Saint Mark’s was the city’s chief monument, temple of civic life as well as of religious faith, bearing witness to the greatness of Venice.
For about one thousand years it functioned as Ducal Chapel, coming directly under the Doge who nominated its Primicerius, with episcopal authority, and as State Church under the supervision of the Procurators of Saint Mark.
It has always been the church where the Venetian people and government have held their highest celebrations.
In 1807 Saint Mark’s became the seat of the Patriarch of Venice and the city cathedral thus closing its thousand years of ducal history.
In the course of its history the basilica of Saint Mark played two highly important roles: palatine church, the chapel of the Ducal Palace, and from 1807 city cathedral.
In the earlier phase the Doge was elected in the Ducal Palace and then presented to the citizens from the right hand pulpit in St. Mark’s which was exclusively his. He then went into the piazza and met the people in accordance with special rites and ceremonies.
The Doge himself was the main celebrant in St. Mark’s, though in the liturgies this role was filled by the “primicerius“, the first of the basilica’s canons, an ecclesiastic with episcopal prerogatives, nominated by the doge whom he represented.
Being the state church, other official ceremonies took place in St. Mark’s such as the blessing of soldiers on their way to war or the presentation of banners taken from the enemy.
In memory of the “Peace of Venice“, the historic event that took place in St. Mark’s in 1177, the names of the protagonists, the most powerful men in Europe, were engraved on the marble floor of the atrium: pope Alexander III and emperor Federico Barbarossa, the peace being organised by the doge of Venice Sebastiano Ziani. In 1201 the old doge Enrico Dandolo assembled in St. Mark’s Crusaders from all over Europe, about to depart for the Holy Land, in order that they might have protection and divine aid. In 1377, at a moment of serious danger when the allied Genoese of Chioggia threatened the Republic from close by, the people insisted on Vettor Pisani as commander of the army and took him to St. Mark’s so that the doge could grant him leadership for defence of the city.
St. Mark’s was a place of meeting and prayer for the Venetians also in moments of great pain such as in 1576 when the vote was given to build a temple to Christ the Redeemer and in 1630 a temple to the Virgin in order to be freed from terrible plagues, and lastly in 1797 when Venice saw the end of its independence.
St. Mark’s was also a point of reference for merchants and sailors who, journeying by land and sea, enriched it with precious gifts, marbles and art treasure, all with the wish to contribute to keeping this monument great and rich as testimony of the greatness of Venice.
On 12th May 1797 the Serenissima fell to Napoleon’s troops. A new phase began for St. Mark’s.
In 1807 St. Mark’s became the seat of the Patriarch of Venice. On the orders of Napoleon the cathedral was transferred from the ancient seat of San Pietro di Castello to St Mark’s which thus lost its function of Doge’s Chapel and became the city cathedral.