Tag Archive: venice

Everywhere you look in Venice, you see the symbol of a winged lion, which represents the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark the Evangelist. St. Mark was among the earliest founders of the church, the man who wrote down what is considered the oldest of the 4 gospels, the book of Mark. According to tradition, he went to the city of Alexandria in Egypt, and founded the first Christian church in Africa. After years of ministry there, he was martyred and buried in Alexandria, where a church commemorating his life and service was built and used for centuries.

So what does this have to do with Venice? If you haven’t watched “Francisco’s Venice” on YouTube yet, you should (linked from the last post). Venice, still early in its history but quickly growing in power as an important center of trade, was in bad need of a patron saint in the 800s. In the middle ages, relics held a special place in the church. A bit of bone or an object connected to a saint lead to vast pilgrimages and increased status. Every established city had a cathedral and a relic, but Venice was still pretty new, built on wooden poles buried in the Venetian lagoon. They wanted a high-profile saint to embody their city, so the Venetians stole one.

Legend says that 2 Venetian traders in Alexandria took the remains of St. Mark and smuggled them out of Alexandria by hiding them in pork, a meat that the Muslim guards wouldn’t touch. They brought them back to Venice, and housed them in a shrine built to St. Mark. Over the centuries, St. Marks has been built up to one of the most elaborate and unearthly cathedrals on the planet. The present building in Venice was dedicated almost 1,000 years ago; twice as old as the St. Peter’s Basilica we see today. Venice was a powerful and ridiculously wealthy trading empire during the middle ages and the Renaissance, and with each conquest elsewhere  statues and columns were taken back to Venice and added to the Basilica. Artists were constantly at work here, adorning the entire inside with mosaics, gold and jewels. For centuries, wealthy Venetians vied with each other in their donations to the continual beautification of the church.

To start with, St. Marks Basilica has a totally different layout than other prominent Italian Cathedrals. It’s design is Byzantine, based on the square shape of a Greek cross in what is traditionally an orthodox form. It doesn’t have a single large dome on the top, but rather 5 smaller mosque-like bulbed domes. Venice controlled all trade between east and west for a long time, so it’s understandable that they borrowed the form of the Churches in Constantinople. One of the most famous features of the church is the Triumphal Guadriga, or Horses of St. Mark. You can see them above the central door and largest arch in the picture above, 4 huge bronze horses. (Today, the ones you see are copies, and the real ones are protected inside the church.) They were brought here from Constantinople in 1204 after Venetian soldiers in the 4th crusade sacked the city. They are old, and were part of a huge Roman complex there since ancient times. Debate rages on if they were made in ancient Greece or as a Roman copy, but either way, they are some of the only ancient bronze statues to survive to today. Napoleon liked them so much that he took them to Paris in 1797, but they were returned years later.

The nickname of St. Marks is Chiesa d’Oro, or the “Church of Gold”. When you step inside you can see why. The entire inside is gleaming with gold and mosaics and the effect is dazzling. Over time, each of the Doges (dukes of Venice) added to the Basilica, making it one of the most eclectic buildings anywhere. The mosaics were added over 7 centuries, so if you look closely many differing styles are represented. At the high altar of the church is the Pala d’Oro, or the “Golden Cloth”. Considered one of the most impressive examples of Byzantine art, the Pala d’Oro is a large panel depicting the life of St. Mark. It’s covered in gleaming gold and contains 1,927 gems. It really is difficult within the Basilica of St. Marks to grasp what you are seeing. While it’s a sacred space dedicated to the patron saint of Venice, it’s also a prime example of how insanely wealthy and powerful the city of Venice was.


An Intro to VENICE

You would be hard pressed to find a place on planet earth as surreal as the city of Venice, Italy. Built on wooden supports in the middle of the Venetian lagoon in the middle ages, Venice rose to become the wealthiest city in the world and a major world power. Venice controlled merchant ships and the exchange of goods for centuries. If there was money to be made, it went through Venice, which is why the city remains today as a jewel among world cities. Because it’s out in the middle of the lagoon, there are no cars and no wide streets, only small maze-like streets for foot traffic and an intricate web of waterways for the many boats. Venice was a city doomed to be left behind with the advance of modern culture. Today, the city has become a real-life Disneyland of sorts, with an economy based almost entirely on tourism. The city is packed with tourists in the daytime, particularly from the enormous cruise ships that dock and unload tens of thousands of passengers.

It’s true that Venice is indeed sinking, but it had always been sinking back into the lagoon. Most Italians live on the mainland, and without a thriving population of working class people to keep it going, Venice has become a surreal mix of fantastically beautiful decay and indescribable beauty. Having been there a few times, I can say that it is certainly a place you need to visit in your lifetime to see for yourself. Going there is expensive and exhausting, but well worth the hassle. I’ll be adding additional posts in the future on key features of Venice, including St. Marks Cathedral and the Doge’s Palace. For now, I highly recommend this great BBC video called Francesco’s Venice. Venice is a city and a history so rich and layered, it is almost impossible to piece it all together. This web series is a great introduction (in 6 parts). Enjoy-


The were many master painters working at the height of the Italian Renaissance. The big three we’ve already learned about and will see first hand in Italy: Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael.   There are of course many other masters as well. In fact, seeing all the work at museum after museum can be a bit overwhelming. One of the most important other masters whose work we’ll see first hand at the Uffizi in Florence and at the Doge’s palace in Venice is Titian (pronounced Tish-in). Titian was from Venice and was a master of portraiture. He was such a good painter, that he painted the most powerful people in Italy (popes and kings) and received huge commissions  for churches and palaces. He also painted more than a few highly controversial masterpieces. He was better than just about anyone at painting flesh, so at least it’s somewhat understandable that he had an obsession with nudity.

One aspect of all painting made before the 19th century that we tend to overlook are the paints themselves. Artists back then couldn’t just walk down to the corner art store and pick up canvases, brushes and tubes of paint. Instead, they had to locate raw pigments and mix them with oil, they had to make brushes and they had to stretch and prepare canvases. Today, artists take for granted how much work it took to even prepare for painting. In the case of Titian (as well as Michelangelo and Raphael), brilliant colors in the paintings reflect some very wealthy patrons. For instance, deep blues, also known as Ultramarine Blue, are made from a natural blue pigment only found in rocks in an obscure valley in Afghanistan. This video is part 1 of 5 that attempts to recreate a Titian painting using his materials and methods. It certainly sheds light on how difficult it was to be an artist, and makes what Titian accomplished even more impressive. Be forewarned- part 3 explores the whole “obsession part” from the end of paragraph 1. Enjoy.