dominant Venetian state. St. Theodore served the purpose best early on as patron saint when a connection to the east and Jerusalem was more important, but as Venice gained power and influence both politically and commercially Mark was seen as a better patron for a city that was shaping themselves as the new Rome. Mark was first associated with Venice and the surrounding area in the 6th and 8t h centuries.[9] Justinian attempted to make Ravenna the ecclesiastic center of all of Italy in competition with Aquileia, and Rome. At this time it was almost required to have relics of the Apostles to be considered for the position of state church. This trend was modeled after Constantinople, the city that was the successor to Rome.[10] In San Marco’s first phase Venice, in competition with Ravenna, Rome and Constantinople, obtained several relics from Apostles.[11] The specific Apostles cannot be determined but they were placed in the first church of San Marco in the 9th century.[12]

The myth that is perpetually referenced to in the decoration of the Basilica of San Marco is the finding of St. Mark’s body and the continued reaffirmation of his relationship to Venice. St. Mark’s relics came to the Rialto in Venice in 828.[13] The narrative of the myth is told in the Translatio, a document that’s development is unclear but dates to 1050 that introduces the story of how St. Mark came to Venice by proclaiming the divine right of Venetians to have Mark’s relics.[14] The myth begins with two Venetian merchants, Tribunus and Rusticus, who removed the body of St. Mark from his tomb in Alexandria. Two Alexandrian monks Stauracius and Theodorus were acting as custodians to the relic. The merchants had only arrived at Alexandria because their ship was blown off course to justify their commercial trade with a Islamic city.[15] This is incongruous to the actual Venetian mentality that did not seem to mind who they did trade with as long as they benefitted in the end. The merchants found out that the Khalif of Alexandria is planning on destroying the relics and the church they are in. They then persuade the monks to allow them to take the relics thereby saving them. The monks and the merchants swap Mark’s body with that of St. Claudia and took Mark’s body, hiding it on their ship by placing pork on top of the container to stop Muslim Guards in Alexandria from finding the stolen relic. During the journey back to Venice the merchants experience miracles such as a quick journey back to Venice, at one point they stop at the city Umago in Istria and a sceptic is turned into a believer when he is no longer tormented by a demon[16] and St. Mark saves the ship from wrecking during a storm.[17] Another alleged miracle occurred when St. Mark’s body was received in Venice and then being brought to the palace of the Doge Justinian Partecipacius the relic became to heavy for the clergy members to carry so the Doge promised to build a church to keep them in, which would eventually become San Marco.[18]

The choice of St. Mark the Evangelist 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 dominant Venetian state. 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.[19] Early on Aquileia associated itself with St. Mark through St. Hermagoras, the first Bishop in the area. This was a strong connection to the papal seat in Rome since Mark was originally a disciple of the Apostle Peter that is alleged to have left Rome to establish a church at Aquileia then returned to Rome before going to Alexandria. While in Aquileia Mark preached to the pagan city and eventually consecrated the Evangelist Disciple Hermagoras as the first Bishop of both Roman provinces Venetia and Istria.[20] There is no proven documentary or archaeological evidence of St. Mark’s mission to Aquileia, however, Mark’s alleged activity is important because Rome insisted on Petrine Authorization for a church or city to gain patriarchal authority.[21] The connection between St. Mark and St. Hermagoras was first developed when Paul the Deacon wrote about Mark’s apostolic missions in Liber de Episcopis Mettensibus in 783 and wrote that Mark left Hermagoras as bishop to continue his evangelist work in the area.[22]  Any affiliation to St. Mark would have provided a medieval city in 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.[23] Aquileia may have used this association to become more independent from Rome something Venice would also try to gain from both Rome and Aquileia.[24]

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 Byzantine Empire and extending their authority over islands and the coast in the Northern Adriatic, including Grado.[25] Initially Venice had associated itself with St. Theodore. Theodore was a Roman soldier from Asia Minor who converted to Christianity and became a warrior saint of the Greek Church.[26] He was either beheaded or burned after he set the temple of Cybele on fire. 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 link themselves to Europe. 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.[27]Aquileia responded to the growing autonomy of Venice by appropriating the relics of Hermagoras from Grado compete with 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.[28] Both Aquileia used the building of a cathedral to act as a reliquary for the remains of Hermagoras similar to how Venice used the Basilica of San Marco as a reliquary for the remains of St. Mark. Both cities used decoration of churches to validate their ownership of the relics they had gained through dubious means.

