It’s for good reason St Mark’s Basilica is the most popular attraction in Venice.
Standing at the head of its eponymous square and bordering the Doge’s Palace, the historical headquarters of the Venetian Republic, its burnished gold mosaics and protruding domes embody the architectural union of Italian and Byzantine styles.
The convergence between Venice and Byzantium is particularly appropriate given the story behind the basilica’s foundation. A story involving wily Venetian merchants, the pickling of a saint’s body, and its abduction from Alexandria. Read on to find out more.
St Mark’s Basilica was founded in the 9th century for one express purpose: to house the abducted corpse of Saint Mark.
Legend has it that in the year 828, two Venetian merchants by the names of Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello had just finished conducting business in the Egyptian city of Alexandria when they went to worship the venerated body of Saint Mark.
Valentin de Boulogne, Saint Mark (1624/6)
The merchants had just learned from the church custodians that the Muslims had plans to profane the church and steal its treasures to decorate their mosques. This gave them the justification they needed to abduct Saint Mark’s body and bring it back to Venice.
Relying on the Muslims’ disdain for pork, the Venetian merchants pickled Saint Mark’s body in a mix of pork and cabbage leaves, packing it into a wicker basket and declaring it as customs.
Surely enough, when they told those at the port what was inside the crate - “kanzir, kanzir” (pig) - the excisemen were so disgusted that they cleared it without checking.
Tintoretto, The Discovery of Saint Mark's Body (1562)
And the missing body? Well, fortunately Alexandria was full of saints, and the Venetians were able to replace the body of Saint Mark with the nearby body of Saint Claudia (which presumably looked the same in its highly decomposed state).
On January 31, 828 AD, the body of Saint Mark arrived in Venice. The Doge, Giustiniano Particiaco, and local bishop came to see him as he was disembarked, ordering for the relics that had accompanied him to be stored inside the Doge’s Palace until a basilica had been built to house them.
Within four years, the Venetians had finished the basilica. But in 976, fewer than 150 years after its construction, the basilica was burned down in an accidental fire.
The people of Venice had risen up against a notoriously unpopular doge, Pietro IV Candiano, locking him inside the Doge’s Palace and burning it to the ground. What they hadn’t envisaged was the fire spreading, not just to the neighboring basilica but across vast swathes of the island city.
Saint Mark’s was quickly rebuilt (or restored, we’re not really sure), and by 978 it was functional again. Even this was not the basilica you see before you today though. This incarnation dates to the late 11th or early 12th century.
A controversial yet convincing theory put forward in recent years is that the Venetians didn’t steal Saint Mark at all. Instead, they brought back with them to Venice the corpse of another world-famous figure who was laid to rest in Alexandria: Alexander the Great.
Mosaic of Alexander the Great from Pompeii
Alexander founded the city of Alexandria, giving it its name, back in the fourth century BC. Having conquered most of the known world and beyond, Alexander died in Babylon, aged just 33, some say of typhoid, others say of malaria or even liver sclerosis brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking. His body ended up in Alexandria where one of his successors, Ptolemy, built a tomb that would serve as a great attraction of antiquity for hundreds of years.
Julius Caesar paid respect to the great conqueror in Alexandria, as did his adopted son, the emperor Augustus. Caligula is even said to have had Alexander’s tomb looted so he could add the great Macedonian’s breastplate to his wardrobe of costumes.
From the 390s onwards, however, we lose all credible mentions of Alexander’s tomb from the historical record. We can assume it was plundered: the early Christians were in the habit of desecrating pagan monuments and centers of worship. But it’s also curious that it was at this time, in 391 to be exact, that the emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and outlawed any other form of worship.
The strange thing is that, at exactly the same time, mention of another tomb in Alexandria crops up in the sources: the tomb of Saint Mark. Mark had died more than 300 years earlier, dragged through Alexandria’s streets by the pagans before being beaten to death.
More concerningly, several distinct sources attest to Mark’s body being burned.
Could it be that, in an attempt to preserve the body of Alexander the Great, the people of Alexandria simply renamed him Saint Mark? That way they could ensure his remains would not face desecration as a pagan but reverence as the Evangelist.
Nobody has ever found Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria, despite centuries of excavations. Perhaps they’ve been looking in the wrong place the whole time. Only a DNA test on the remains of Saint Mark could settle the question for good (archaeologists have found and identified the remains of his father, Philip, in Macedonia). What that could do to Venice could shake the city right down to its watery foundations.
Visiting Saint Mark’s without a guide can be a little overwhelming. There’s simply so much to see that you’re likely to miss some of the most fascinating treasures, overlooking them in favor of more eye-catching attractions.
That’s why discovering Saint Mark’s Basilica and other Venice highlights with a private, expert guide is the way to go. To make sure you miss nothing during your time in La Serenissima.
Because St Mark’s Basilica is a place of worship, visitors should follow the usual guidelines.
Men and women should cover their shoulders, remove hats, and wear long trousers that cover the knees.
The most sought-out attraction in Saint Mark’s Basilica is the tomb of Saint Mark himself. Contained within a modest stone sarcophagus inscribed with the letters CORPUS DIVI MARCI EVANGELISTAE, the tomb is the centerpiece of the basilica built to contain it.
Saint Mark's sarcophagus
Saint Mark’s is more than just the sarcophagus of its eponymous saint. The basilica exhibits enough mosaics to cover 1.5 football fields, is supported by more than 500 columns, and serves as the repository of an embarrassment of riches - treasures looted from Constantinople and the Holy Land in the 13th century.
As a destination for Catholic pilgrimage, Saint Mark’s Basilica is important because it contains the body of one of the four apostles: Saint Mark.
As an architectural attraction, Saint Mark’s Basilica offers perhaps the best example of the Italo-Byzantine style anywhere in the country.
Exterior of Saint Mark's Basilica and its tower
Other than the sarcophagus housing the bones of Saint Mark, the basilica houses an abundance of relics in its treasury. Entry to this room costs a further €3, but is well worth it for relic hunters. Neatly arranged and labelled inside a range of cabinets are reliquaries containing the bones of saints.
The basilica is clearly signposted all across the main island. If you’re coming from the Lido or another island in the lagoon, take a vaporetto (the Venietian equivalent of a water-taxi).
Click here for a map of vaporetto stops.