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Venice and St. Mark’s Basilica

Venice, Italy

St. Mark’s Basilica, which houses the relics of St. Mark, is topped with Eastern-style domes, plastered inside with glittering mosaics, and loaded with art — a golden altarpiece and four fourth-century BC bronze horses. We zip up St. Mark’s bell tower for a view of all of Venice.

Complete Video Script

Power in Venice also came from some ancient bones. To gain religious importance and a kind of legitimacy, the Venetians needed some important relics. According to legend, St. Mark actually traveled here, personally bringing Christianity to the region. His bones would be perfect.

So, in 828, Venetian merchants smuggled Mark’s remains out of Egypt and into the church — shown here as it looked in the 13th century. Mark — looking pretty grumpy after the long voyage — became the city’s patron saint, and his symbol, the winged lion, became the symbol of Venice.

The grand church of St. Mark’s was built in a distinctly Eastern style. Its domes and elaborate exterior remind us of Venice’s close ties with the Greek, Byzantine, and Muslim worlds.

The basilica is decorated with a ragtag assortment of mismatched columns and statues from different eras, much of it pillaged from Venice’s rivals. The style? I’d call it “Early Ransack.”

These four guys are a favorite of mine. It’s an ancient Roman statue carved of precious purple porphyry stone — symbolic of power — pillaged from far away, probably Constantinople, and placed here proudly as spoils of war.

Of all the loot ornamenting this church, its grandest prize is a set of horses, which for centuries looked out over the square. While these are copies, the originals are inside.

These much-coveted and exquisitely cast bronze horses are a trophy befitting the city’s power. And talk about well-traveled: According to legend, they were cast for Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, taken by Nero to Rome, then brought by Constantine to his new capital in the East, Constantinople. Later the Venetians grabbed them, only to have Napoleon swipe them to decorate an arch in Paris. Today, they’re back in what Venetians believe is their rightful home.

The church is covered with glass and gold mosaics. And, in good medieval style, they come with religious lessons. The entrance hall features an elaborate and cohesive series of Old Testament scenes.

The creation dome tells the story of Genesis with Adam and Eve and the original sin. In a scene-by-scene storyboard, we see Adam lonely in the garden, the creation of Eve, and then trouble: from apple…to fig leaf…to banishment.

The interior of the basilica glitters with its gold-leaf mosaic work. The remains of St. Mark lie beneath the high altar. The Pala d’Oro, or Golden Altarpiece, is a medieval masterpiece. Its stunning golden wall of 250 painted enamels features prophets and saints, and, at its center: Jesus, as the Ruler of the Cosmos.

All this precious art is carefully maintained in the church’s mosaic workshop. As they’ve done for a thousand years, artisans here are patiently restoring a damaged piece of mosaic. They’re cleaning and resetting old stones and cutting new ones as necessary — all according to the exact medieval original.

St. Mark’s bell tower — or campanile — soars 300 feet over the square. A tower has stood here, like an exclamation point, proclaiming the power and greatness of the Venetian Empire, for 1,200 years.

Today an elevator zips you effortlessly to the top to enjoy a commanding view. From here, you can see how Venice is an island lying in the center of a vast lagoon. Surveying the domes and towers of the city’s skyline, it’s amazing to think that all this sits on a foundation of pilings… millions of tree trunks driven deep into the clay.

For an ear-shattering experience, be here at the top of the hour.