Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale

The text below about the San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale was written by Roos Stalpers and Fee van ’t Veen.

Piazza San Marco aerial         Youtube Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale by drone
Piazza San Marco aerial


Entrance San Marco large size

Official site San Marco (Eng):
Adress and how to reach the Basilica
Opening times

Piazza San Marco big size        San Marco  aerial
Piazza San Marco Venice


San Marco facade open           Cross section            Video Khan Academy San Marco (4.52 minutes)
San Marco facade Venice


Upper part southern side wall
San Marco upper part southern side wall Venice


Gentile Bellini ‘Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco, 1496 detail  big size       Canaletto  Piazza 1740-1750 San Marco detail Facade         Whole painting
Gentile Bellini 'Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco, 1496 detail 

In this church it is clearly visible that Venice and Byzantium (Turkey) maintained close contacts. The Byzantine traditions and styles have mingled with western elements, resulting in a unique combination. The name and the emblem of San Marco – a lion with wings – are found all over Venice.

Large size           Marcus on the top
San Marco facade detail leeuw: lion

Legend goes that Saint Marcus the evangelist came to Venice when he was going from Aquileia to Rome in the ninth century. Marcus received a vision from an angel who predicted that Venice would be the city he would die in. The prediction came true. The dead body of Marcus was found by two Venetian merchants in Alexandria in Egypt who smuggled it, hidden beneath pork, to Venice (in the rich decoration of the façade of the San Marco is a mosaic that pictures the transport of the dead body of Marcus)

Porta San Alipio  big size         Coffin with Saint Marcus is carried inside Mosaic 1265
San Marco facade Porta San Alipio Venice

The dead body was entrusted to Doge Giustiniano Particiaco. He gave an order to build a church in honour to the Saint Evangelist. This first church was lost in a fire in 976. A second church was built, and was broken down in the eleventh century to make room for an even more impressive basilica. The church that is in Venice today was built in 1063, and was based on the shape of the first church. The architect is unknown. The basilica has undergone some alterations over the centuries, after it served as a private chapel for the doges, it became the cathedral of Venice. The ground plan of the church exists out of a Greek cross, crowned by five cupolas. The design was strongly influenced by the Church of the holy Apostles in Constantinople (Istanbul) from the sixth century.

Click [here] for the ground floor of San Marco  
1.   Double ambo, 14th century
2.   Iconostasis with statues, 14th century
3.   Ambo of the relics, 14th century
4.   Bronze reliefs of Sansovino
5.   Altar of H. Paulus, 15th century
6.   Madonna Nicopeia, Byzantine icon, 13th century
7.   Chapel of St. Isidorus 1354-1355
8.   Chapel of Madonna dei Mascoli
9.   Relief Madonna dello Schioppo, early 14th century
10. Capitello del Crocifisso 13e eeuw
11. Porphyry holy water basin
12. Altar of San Giacomo 1462-1471
13. Altar of Sacrements 1617
14. Iconostasis statues, 14th century
15. Chapel of San Clemente
16. High Altar
17. Pala d’Oro
18. Door Sacristy, Sansovino
19. Treasure room
20. Baptistery
21. Zen chapel
A.  12th century mosaics
B.  13th century mosaics
C.  14th century mosaics
D.  15th century mosaics
E.  16th century mosaics
F.  17th century mosaics
G.  19th century mosaics
Zen Chapel early 16th century
Tomb of cardinal Giovanni Battista Zen     Mary
Vincenzo Abbati ‘Interno Cappella Zen San Marco Venezia’ 19th century
Altar of San Giacomo and Chapel of Saint Clemens
San Marco Altar of San Giacomo Chapel of Saint Clemens Venice


Baptistery big size     Detail    Antonietta Brandeis ‘Battistero’ 1910
San Marco Baptistery Venice

Over the centuries, the sanctuary was decorated with all sorts of decorations, like mosaics, marble and statues. The church contains many art treasures, which are certainly worth your effort. Many of these treasures were brought to Venice as spoils of war after the Fourth Crusade and the Fall of Constantinopel. The Madonna Nicopeia, a Byzantine icon from the 13th century, was very special. This icon went on war with the Byzantines and always brought good luck. This precious treasury got a prominent place in the basilica with a baldachin as crown.

