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St. Mark’s Basilica: its Horses, Treasuries and Legends

St. Mark’s Basilica, Chiesa d'Oro, Venice, Italy-2

St. Mark’s Basilica: its Horses, Treasuries and Legends

Stunning story of the main church of Venice

St. Mark’s Basilica is also known as Chiesa d’Oro (Church of gold) as a symbol of Venetian wealth and power from 11th century for its whimsical design and gold mosaics. The interior of St. Mark’s is adorned, in its entirety, in solid gold tiles. For centuries people thought that simply breathing inside St. Mark’s Chiesa d’Oro would make you richer. As the interior veneer consists of several million ancient gold tiles, many of the dust particles flying inside the church are actual flecks of gold.
If you want to know more about Venice, check out earlier post about the city’s mascots, history, architecture, art, and beauty.

By Katie N. @bambinnio
January 16, 2016

The shape of the church has a mixture of Italian and Byzantine features. Being a replica of Justinian’s Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, St. Mark’s is so eastern in style, that it resembles Turkish mosques, many of which were Byzantine cathedrals that had been turned into mosques.

Just off the right transept of the church, the famous Treasure of St. Mark is hidden safely – an amazing collection of 283 precious icons, jewels and other relics plundered during the Crusades in Constantinople.

The Basilica was first built as the private chapel of the Doge, however, during the 13th century its functions changed to that of a “state church”. Atop the central peak of the church there is a statue of St. Mark. Right beneath his feet, the golden winged lion of Venice stands as a shimmering mascot of the city of Venice.

From the second tier inside, one can see the entire basilica spread out beneath them. On the west side the visitors can step outside on the balcony to see the famous Horses of St. Mark. However, the statues installed on the balcony are just replicas. The real Horses of St. Mark are kept inside for safety and preservation. The texture and details of the stallions’ musculature are breathtaking. The Horses of St. Mark are so beautiful that they are sometimes called “history’s most frequently stolen piece of art”.

The four copper horses had been cast in the 4th century by an unknown Greek sculptor and were later displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople for a long time until they were captured in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade and carried to Venice as a trophy, which was nearly impossible due to their size and weight. Allegedly, to facilitate the transportation, the horses’ heads were severed. The Venetians added to the horses’ necks decorative collars to conceal the seam.
Around 1254 the Horses of St. Mark were installed on the balcony of the basilica.
More than 500 years later, in 1797, Napoleon conquered Venice and took the horses to Paris to display atop the Arc de Triomphe. In 1815, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and his exile, the horses were returned to Venice and reinstalled on the front balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica.

But let’s go back to the doge of Venice who was the first to steal the Horses. He is claimed to be Venice’s most clever and treacherous doge, as he had tricked everyone into the Crusades in 1202. The 42nd doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo took the state money to sail to Egypt, but redirected the ships and sacked Constantinople instead.
He lived for nearly a century, which was a miracle for his time. His longevity was often attributed to his rescuing the bones of Saint Lucia, the patron saint of the blind, from Constantinople and bringing them back to Venice. Interestingly enough, the doge was blind himself.

Which brings us to the legend of Saint Lucia who was so breathtakingly beautiful, that all men had lust for her. So, in order to keep her virginity for the God, Lucia cut her own lust-inducing eyes and placed them on a platter for her ardent suitor. The legend has it, that when the beautiful Lucia refused an influential suitor, the man had her burned at the stake. However, according to the legend, her body refused to burn. As her flesh was resistant to fire, her relics are believed to have magical powers, bring an unusually long life to anyone who possessed them.

That is the reason why Saint Lucia’s relics have been spread all over the world. For 2000 years, the most powerful people have tried to prolong their lives by possessing the bones of Saint Lucia. Her skeleton has been stolen, plundered, hidden, buried, reburied, divided up and passed through the hands of at least a dozen of history’s most powerful people.

St. Mark’s Basilica Four Tetrarchs statue, Chiesa d'Oro Four Tetrarchs statue, Venice, Italy-9

romeacrosseurope.com You stole the statue—we’re keeping our foot

Another famous work of art taken from Constantinople in 1204, the Four Tetrarchs are set beneath the horses in the southwest corner of the basilica. The statue is well known for its missing foot, broken off when it was plundered. Miraculously, in the 1960s, the foot was discovered in Istanbul. Venice asked the Turkish authorities to return the missing piece of the statue, but received a simple reply: You stole the statue—we’re keeping our foot.

Before you go to Venice, read Dan Brown’s Inferno. The book has become an inspiration for this post: Mr. Brown tells tons of amazing anecdotal stories about Florence and Venice as well as the cities’ history and prominent figures along Robert Langdon’s adventures.