The present day St. Mark’s was begun in 1063 when the Doge Domenico Contarini commissioned an architect, probably Greek, to build a church on ancient foundations, using the ancient walls of previous buildings.
The church was consecrated on 8th October 1094 when the body of St. Mark was definitively deposited in a marble tomb beneath the high altar.
Thereafter the church was continually modified, enlarged, covered with marbles and mosaics and decorated with columns and statues.
Mosaic decoration began in 1071. In the course of the 12th century the essential nucleus of the iconographic plan for the interior was carried out.
Other important cycles were created in subsequent centuries.
In the early decades of the 13th century the church’s image underwent substantial modifications: the facades were faced in polychrome marble and the cupolas were covered with higher lead cupolas so that they might be seen from a greater distance.
The church was a kind of living organism in continuous mutation down through the ages of its history.
Each period left important marks that contributed to creating a highly singular “summa” of precious artistic elements.
St. Mark’s as we see it today is the third church built on the same site and dedicated to the saint.
The first church was built in 828 as the saint’s sepulchre after the Venetians had stolen his body and brought it from Alexandria. One can only guess at the form of this church on the basis of few archaeological finds, but the first St. Mark’s was certainly smaller than today’s. The modified structure of that church became the present-day crypt.
In 976 a fire spread from the Ducal Palace to the church, largely destroying it. A second church was built on the remains.
Construction of the third and last church began in 1063. Modifications and transformations were protracted over centuries. We may posit three phases for the third St. Mark’s, coherent with political events and linked with three doges of the Serenissima: Domenico Contarini, Domenico Selvo and Vitale Falier.
Domenico Contarini gave the go-ahead for building in 1063.
Starting in 1071 Domenico Selvo authorised the start of mosaic decoration in the unfinished church.
Vitale Falier consecrated it and dedicated it to St. Mark on 8th October 1094.
With this phase completed the church had five lowered cupolas, was rich in columns, cornices and capitals ordered in Constantinople and was characterised by a Romanesque language, especially in the brick walls.
The new church’s first twenty years were years of ruinous events, great fires and earthquakes. In this period the pre-existing walls of St. Theodore’s and the Ducal Palace were absorbed into the north and south frontages to reinforce an insufficiently stable cupola system. In 1177 the doge Sebastiano Ziani built a terrace on the whole frontage and certainly extended or completed the west narthex. From the terrace the new St. Mark’s Square could be seen, created after covering over the Rio Batario.
Building Phases over the Centuries
The 13th Century: Glory.
With the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 Venice became a leading figure in the 4th Crusade.
Contact with oriental architecture led the Serenissima to bring its image into line with the capital’s.
The architecture of the 12th century church, recently completed, was short-lived.
In the first decades of the 13th century the great arches of the faï¿½ade were faced with slabs of marble. Ships came to Venice with stone materials gathered on their voyages in the East: columns andcapitals, whole marble complexes were either removed from decaying buildings or purchased by the Venetians. Most of these “trophies” ended up on the brickwork facade.
The wooden cupolas, roofed with lead, were raised to make them visible from the sea.
At the end of the 13th century Venice was at the peak of its glory and commercial power. A church with polychrome marble and mosaics stood in a red brickwork piazza while the faï¿½ades of the surrounding buildings were mostly frescoed.
The 14th Century
The doge Andrea Dandolo (1343 – 1354), was a renowned historiographer and friend of Petrarch. When he was still a Procurator he decided to build the baptistery in the first half of the 14th century, occupying an area believed to have been an ancient open portico between the Ducal Palace and the church.
In the second half of the century Andrea Dandolo was also responsible for building the chapel of St. Isadore, at the side of the north transept. .
The 15th century
The great fire of 1419 closed the Byzantine and Venetian epoch of the church, the site now being run by Tuscan stonecutters.
The lunettes in the upper register of the facades were decorated under the guidance of Nicolï¿½ Lamberti.
From 1425 to
1433 the curator was Paolo di Dono, known as Paolo Uccello, who codified the use of the cartoon in creating mosaics.
In this century the mosaics of the Mascoli Chapel were also created, depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin.
16th -17th and 18th Centuries
From 1529 to 1570 the curator of St. Mark’s was Jacopo Sansovino. To him we owe the hooping of the cupolas and the buttress system for containing the thrust of the raised cupolas covered with lead.
He created the altar of the Most Holy in the presbytery, the gate of Paradise, the statues of the evangelists and the great baptismal font in the baptistery.
During the 17th and 18th centuries large new mosaics were created to replace the old ones that had fallen into decay, and systematic maintenance of the church was undertaken.
The 19th Century
The Republic fell in 1797 and Napoleon separated the church from the Ducal Palace in 1807, assigning it to the patriarch. The ground was laid for a new life for the church, now no longer ducal chapel but the new cathedral of Venice.
The monument underwent liturgical adaptation and measures were taken for its preservation. The first 18th century building intervention involved Austria in no less than 48 years of activity. The director of works from 1853 to 1866 was the engineer Giovambattista Meduna.
He was succeeded in 1887 by the engineer Pietro Saccardo who remained until 1902.
Meduna and Saccardo show two sides of how to approach preservation: the former by replacing deteriorated elements, which was then wholly normal, and the latter by absolute preservation of everything, in accordance with the theories of John Ruskin who recognised in the materiality of monuments the signs of the passion and technical skills of the builders of the past.
Restoration of the south facade, carried out by Meduna from 1865 to1875, brought the period of replacement to a close and saw the advent of pure preservation. In 1881 Saccardo established theMosaic Studio, still active today, which dealt with preservation of the mosaic decorations.
The 20th century: Collapse of the Campanile
On 14th July 1902, around 10 in the morning, the campanile of St. Mark’s collapsed almost without warning, falling in on itself. After the incident the new director of works Manfredo Manfredi carried out a rigorous inspection of all structural aspects of the church. He was aided by Luigi Marangoni who experimented with restoring mosaics without removing them from their original position, after having taken down the masonry behind them. This “restoration from behind” avoids leaving traces of mosaic tesserae that have been detached and then reapplied.
In 1948 Ferdinando Forlati took over, putting forward new solutions for reinforcing the pillars. On the suggestion of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, first patriarch and later pope John XXIII, he carried out rotation of the pluteuses inserted in the iconostasis that divides the presbytery from the nave – a 1394 Gothic masterpiece by the Dalle Masegne brothers – thus giving full visibility to the liturgical functions.
Today St. Mark’s benefits from the experience of two centuries of interventions, always in the avant-garde with regard to both technology and the history of restoration in Italy and worldwide.
Through a group of technicians and restorers under the director of works, the Procuratorate of St. Mark’s takes care of every part of the monument, using both ancient and the most modern techniques to prevent the loss of this living heritage from a past in which in one acknowledges East and West.