San Marco Madonna Nicopeia


A prayer by Madonna Nicopia and the icon
San Marco a prayer by Madonna Nicopia and the icon chapel Venice

The famous Bronze Horses were also part of the loot. If you climb the stairs in the church, you can still see the replicas of the four horses. You can also enjoy a great view over the Piazza San Maco. The church just oozes wealth. That’s why this was the place in which the doge was presented after the elections and where heads of State, popes and princes were received.

The four original horses big size             Four horses (replicas) on the facade                 Two horses (replicas)  on the facade
San Marco the four original horses Venice

The mosaics

The gold mosaics that cover a big part of the cupolas, walls and floors were started in 1063. These early mosaics were made by mosaic workers from the East. A combination of western and Byzantine styles originated because the Venetians took over from the eastern mosaic workers. The most beautiful mosaics in the church are in the Cupola of Ascension (the central cupola) and in the Pentecostal Cupola from the 12th century. In the vestibule are on entry (west side) and on the left mosaics visible from the 12th and 13th century. These mosaics depict several events from the Old Testament, such as Creation and the lives of Abraham and Joseph.

Narthex north and west side
San Marco mosaics narthex Venice


Exterior Mosaics in the four cupolas           Mosaic big size
San Marco four cupolas Venice

photo domes: Jonathan ☂ James

Cupola of Ascension and Pentecost         Christ       Topside and dome
San Marco Cupola of Ascension mosaic


Cupola of Pentecost big size
San Marco Cupola of Pentecost mosaic Venice


Carlo Grubas ‘Nave of the  San Marco’  whole painting  19th century
Canaletto ‘Interior San Marco’ c. 1755            Interior today   nave  2019
Carlo Grubas 'Nave of the  San Marco'  19th century

The end of the mosaic art was heralded when a lot of well-known Venetian painters (Titian, Tinoretto, Salviati) started to make designs for mosaics and a part of the original mosaics was replaced. The artists forgot that a good mosaic does not have the same requirements as a good painting.

Mosaics became paintings effected in mosaic. Despite the many additions and destructions, the original medieval scheme has largely been preserved (see map a till g). The mosaics were cleaned and restored to their original state in the 1970s. Furthermore, art historian Otto Demus conducted a large study. In the cathedral,  we will not only pay attention to the mosaics above us, but also to the 12th century floor, comprised of a colourful geometric mosaic of antique marble, purple stone and glass with pictures of animals and birds. Click here at Web Gallery of Art for more images of the mosaics (11th-13th centuries).

San Marco view on left transept
Mosaic view of altar
San Marco San Marco view on left transept Venice



Choir screen big size    Ambo    Choir screen          Canaletto Choir about  1755 detail
San Marco choir screen  Venice
Red screen
San Marco Red screen Venice

The choir of the church was built over a crypt and is being separated of the rest of the church by a roodscreen. The main altar in the choir is covered with a baldachin that is supported by four sculptured alabaster columns with scenes from the New Testament.

Main altar with a baldachin
San Marco main altar with a baldachin Venice

The sarcophagus in which Saint Marcus is buried is kept beneath the altar. You can see the sarcophagus through a bronze gate. According to legend, the body of Saint Marcus was lost in the fire of 976, but appeared miraculously when the new church was consecrated in 1094.

Paolo Veneziano ‘Rediscover the relics of Mark’ 1345 big size
Paolo Veneziano Rediscover the relics of Mark 134

Behind the main altar is the most precious treasure of the basilica: the Pala d’Oro.

Altar with the Pala d’Oro
San Marco main altar with the Pala d'Oro

This is an altar screen covered with gold foil on which various scenes are being depicted. The artwork is covered with over 2600 pearls, emeralds, rubies and other gems. It is seen as the most sensational work created by medieval goldsmiths. The altarpiece was made in 976 in Constantinople, but was expanded later on.