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 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 Otto Demus, an art historian who has compiled a monograph of the 11th, 12th and 13th century mosaics and wrote extensively on the history and aspects of decoration of San Marco. His belief on concerning the creation of the mosaics is that Greek mosaicists who designed and possibly completed the mosaics on San Marco heavily influenced them. Many art historians have taken his opinions on the matter as fact. However, 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.[29] 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.[30]

There is also evidence of the import of pre-made glass tesserae for use in making mosaics in the city before glass was manufactured in Venice. This was either brought from Constantinople, salvaged from older mosaics or brought from mosaic workshops in both the Levant and Tyre.[31] 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.[32] Excavations at nearby Torcello provide evidence for a glass making industry in the area during late antiquity and into 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.[33] A connection exists between glass being made on the Italian peninsula and Venice because the chemical makeup of the tesserae found at Torcello matches that of glass made and found where in Italy and may have again been used in San Marco.[34] The Byzantines themselves may have even procured glass through trade in addition to or instead of manufacturing it.[35] Venetians could have used their own wide spread commercial contacts and gone directly to the source of raw glass, thus ridding themselves of a dependence on Byzantine glass if this is the case.[36] The plausibility of this is supplemented by the fact that Venice in the 12th and 13th centuries was working towards greater autonomy from Constantinople at the time the mosaics depicting St. Mark on the facade and IN THE Zen Chapel was being made.

Some art historians, Demus included, do not believe that a Venetian mosaic style is discernable until the 14th century.[37] However Demus does categorize the 12th century as the most important time period for the production of mosaics at San Marco, particularly for the interior of the basilica.[38] 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.[39] The iconography is attributed to the Byzantine style.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42]

The mosaic 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.[43] San Marco Basilica is decorated with more than 6,000 square meters of mosaics[44]; however, only 1/3 of the mosaics can be considered original. Various restorations were completed that did not follow the style and design laid out in the medieval century mosaics.[45]  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 and the west façade serves as a patriotic statement.[46] In all of its decoration, but particularly in its mosaic programs, San Marco is used to document Venetian and biblical history.[47] Venice celebrated St. Mark’s biblical miracles as well as new ones they used in creating their myth of a sacred history for Venice.

The earliest mosaics in the 11th and 12th centuries that depicted scenes from the life of St. Mark and the translation of his relics are on the ceilings of the Choir Chapels the Cappella di San Pietro and Cappella di San Clemente. These two chapels form an iconographic and stylistic unit.[48] The narrative of the mosaics in the San Pietro chapel represents the “prehistory” of the church of Venice.[49] The Chapel of San Clemente is a narrative depicting the translation of St. Mark’s relics. Both narratives are located in the upper vaults and walls of the chapels. The mosaics have been damaged by multiple restoration campaigns that started as early as the 14th century.[50] The largest campaign was between 1867 and 1880 when the mosaics were first removed then reattached to the walls of the chapels.[51]

