There are more than 500 columns in St. Mark’s, and an equal number of capitals, incomparable for their variety of types, their crafted beauty and the rarity of materials.
Together with some classical 3rd century capitals, the most beautiful and numerous are Byzantine, dating to between the 6th and 11th centuries. Some repeat classical forms but the greater part consists of the most interesting products of Byzantine and Ravenna art.
Most of the materials are spoils of war from Constantinople and mediaeval imitations or creations. Column and capitals were set out within the church observing where possible a rigorous symmetry of materials and forms.
The capitals and column shafts in the church are partly material plundered from Constantinople and partly mediaeval imitations or creations produced for St. Mark’s.
Undoubtedly the pillaged material had to be touched up or adapted to its location whereas most of the bases of the columns in St. Mark’s are originals created for the building. A column’s shaft and capital may have been created in different periods and places and come from different contexts. So in uniting them in the formation of a new column, something totally new was created.
The essential features of the layout of the columns in St. Mark’s, mainly of the 11th and 12th centuries, are a rigorous symmetry and correspondence where the number of related pieces permit.
These features are dominant in the west arm where the marble shafts are symmetrically distributed according to veining, in vertical or horizontal progression. The distribution of capitals in the presbytery zone is also regular and symmetrical, whereas with the columns it was necessary, perhaps because of the considerable dimensions required, to set one before the other a shaft in Proconnesio of different veining and a shaft of Docimeum (light pavonazzetto) opposite one in Proconnesio marble.
In the choir, in front of the pillars, there are two different pairs of capitals set in a frontal position in such a way as to create symmetry to left and right of the axis, giving a special accent to the apse where the capitals with richer decorations are situated, the only 11th century ones that the church possesses. These capitals, together with those of the side apses, immediately appear the most significant. And among these the four set on Thessaly green columns are outstanding for their typology, the same as that of the main capitals in St. Sophia’s in Constantinople. The capitals of the south side apse are also 11th century works from Constantinople whereas those of the main apse and the north side apse are mediaeval copies of the same type. So only two capitals had been plundered and copies of the other six had to be made in order to have the same columns in all three apses. It may be surmised that the two pillaged capitals were acquired inConstantinople with the intention of placing them in a privileged position in the church in Venice. Perhaps what was wanted in Venice was capitals similar to those of the decorations of Constantinople’s main church. Probably in that period it was not possible to find more than those two in Constantinople so it was necessary to resort to copies. The scroll capital of the apse and the Ionic ones on the walls of the west arm find their prototypes in the Justinian church of St. Sophia.
Regularity, alternation of the elements and symmetry also prevail in the north and west narthexes. In the northern one the aim was to place, one next to the other against the internal walls, only Proconnesio shafts with the same vertical veining. As for the Ionic capitals, between each of the two pairs of mediaeval capitals there is one dating to the 6th century. In the west narthex, being the main narthex of the church, there are actually several pairs of 6th century Ionic capitals set in a dense sequence next to other pairs dating to the 12th century, again on similar shafts of Proconnesio marble. In the west narthex the side doors with columns in pavonazzetto are flanked by particularly precious capitals with lion and eagle heads on facing globes, standing on late-antique shafts of white-black breccia, a marble from Aquitaine but, as documented, used in Constantinople in an imperial context as an especially precious stone. In the embrasures of the side portalsthere are also columns with rippled capitals. These free columns that support neither vaults nor anything else were erected subsequently, to be precise only during the faï¿½ade decoration phase in the 12th century. Their parts, which may have come from the area of the imperial palace in Constantinople, have the purpose of intensifying the row of columns on the west narthex wall, analogously to the dense column sequence of the west faï¿½ade and, at the same time, obtaining development with regard to the exterior. Without these columns the surface of the walls between the pairs of columns would have seemed bare in comparison with the faï¿½ade. The contrast with the west wall of the narthex, completely without columns, is thus increasingly highlighted. This contrast evidently originated in the aim to give importance to the interior wall of the church that is first seen by the visitor, accentuated with the addition of other 13th century columns. Entering the narthex a scene of great monumentality opens up, based on the determining effect of the white-black breccia columns with their precious capitals, free of any load-bearing function.