The Starhotel Splendid furnishes an American-style breakfast buffet for their guests, included with the room rate, but
the Westin Europa & Regina, despite its priceyness, does not. So while Philip and Connie were loading up on eggs and
bacon and fresh fruit, Bob and Nella were combing the narrow passages near their hotel, searching for places that served
any kind of breakfast, of which there weren’t very many. Eventually a tiny place was found that served coffee, fruit
juice and croissants. While all of this was very good (Italians are very serious about their coffee), the place was too
small to have any seating, and was in fact only large enough to hold 6-8 standing customers at one time. So after a
small and not-so-relaxed breakfast, Bob and Nella moved on to the Starhotel Splendid, where they collected their
belching-in-satisfaction children and continued to the
Basilica of St. Mark
, at the head of the Piazza
St. Mark, AKA Mark the Evangelist, is the patron saint of Venice. A winged lion is the symbol of St. Mark, and winged
lions are seen in many places in Venice. It seems St. Mark tried to start a church in Alexandia, Egypt, and was martyred
for his trouble in 68 AD (apparently being dragged to death). His remains were entombed there until 828 AD, when some
enterprising merchants from Venice filched them (evidently smuggling them out under a layer of pork, which Muslims aren’t
allowed to touch) and brought them to Venice (some say the head was left behind in Alexandria, where the head is still
celebrated annually). In 832, a basilica was built in Venice to house the remains. This basilica burned down in 976 and
was rebuilt, but then version 2 was torn down and a more impressive version 3 was built in the period 1064-94. Over the
succeeding centuries, Venetians on foreign adventures would send or bring back artifacts and pieces of foreign structures
which often found themselves affixed to the façade of the basilica, and other decorations were added to make the façade
grander and reflect changes in architectural fashion. The result is a spectacular, busy and somewhat bewildering
combination of styles which commands attention and is not to be missed.
Visiting the Basilica is a rare bargain in Venice, costing nothing, except for waiting in a line that can be rather
long. And it’s possible to make reservations on-line
for a minimal fee which enable you to bypass this line if you show up at a particular appointment time. Which is what we
did. In fact, we showed up a little early, giving us a few minutes to peruse the Piazza.
The Piazza San Marco is the center of the Venice Tourism Universe. It’s a long, trapezoidally shaped area which is
surrounded on three sides by picturesque arcades and bordered on the fourth by the Basilica. Near the Basilica is a
323-foot campanile, or bell tower, from the top of which wonderful views of the city are to be had (more on this
later). Next to the Basilica (and in fact connected to it) is the Doge’s Palace, the opulently-decorated center of
Venice government for centuries (more on this later too). On the other side of the Basilica from the Doge’s Palace
is a clock tower featuring an astronomical clock ("destroyed" in the James Bond movie Moonraker
) which shows
the hour of the day, the sign of the zodiac and the phase of the moon.
On viewing the Piazza, we were struck by a few differences from what we’d seen before, on a visit nine years earlier. First,
there was a fenced-off area surrounding the campanile. This was apparently for work being done to stabilize the campanile’s
foundation. Second, there was a large stage set up at the far end (from the Basilica) of the Piazza. This must have been
for a performance of some kind that took place after we left the city, as we never saw it in use. And third, there were many
fewer pigeons in the Piazza, compared to the swarms we’d seen on our earlier visit. There seems to have been an official
effort to reduce their presence in the Piazza, as there were no longer any vendors of pigeon food.
When the time came for us to enter the Basilica, we presented our reservation confirmation and walked right in. We were a
little worried about having to check purses and camera bags, as we’d heard they were pretty strict about taking large bags
into the Basilica, but ours were apparently small enough. The interior is on the dark side and amazing. The Basilica is
laid out in a Greek Cross configuration (four equal arms) and is surmounted by five domes. And golden mosaics are
everywhere. Not far from the entrance, we saw a sign with symbols indicating that a few things weren’t allowed: shorts
and sleeveless clothing, photography, and videography. Looking at our fellow visitors, we saw they were obeying the dress
code (those who didn’t were denied entry), but that most of them were blatantly taking pictures of one kind or another,
including flash, and nobody was telling them not to. Being basically weak individuals, we followed suit. If all of our
friends jumped off a cliff, we probably would too. Anyway, here are some of the pictures.
Though entry without reservation to the Basilica is free, there are some things within the Basilica one can
only see for a fee. One is the Pala d’Oro, a priceless altarpiece consisting of 250 small enamel paintings on gold foil,
studded with a great number of precious stones. We skipped the Pala d’Oro, but we did pay to go upstairs to see the
Basilica Museum (entry to the right on entering the Basilica).
The museum has fine displays of artwork and vestments, but the main attraction for us was access to the balcony on the
front of the Basilica, from which there are terrific views of the Piazza.
On the end of the balcony facing the Adriatic, one also has a great view of the Piazzetta, the open area between the
Doge’s Palace and one of the buildings enclosing the Piazza San Marco. The Piazzetta features the columns of St. Mark
(the one with the winged lion) and San Teodoro (the other one; Venetians consider it unlucky to walk between the
columns, as this was once a spot used for public executions) and a view across the water to the isle of San Giorgio
The balcony also has close-up views of some of the many Basilica decorations, including the four life-size bronze horses
of St. Mark. These horses originated in classical antiquity (nobody’s quite sure exactly where or when) and somehow found
themselves in Constantinople as part of a monument at the Hippodrome for hundreds of years. They were "liberated" during
the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and sent to Venice, where they were installed on the front of the Basilica 50 years later. They
remained there until 1797, when Napoleon Bonaparte liberated them again and sent them off to Paris, where they were
eventually perched atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, near the Louvre, in 1808.
Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, Paris (ca. 2000)
When Napoleon was removed in 1815, so were the horses, and they were returned to their spots on the front of the Basilica, where
they have remained ever since. Or sort of, as pollution damage forced them to move indoors in the early 1980’s, for their own
protection. The horses on the front of the Basilica now are replicas, but the originals can be seen in the museum. The
no-photography rule is actually enforced in the museum, but there may be a video above in which they accidentally appear.