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The San Marco Basilica is the stuff of real fairy-tales: large domes and towers, elegant arches, gilded mosaics and magnificent images of saints. And this is just the outside! Venetians themselves cannot get enough of the cathedral’s façade. The interior of the San Marco Basilica, dedicated to the city’s patron saint, is even lovelier.
‘The prettiest salon in the world that is worthy of having heaven as its ceiling’ - that’s how Napoleon described the world-famous Piazza San Marco. The Venetians simply call it ‘La Piazzetta’: there is only one real square in their city and that is the Piazza San Marco. It is always busy here as tourists mingle and take photographs and street vendors eagerly sell pigeon feed. This is one of the most impressive and certainly one of the most famous squares in the world – the ideal setting for one of Europe’s most beautiful cathedrals.
Not everybody is immediately charmed by the opulent gaudery of the San Marco Basilica – in fact, Mark Twain described the cathedral as a ‘large warty bug on a meditative walk’. However, English art critic John Ruskin exhausted every possible prosaic superlative to describe the cathedral as an architectural world wonder. And Napoleon was so enamoured that he picked a handful of gems from the Pala d’Oro altarpiece and took them home as a souvenir.
Among the countless works of art in the San Marco Basilica, the altarpiece is the absolute highlight: the Pala d’Oro is a symphony in gold, enamel and gem stones, composed of 250 panels created by several medieval goldsmiths. The cathedral itself was built in the 11th century in a Byzantine style in the shape of a Greek cross, with a dome on each of the arms. Over the course of centuries, the cathedral has undergone drastic renovations, expansions and restorations, and as a result we find both Byzantine and Renaissance influences. Today everyone seems to be convinced that Ruskin and not Twain had the right opinion.
“John Ruskin described the cathedral as an architectural world wonder”
The Basilica is the most famous attraction, but the Piazza San Marco is framed by several other impressive buildings. On both sides of the square are the extensive arcades of the Procuratie Vecchie and Procuratie Nuove. Next to the cathedral stands the Gothic Doge’s Palace and the Campanile, the bell tower which is almost 100 metres high. You can climb it for fantastic views of the 5 domes of the San Marco Basilica and the rest of Venice. The patios around the piazza are also famous, for example the one of the historic Caffè Florian, where Casanova, Goethe, Proust and Dickens once came for coffee. The price of an espresso is astronomical but the view is priceless.