One of the simplest, and most satisfying, experiences in Venice is the stroll home after dinner, after sunset.
Somehow, each time we’ve had the good fortune to spend time in Venice, our apartment rental has been near Campo Santo Stephano, midway between the Accademia and Piazza San Marco. It’s a long open space. A delicious melange of buildings form its walls. The 18th-century facade of the 11th century Church of San Vidal timidly pokes into one end of the campo. In another town, this church would anchor the best plaza; here it’s just another wonder, squeezed to the side.
We’ve walked the meandering route from Piazza San Marco many times and it never gets old: past the ridiculously showy high-fashion stores (actually, they do get old), but then past quirky shops offering Venetian paper, artisanal gin, Murano glass, local-brand clothing, carnivale masks, and lots of art objects. Into Campo Santo Stefano with its outdoor caffès and restaurants (a couple times, when we weren’t hungry for dinner until very late, we’ve sat outside with bowls of pasta and a bottle of a Valpolicella; the food has been only OK, but that hasn’t mattered!). Then past San Vidal and over the Accademia bridge. We always stop at the top of the bridge to drink in the view.
After the bridge, we enter into narrow passages and along tight canals.
The Piazza San Marco, the Basilica San Marco, and the Campanile are the grande dame of Venice: You have to pay a visit, and you always are thankful that you did.
On this visit, we chose to repeat an after-hours guided tour of the basilica that we’d enjoyed during a previous visit. This time, our guide was a particularly knowledgeable and engaging young Venetian woman. She made learning all this history a pleasure.
Let’s see if my notes are as interesting as she was…
The basilica first came into being in the ninth century. It had just been a little more than 100 years since Venice even started to exist on muddy islets in the lagoon. In the ninth century, the Venetians were already growing rich as shrewd traders in the eastern Mediterranean. The ambitious Venetian leaders wanted to demonstrate to their world that they were independent from the two major powers of the day: Constantinople and Rome. They hatched a plan. They sent a wily team to Alexandria, Egypt, to grab the 800-year-old remains of the evangelist Saint Mark, whom they wanted as their patron saint. The Venetian leaders promised that upon the return of the away team, Venice would have erected a new grand chapel worthy of the holy relic. When the raiding party, er, the Venetian patriots returned with the undoubtedly attractive decayed remains of Saint Mark, the basilica was ready — although this first version was a much smaller structure than what we visit today.
The first basilica was burned to the marshy ground in 976 during a popular revolt against the current doge (duke, or top leader). The impressive Greek-style basilica that we see today was completed in 1071. This is a thoroughly Greek Orthodox Byzantine church, despite being in Roman Catholic Venice. It expresses perfectly Venice’s role as traders for all: Greek and Latin alike.
Five grand vaulted arches compose the main facade of the basilica. Elaborate golden mosaics adorn each archway.
The Venetian leaders wanted visitors to read these religious (propaganda) panels from right to left. The reason for this orientation is that visitors always arrived at Venice via Piazza San Marco and from the lagoon waterfront to the right of the basilica.
The mosaics illustrate:
The central portal shows the Last Judgment:
The Venetians wanted to make it abundantly clear to all visitors that Saint Mark blessed Venice and made Venice his home (in a manner of speaking), that Venice was very rich and powerful, and you better watch out.
Time to head inside.
Only a few dozen visitors are allowed in after hours so we can take time to look and experience without the crush of crowds. When we first enter the basilica, the nave is dark. We are told to sit for a moment in the (appropriately spaced) chairs in the middle of the basilica. After a few quiet moments, lights throughout the space ramp up. It’s like a choral crescendo as the expanding light reveals the vast surfaces of gold mosaics all around us. Heads back, jaws dropped, we take it all in.
Gold and glass mosaics coat all of the upper interior surfaces. Unlike most other Italian churches, there aren’t any paintings or frescoes. Just exuberant Byzantine mosaics.