Pala d’Oro big size     Christ on the throne
San Marco Pala d'Oro

The treasure house

There is a small door in the south transept that leads to the treasure house of the basilica. The treasure house contains a large amount of war booty from after the Fall of Constantinople in 1204. Many of the treasures were melted in times of crisis.

Archangel Michael 10th century gold and  enamel big size
San Marco treasure house Archangel Michael 10th century Venice

A big part was robbed after the fall of the Republic. In the 19th century some of the treasure had to be sold by the government to get money. Nevertheless this treasure house contains one of the most important collections Byzantine gold forging. Besides gold forging this treasure house contains valuable icons, censers, reliquaries and goblets.

Palazzo Ducale

View: Zecca, Biblioteca Marciana, Piazzetta and Palazzo Ducale big size           Canaletto’s view
view: Zecca, Biblioteca Marciana, Piazzetta and Palazzo Ducale Venice


Luca Carlevarijs ‘The Bucintoro Departing from the Bacino di San Marco’  1710 Paul Getty Museum, 5121.9 x 182.8 cm large size
Canaletto ‘The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day’ c.1740, 121.9 x 182.8 cm, oil on canvas large size
Luca Carlevarijs 'The Bucintoro Departing from the Bacino di San Marco'  1710 Paul Getty Museum, 5121.9 x 182.8 cm
‘Marriage of the Sea‘To this ancient ceremony a quasi-sacramental character was given by Pope Alexander III in 1177, in return for the services rendered by Venice in the struggle against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. The pope drew a ring from his finger and, giving it to the doge, bade him cast such a one into the sea each year on Ascension Day, and so wed the sea. Henceforth the ceremonial, instead of placatory and expiatory, became nuptial.

Every year the doge dropped a consecrated ring into the sea, and with the Latin words “Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii” (“We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination”) declared Venice and the sea to be indissolubly one.’”

Source: Wikipedia

Palace of the Doges or Palazzo Ducale big size      Detail      Youtube  Palazzo Ducale and a reconstruction (2.43 minutes)
facade sea site Palazzo Ducale


Palazzo Ducale big size
Palazzo Ducale two facades Venice

foto: Paul Fernansez

The Palazzo Ducale or Palace of the Doges is the former residence of the Doges, and the former seat of power of the Republic. For centuries it was the only building in all of Venice that was allowed to carry the title of palace. Other buildings were called Ca […] : the shortened version of casa (house). The Palazzo contains several big offices, courtrooms, torture rooms, and cells. It was built in 814 as a gloomy fort. Just as the Basilica it was destroyed multiple times and rebuilt an equal amount of times. The current Palazzo dates from about the 14th century. De façades, mainly made out of pink marble, are a perfect example of the gothic architecture.

Palazzo Ducale facade:  the Molo and the Piazzetta          Piazzetta facade details: eaves and middle part
Palazzo Ducale facade Piazzetta Venice


Palazzo Ducale piazzetta facade middle part
Palazzo Ducale piazzetta facade Venice

The main entrance of the complex is formed by the elegant Porta della Carta (a gate) crowned by a personification of Venice and leads to the courtyard of the Palace. In the centre of the courtyard are two beautiful 16th century bronze wells.

Two faces on the Piazetta (detail) of the painter from Amersfoort Caspar Adriaans van Wittel Dated approximately 1700  whole painting
Caspar Adriaans van Wittel view Piazzetta San Marco c. 1700

Scala dei Giganti

Doge Marco Barbarigo gave instructions to build a big ceremonial staircase in 1485, that should provide a fitting environment for the crowning ceremonial of the Doges. The Doges were crowned on the landing of the staircase with a corno ducale or doge hood covered in jewels, which was an important symbol of status. The staircase was designed by Antonio Rizzi, who had it decorated with a various scheme of reliefs and statues. The name of the staircase was inspired by the two gigantic statues of Mars and Neptune by Jacopo Sansovino. The statues symbolised the power of the Republic at land and at sea.