The scenes in the chapel of San Pietro read from left to right starting with the west half and begin with the consecration of St. Mark by St. Peter. Then there is a scene of Mark healing the leper Athaulf and Mark baptizing Athaulf. Below these scenes is a depiction of Hermagoras. The east half of the vault continues with more scenes from Mark’s life such as him preaching, baptizing people and sailing to Alexandria followed by the healing of Anianus. The narrative ends on the north wall with the martyrdom and burial of Mark. This series is missing the Venetian addition to the life of St. mark where he receives the promise his body will end up in Venice one day, which was added to the legend of Mark in the 13th century. For the most part the narrative focuses on scenes that would remind the viewer most of Mark’s Venetian connection since most of the actions occurred in Aquileia.[52] Most importantly this mosaic program is a visual claim to the apostolic origins of Venice.[53] The forms of the figures and the gestures conform to a Byzantine precedence in their iconography.[54] The Chapel of San Clemente continues the St. Mark narrative that follows closely the legend of the translation of his mosaics to Venice. This chapel does differ in its organization because the scenes jump from left to right.[55] Demus argues the reason for this is based on the wish to imitate the mosaics at San Vitale of Justinian.[56] Both the mosaics in the Chapel of San Clemente in San Marco and the Justinian mosaic in San Vitale use a processional style for the scenes depicted.

Later in either the 12th or 13th-centuries the mosaics of the vault in the Zen Chapel were developed and again show depictions of the life of St. Mark. The change in the style is apparent. The scenes are more closely packed together. There is also more detail in the buildings, which are used to provide context. The bodies of the people depicted also appear more substantial. Unfortunately they also have many attributes that speak to a later style particularly the scenes showing the miracles performed by St. Mark. There is evidence that like many of the other mosaics these were restored. This series is notable more for the addition of the scene of Mark floating in a boat in the lagoon of Veneto where he has a dream and is promised his body will eventually end up in Venice rather than the

Religious phenomenon was not the only aspect of Mark Venice wanted to venerate. The administration of San Marco used mosaic on the west façade of the basilica over the portals to publicly display their most famous relic to people who may not enter the church but would visit the piazza. The mosaic program on the façade, which primarily features St. Mark over four different entrances, serves as a patriotic and political installation. The facade would have been influential in displaying Venetian power in a public space that saw traffic from all over 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.[57] However, with the amount of use of spoilia in decoration the Venetians were always able to avoid any sacrilege issues, issues that also come along with the appropriation of the holy relics of others.[58]

Major restoration has been done to the façade mangling the 13th century mosaic decoration. The only intact medieval mosaic is over the portal on the far left of the basilica and is the ending scene of the series depicting St. Mark’s body being brought into San Marco. The other three portals represent 19th century restorations that clash with the overall architecture and design of the building. However, analyzing these does help to emphasize the fact that unlike in many mosaic depictions, rather than fitting the entire legend of the translation of St. Mark’s relics into one composition they are spread out over four spaces. The administration and designers of the façade could have used the spaces above these portals to display different stories but they decided to place emphasis on singular parts of one story. If nothing else the façade is the best example of how valuable St. Mark was to Venice. In modern times to discern the original decoration paintings of the façade of San Marco are studied to find out more details. Most popular for this study is Bellini’s Procession of the Relic of the True Cross from 1507. In Demus’ work on the mosaics of San Marco he looks closely at the detail to study what would have likely been there rather than the contemporary mosaics that reside above those portals.

The remaining mosaic from the late 12th early 13th-century significantly displays the choice of decorating the façade of San Marco with spolia. The remaining 13th century portal depicts the façade of San Marco 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 mosaic depicts how the western façade of San Marco would have appeared around 1260. This includes the bronze horses from Constantinople representing a depiction of spoilia in the mosaic. This mosaic is interesting because it displays an image of the building it is on. Byzantine style again comes to the forefront because the building is being used as an icon. The use of recognizable buildings in compositions is a type of iconography made popular in the Byzantine Empire.

Some art historians, Demus included, do not believe that a Venetian mosaic style is discernable until the 14th-century.[59] However Demus does categorize the 12th-century as the most important time period particularly for the interior mosaics of San Marco.[60] He definitely attributes the iconographical style of Venetian early mosaics to the Byzantine style and that is hardly arguable.[61] Demus also when discussing the mosaics of St. Mark has decided there are two Byzantine styles.[62] But with the restoration attempts this seems difficult to prove.

