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Venice's San Marco, a mosaic of spiritual treasure

The Piazza San Marco in Venice houses a historic mosaic depicting the arrival of Saint Mark's relics. These sacred bones, stolen from Alexandria, boosted Venice's spiritual prominence and set its path to greatness. The city's rich facade, adorned with treasures from abroad, reflects its trading heritage and connection to the East. The Porta Sant'Alipio Mosaic, c. 1270-75, Basilica San Marco, Venice, an ARCHES video speakers: Dr. Elizabeth Rodini, Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at American Academy in Rome and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(peaceful music) - [Steven] We're in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. It's December, crowded with tourists and it's a reminder that Venice has always been an important crossroads. - [Elizabeth] And we see it in the people from all over the world that are in this piazza and also in this magnificent basilica. - [Steven] We're standing in front of the left portal. It's surrounded by multicolored marbles but at the top is this magnificent mosaic that's 800 years old. - [Elizabeth] The mosaic depicts the arrival of an important relic to the city of Venice. A relic is, in this case, the remains of an important saint, Saint Mark who was one of the Evangelists, one of the closest followers of Christ. And his relics, his bones, ended up in the city of Alexandria where he had been preaching and the Venetians famously stole those relics in an act of sacred theft and brought them to Venice and this put Venice on the map. Saint Mark quickly became one of the patron saints of the city. The principle saint because he was one of the evangelists. - [Steven] And it conferred on the city, a degree of spiritual prominence. - [Elizabeth] There were actually cities that had greater prominence in the region and it wasn't given that Venice was going to become the city it is today. Acquiring these relics set them on that the path. - [Steven] Now the mosaic that we're looking at is a last survivor of what was originally a series of four that went across the entire front of the church. - [Elizabeth] And we are fortunate to have evidence of what the other three looked like through a painting that survives by Gentile Bellini and he painted this facade in such detail that we can tell what has gone missing. - [Steven] So in the rightmost portal, we would've originally seen the body being retrieved from its sanctuary. - [Elizabeth] So they smuggled it away on a ship, they were tossed at sea and saved by these precious relics that were miracle working and eventually brought them to Venice, gave them to the doge who was the ruler of Venice and he proceeded to built a beautiful chapel in their honor. Essentially a reliquary, a container for these precious objects, and that church is the Church of Saint Mark that we're looking at today. Over the next few centuries, this church was replaced several times and it has an incredibly rich facade that was added to it even later so this is an accumulation of things and this is important because Venice was very much about accumulating. They were a merchant city and they made their livelihood through trade. Through bringing things from far away, especially from the East, and bringing them back to this city that they were just trying to establish. - [Steven] Well, we're looking at a mosaic and that recalls immediately one of the principle forms of art of the Byzantine Empire, that is of the Christian East, and Venice as a whole has really been shaped by its relationship with the East. - [Elizabeth] The city of Venice didn't develop until much after the fall of the Roman Empire. The story is that it was founded by refugees who were fleeing invaders from the north. It's not a heroic tale. So the Venetians really sought not only their fortune in the East but also a bit of their history. They tried to associate themselves with this rich tradition of eastern Christendom. The Byzantines were the heirs to the Romans and the Venetians wanted to style themselves as heirs to the Byzantines. In that way, they were connecting themself also to Rome which was the fundamental point of identification for any city on the Italian peninsula. - [Steven] When I look at this church, I see so many forms that don't seem to belong together. Almost simple a collection of individual items. - [Elizabeth] And in a way that's what it is. What you're noticing is, I believe, a very conscious attempt to make that accumulation evident. The builders made it very clear that these things were taken from somewhere and put here and this is making a point about Venice and its source of its strength and the source of its wealth. - [Steven] Venice is a small collection of islands, basically marshland, in the middle of a large lagoon. - [Elizabeth] One of the only advantages Venice really had from its location was the sea that served as a natural protection so it is a city without walls but other than that it really had to struggle. It didn't have natural resources. It didn't have land in which to build wealth so everything came from abroad and the Venetians are very proud of that. And this story is replayed on this facade in many ways. We've talked about this mosaic as a series of four narrative episodes that move from right to left and in that progression we see a movement of this relic from east to west and the makers of this mosaic were very conscious in reminding us of where we are at each moment so the missing mosaic that showed Alexandria featured the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and when we arrive at that final portal, we see the church that we are standing in front of. Of course it's important to remember that this church did not exist when Mark's relics arrived. - [Steven] So if Mark's body was imported so was everything else here. So was all of these marbles and most famously, many of the most precious elements of this building were brought from Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire as a result of the Fourth Crusade. - [Elizabeth] The most famous of these are the four horses that stand on the facade. Today we see copies of them. The originals are inside to protect them but they come from Constantinople and possibly before that from Rome. They're the most famous of these spoliated or stolen and repositioned objects. In addition to all these materials on the exterior, the Venetians put many of the things they took from abroad from Constantinople, from the Fourth Crusade, and other raiding activities. They were very much a warring republic expanding their empire, put them in the treasury, and they announced the presence of these goods on the exterior of the treasury with this beautiful wall of displaced pieces of marble that make this sort of puzzle of colors and patterns that clearly don't come from one place. Don't try and create a unified facade. Art historians have long thought that most of this material comes from the Fourth Crusade. More recent studies have shown that maybe these materials come from a variety of places and one other idea to keep in mind is that the Venetians were always fabricating their own legend so it really worked to their advantage to claim that all of these things came from Constantinople so we don't know where a lot of these materials came from. We know what the Venetians wanted us to believe and we have to be really careful how we interpret these. - [Steven] But now they're here and once in Venice, they took on a different meaning. They began to represent the power and extent of the Venetian Republic. Venice's triumph must've been so bitter for the Byzantines. - [Elizabeth] In fact, a deacon and a patriarchal official in Constantinople wrote very bitterly about what he saw in Venice. He wrote, "The objects there were very precious "and very rich indeed, studded with priceless stones "of exceptional size and clarity. "These objects were brought here according "to the law of booty right after the conquest "of our city by the Latins "and were reunited in the form of a very large icon. "Among the people who contemplate this icon of icons, "those who own it feel pride, pleasure, "while those from whom it was taken "see it as an object of sadness, sorrow, and dejection." - [Steven] So this church and the objects that it holds could be celebratory but for others deeply sad. Speaking to victory to some but also speaking to the vanquished. (upbeat music)