Francesco Guardi ‘Ceremonial staircase with the crowning ritual’ big size 1775-1780           Scala Giganti detail: the staircase


Scala Giganti     Mars     Neptunes
Scala Giganti Palazzo Ducale

The Scala dei Censori leads the visitor on the other side of the courtyard inside. Inside we’ll take the Scala d’Oro (gold staircase) upstairs. This staircase was designed by Sansovino in 1558 and derives its name from the plastered and gilded vault by Alessandro Vittoria. This staircase leads to the Primo Piano Nobile and the apartments of the doges. The second part of the Scala d’Oro leads to the third floor and the board rooms. The Atrio Quadrato (square atrium) is upstairs. The wooden ceiling was painted by Tintoretto.

Click [here] for a floor map of the third floor Click [here] for a floor map of the fourth floor
1.   Scala d’Oro
2.   Atrio quadrato (Heinrich Hansen)
3.   Sala delle Quattro Porte (J.T. Hansen)
4.   Anticollegio (Heinrich Hansen)
5.   Sala del Collegio (Pietro Malombra)
6.   Sala del Senato
8.   Chapel of the Doge
9.   Consiglio dei Dieci
10.  Sala della Bussola
11. Capi del Consiglio dei Dieci
12. Inquisitori
13. Armories of the Council of Ten
14. Scala dei Censori
15. Sala del Guariento
16. Sala del Maggior Consiglio (J.H. le Jeune 1678)
17. Sala Quarantia Civil Nuova

The Sala delle Quattro Porte is to the right. The ceiling of this room was designed by the builder Palladio and repainted by Tintoretto. The room next to the Sala delle Quattro Porte is called the Anticollegio and functioned as waiting room. A few walls of this room were provided with mythological images. The Sala del Collegio is the most valuable room of the Palazzo and is filled with gorgeous paintings of Tintoretto and Veronese. In the Sala del Senato, the room in which the doges spoke with the Senate about important state business, murals and ceiling paintings made by Tintoretto and his students can be found.

The Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci was the meeting room of the Council of Ten. This council was established to investigate crimes against the state and to persecute criminals. Veronese made a few marvellous paintings for this room. These paintings were so beautiful that they were taken by Napoleon to Brussels in 1797. The two most beautiful were returned to the Palazzo in 1920.

The Sala della Bussola grants access to the cells. The Bocca di Leone (mouth of the lion) is in this room. This is a mailbox in which secret messages could be thrown from the outside. There are several of these mailboxes in the Palazzo. These were only to be emptied in presence of three chairmen of the Council of Ten.

Posting untrue messages was a heavy crime. We descend through the Scala dei Censori to the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Room of the Great Council).

Sala del Maggior Consiglio big size
Sala del Maggior Consiglio Palazzo Ducale Venice

The Great Council came together in this room to make legislative acts. This room also hosted parties. For this room Tinteretto painted together with a few assistents Il Paradiso (the paradise), the biggest oil cloth in the world (7.45 by 24.65 meter). For many details of Il Paradiso (very large) click here Wikimedia.

The ceiling of the room is very interesting too. It is divided by 35 compartments that have been painted. The most important compartments are the central ones that  were painted by Veronese (Apotheosis of Venice), Tintoretto and Palma Giovane (Venice with the conquered areas around her throne).

Through the signs, Prigioni, in the Palace of the Doges and the Ponte dei Sospiri (bridge of sighs) we go to the infamous dungeons, next to the Palace of the Doges. Casanova found this romantic city to be an important hunting ground. He escaped from these dungeons, but he was one of few.

Canaletto f.l.t.r. Palazzo Ducale, Ponte dei Sospiri  and the Palazzo delle Prigioni 
Canaletto f.l.t.r. Palazzo Ducale, Ponte dei Sospiri  and the Palazzo delle Prigioni 


Palazzo delle Prigioni prison
Palazzo delle prigioni prison Venice Ducale


Prigioni torture chamber big size
Prigioni torture chamber Ducale Venice


View from Ponte dei Sospiri and inside the Ponte dei Sospiri
Ponte dei Sospiri Venice

Click here for continuation day 4