Most of the mosaics we enjoy today are the original ones, shining gloriously a millennium after their creation. Each tessera, or mosaic piece, is a layer of gold covered with glass, some of which is colored. The gold of the upper walls, the domes and arches represents the world of God, apart from humans, but to which all should aspire.
The floors of the basilica are elaborate patterns of colored marble. Marble – which had to be imported since Venice has none – is of the earth, as are we humans. The patterns of the marble pieces are also directions for the ritual movements of the faithful, in the Greek manner.
Our guide talked about the 14 sculpture figures atop the open screen between the main part of the nave, where lay people gathered for mass, and the area of the altar – where, allegedly, the remains of S Mark lie even today. The marble sculptures have, over the centuries, absorbed the soot and smoke of candles and oil lamps. While they are an ebony color now, they were originally white.
I asked why the mosaics hadn’t suffered the same fate. Our guide reminded me that they are glass, which is not at all porous. “So they need to be cleaned only every 100 years?” I annoyingly joked? She replied, “Every 50 years. But that’s not the real issue.” It’s the plaster substrate that over time starts crumbling and needs to be replaced. For centuries, the method was to remove each of the millions of tesserae, rework the plaster base, and put back the tesserae. But in the 19th century, people realized that this method diminished the sparkle of the tiles, making the mosaics seem flat and dull. Since then, artisans renew the plaster base by injection with thin needles through the tiles!
The only major element in the basilica that isn’t mosaic is the altar screen, the Pala d’Oro. It stands behind the main altar, with its back to the congregants. It’s an elaborate combination of gold, ancient Byzantine enamel, and precious stones. At the beginning of the 12th century, after a military victory, the Venetians brought back the first panels from Constantinople. (Our guide said the Venetians were way ahead of Napoleon whose dictum was that the victor has the right to take home whatever he wants.) One of the panels depicted an emperor of Constantinople. The Venetians stuck an image of the face of the current Doge over that of the emperor. However, the doge’s head is too small for the emperor’s body. But that’s the way it remains today. Over time, the Venetians “acquired” more enameled figures and more gold, until the overall collection grew to the size we see today.
There’s a curious aspect of this intricate and hugely valuable panel: it turns its back to the altar and congregants. Venice’s commercial DNA explains why. Huge numbers of pilgrims and devoted Christians have during the centuries come to the basilica to get close to Saint Mark’s holy remains. By turning the panel around, the church and city leaders could charge devotees a nice fee to circumnavigate the altar to see the panel. These days, on a few high holy days of the church calendar, such as Christmas, Easter, and the day of Saint Mark, staff of the basilica pivot the panel to face the altar and the public.
Trattoria di Fiore, Venice
Dear friends introduced us to this tasty and unpretentious trattoria on our first trip to Venice. We have to make the pilgrimage every time we’re here, for the fresh local seafood menu.
Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore 2019 Fumanelli
Trattoria ai Gratis, Murano
Another beautiful cool day, so a simple lunch in the warming sun, overlooking one of the canals.
Garden Bistrot, Venice, Campo Santa Margherita
Our last evening in Venice, so no holding back.
Valpolicella Ripasso Classico Superiore 2018 Aldegheri, Santambrogio. Our server recommended this wine, and we enjoyed it very much. So we educated ourselves for future Venetian (or other!) meals:
Valpolicella Ripasso is an Italian red wine created through a unique production process using the very same grapes employed in Amarone and Recioto (primarily Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella). According to the singular technique for this Valpolicella wine, the pomace pressed softly for the two most famous Veneto varieties is reused, or “ripassato“, and added to containers of Valpolicella, where it rests for 10-15 days.
The result is a high quality Italian red wine, with moderate alcohol content, at least compared to its more prestigious cousins. Bright red in color, tending towrds brick with age, it has a pleasant nose and a smooth, structured, full body. It is ideal accompanied with meat, wild game roasts, cheeses, or even on its own.
The producing area for Valpolicella Ripasso DOC is limited to the province of Verona, and comes in three types: Classico, Superiore and Valpantena, if produced in the little valley of this name. Don’t let tasting the less expensive Ripasso masterpiece pass you by.