Demus has put in the most scholarly effort towards the mosaics of San Marco but now art historians are beginning to question some of his ideas concerning San Marco. He may have put too much emphasis on the Byzantine influence not allowing for a strong influence from Italian cities such as Rome and Ravenna. For instance I think the similarities in style between the mosaic from San Vitale in Ravenna featuring Justinian is strikingly similar to the mosaic on both the facade of San Marco and the Chapel of San Clemente. Ravenna demonstrates a style similar to Byzantium as well, by the 12th century however Venice may not have been associating Ravenna with Constantinople a city that was in decline. Venetians may have instead been studying more closely the association Ravenna had with a Roman Emperor since they wanted to capture some of the ancient connection for themselves. The mosaics of St. Mark in San Marco Basilica exemplify the Venetian desire to obtain symbols of authority.

Art historian Liz James, has formed a strong counter argument to Demus. James has brought attention to topics such as how complicated it is to study the medium of mosaic without documentary evidence, to figure out facts such as where material came from and where craftsmen came from. Demus sweeps almost all Italian mosaics made during this time period into the same category of almost strictly a Byzantine influence. However James argues that these cities were all greatly influenced by the Byzantine Empire but also were responsible for creating their own styles independently. James also provides evidence that glass may have been supplied from more places than Byzantium and casts doubt on a strong dependence on Byzantine artists.

Notably the tradition of mosaic has lasted into the modern era in Venice. Mosaic like the cities own mythical tradition and patron saint Mark have stood the test of time in Venice. Of all of the mosaic decoration covering the interior and exterior of San Marco, the programs featuring St. Mark in the Chapel San di Pietro, the Chapel San Clemente, the vault leading to the Zen Chapel and on the façade of San Marco best portray the significance of the myth of Venice and depict some of the most important scenes of biblical and Venetian history. The emphasis on the legend of St. Mark was in response to ecclesiastic and political pressures the Venetian state faced. Mosaics depicting St. Mark visually show how these pressures influenced the Venetian identity and how much of their iconography and mosaic style was influenced by cities they wished to be independent from such as Rome, Ravenna and Constantinople.

[1] Otto Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 4.


[2] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 63.


[3] Ibid, 63.


[4] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 64.


[5] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 64.


[6] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 67.


[7]   Fabio Barry, “Disiecta membra: Ranieri Zeno, the Imitation of Constantinople, the Spolia style, and justice at San Marco”, 7.

[8] Edgar Waterman Anthony, A History of Mosaics. (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1968), 191.


[9] 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.


[10] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 7.


[11] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 7.


[12] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 7.


[13] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 8.


[14] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 8.


[15] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 8.


[16] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 9.


[17] Otto Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco in Venice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 200.


[18] Demus, The Church of San Marco in Venice, 9.

[19] Dale, 7.


[20] Dale, 7.


[21] Dale, 8.


[22] Dale, 9.


[23]Dale, 8.


[24] Dale, 8.


[25] Dale, 9.


[26] Hall, 299.


[27] Dale, 9.


[28] Dale, 10.


[29] James, 228.


[30] James, 228.


[31] James, 230.


[32] James, 232.


[33] James, 231.


[34] James, 231.


[35] James, 232.


[36] James, 232.


[37] Anthony, 192.


[38] Demus, Mosaics of San Marco, 3.


[39] Demus, Mosaics of San Marco, 3.


[40] Anthony, 193.


[41] Anthony, 194.


[42] Anthony, 196.


[43] Barry, 7.


[44] James, 227.


[45] Demus, Mosaic of San Marco, 18.


[46] Anthony, 192.


[47]        Barry, 32.

[48] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 54.


[49] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 55.


[50] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 57.


[51] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 57-58.


[52] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 59.

[53] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 61.


[54] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 61.


[55] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 69.


[56] Demus, The Mosaics of San Marco, 70.


[57] Barry, 22.


[58] Barry, 23.


[59] Anthony, 192.


[60]  Demus, 3.


[61] Anthony, 193.


[62] Anthony, 194.