On 7th April 1529 Jacopo Sansovino was nominated director of works for San Marco, architect and superintendent of work on the church.
Over and above works of architectural consolidation and the transformation of St. Mark’s Square, Sansovino was also active in embellishing the church.
Among his most significant interventions was the transformation of the choir from a mediaeval to a renaissance interior.
Scholars hold Sansovino’s masterpiece to be the Bronze Sacristy Gate. The two main panels show scenes of the Burial and Resurrection framed by three Prophets and the four Evangelists.
On 7th April 1529 the Procurators of St. Mark’s nominated Jacopo Sansovino as architect and director of works to superintend the church and all buildings within and without Venice.
As well as handling various architectural and consolidation interventions Sansovino, as director of works, also had the duty of embellishing the church, which he did by transforming the choir. In their original positions in the presbytery today there are only the small tribunes for choristers, the sacristy door and the small door to the Holy Sacrament, a result of radical modifications carried out when the ducal chapel became patriarchal basilica in 1807.
The presbytery of St. Mark’s designed by Sansovino is divided into two areas: the major chancel, where the Doge, the Lords and their entourage attended church services, and the minor chancel two steps higher than the major, the actual presbytery and choir for the clergy. Under his direction new benches with inlaid frontals were created, set against the walls of the major chancel. Here, from the mid 16th century, during religious services, the precious Medici tapestries with the Stories of St. Mark were hung.
Sansovino personally created the bronze reliefs for the two small chorister tribunes to right and left of the ducal area. Abolishing perspective depth he set each story in a dense atmosphere of classical-type citations, laying out the figures (modelled with powerful plasticism) in a tight, dramatic and spectacular narration that was to influence the subsequent works of Tintoretto. With Sansovino’s reliefs there was a return to exalting St. Mark’s miraculous powers. The reliefs of the right “pulpit” (1537) illustrate episodes from the Evangelist’s life: St. Mark Baptising the Unbelievers, Martyrdom of the Saint in Alexandria, St. Mark raising a dead man,exorcising a possessed man, healing the lame; the fourth relief shows St. Mark and his Lion. Dating to some years later (1541-1546) the reliefs for the left “pulpit” depict The Miracle of the Slave in Provence, The Miracle of the Rain in Apulia, The Miracle of the Soldier in Lombardy and St. Mark Reading.
But all scholars agree that Sansovino’s masterpiece is the bronze door of the sacristy for which he began the wax model in 1546.
The bronze door, which follows the curved progression of the apse wall, is framed with marble. The two main panels show the scenes of the Burial (lower panel) and the Resurrection (upper panel), framed horizontally by three Reclining Prophets and vertically by the four Evangelists. At the corners of the two main panels, six heads emerge from smaller panels. Three of the portraits have been identified, thanks to Francesco Sansovino: his father Jacopo, Titian and Pietro Aretino. There have been various conjectures about the other three heads: Palladio, Tintoretto, Veronese and the two Palmas.
The tabernacle door with Christ in Glory completes the apse altar, behind the High Altar. The fact that the door is the work of his assistants does not mean that the Maestro was not involved in it: he probably supervised this copy for St. Mark’s.
Sansovino’s sculptures for the presbytery are all in bronze. They are individual works but cannot be considered as independent and isolated since there is an interrelation, a result of his masterful orchestration, that establishes a sense of unity in the whole. Documents in our possession give us a fairly precise idea of the stages in the creation of Sansovino’s bronzes. The master created a model in terracotta, probably presented to the Procurators for approval before casting in bronze, whereas the rest of the procedure was entrusted to his workshop under the supervision of the workshop head.
The involvement of many assistants in the casting process has been interpreted by some scholars as a sign of Sansovino’s remoteness from the project. Without a doubt his assistants prepared the wax models which were then passed on to specialised casters, but this itself was a consequence of the bronze casting process, long, complex and very delicate. A century earlier in Padua Donatello himself employed professional casters. As for the wax model for casting, its preparation could easily be left to assistants since the wax had to be finely modelled in all its details to achieve the form desired by the sculptor. Moreover, the formal perfection of a bronze sculpture is the result of a long and patient reworking to correct the imperfections of casting. One may intuit that for Sansovino, a much sought after sculptor and architect with a heavy workload, the use of bronze was an optimal solution since he could create models and leave the long casting process to others.
In the St. Mark’s bronzes Sansovino’s originality and creativity were given full rein, leading him to experiment with mannerism, also stimulated by contact with Tuscans Giuseppe Salviati, who arrived in Venice in 1539, and Giorgio Vasari who lived there for a few months between 1541 and 1542.
In his operation of updating the ceremonial space of the presbytery with a more modern language Sansovino celebrated the myth of Venice, decorating the church in a propagandistic key where the themes of religion and politics are interwoven.
Since earliest times the cult of St. Mark had possessed not only a religious but also and above all a political meaning.