The Church of San Marco was rebuilt three different times throughout its history, but always functioned as a sepulcher, or tomb, as a shrine for Saint Mark’s body, and as the private, Ducal chapel.  As the private church of the Doge, the political leader of Venice, San Marco became associated with the civic, political, and economic activity and issues
which concerned the Doge and the Venetians.[1. Deborah Howard, The Architectural History of Venice, 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 17.]

In 832, the first, small-scale structure was consecrated, only four years after two Venetian merchants brought Saint Mark’s relics to the city of Venice.[2. Deborah Howard, The Architectural History of Venice, 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 31.] In 976, a fire destroyed this first structure, and portions of it were
rebuilt and enlarged. In 1063, Doge Domenico Contarini decided to demolish this
second structure, convinced it was not worthy of the glory of Venice, and supposedly called in an anonymous master architect from the Byzantine Empire to execute a new, ambitious design for San Marco.[3. Ettore Vio, ed., The Basilica of St. Mark in Venice, (New York: Riverside Book Company Incorporated, 1999), 19.]

St. Mark's Cathedral Plan, Begun 1063, Venice, Italy. (ARTstor)

Contarini’s new design consisted of a large, Greek-cross style plan, modeled after the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.






St. Mark's Cathedral Section, Begun 1063, Venice, Italy (ARTstor)

Through cross-sectional studies, architectural historians know that this Greek-cross design was completed by five low-profile domes.




Exposed Brick of San Marco, Begun 1063, Venice, Italy (Professor Marjorie Och, University of Mary Washington)

Finally, the structure was constructed entirely of brick.  Some of this brick is still visible today because it was not covered by spolia added after the Fourth Crusade.[4. Domenico Crivellari and Maria Da Villa Urbani, “Section Dedicated to the Building Phases,” Basilica Di San Marco, (accessed November 11 2011)]

These architectural elements, the brick structure, the Greek-cross plan, and the low profile domes are all architectural solutions which were used throughout the Byzantine Empire.  Venice’s commercial empire had grown immensely from the city’s humble beginnings in 421, and the size and exterior of San Marco parallels this economic expansion.  The original, small church of 828  grew in size and prominence as Venice’s
economic power increased through its political and economic agreements with the Byzantine Empire.  Though Venice was a powerful state, the prominence of Byzantine architectural elements and solutions suggests that Venice owed much of its economic success to the generous trade agreements granted to them by the Emperor. So before the Fourth Crusade, the façade of San Marco displayed Venice’s identity as a Byzantine-influenced economic power.  After the Fourth Crusade however, the exterior of San Marco, and the Venetian identity drastically changed.


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