Better known today as a tourist destination, Venice was once one of the most important commercial centres in Europe. Situated at the cusp of the Near East, it had strong trade links not only with Italy to the West, and Germany to the North, but also to the Byzantine and later Ottoman Empires to the East. Indeed, before Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, opening up the possibility of direct maritime trade with Asia, most Eastern goods arriving in Europe passed through Venice. These strong mercantile ties with the East are still visible in the city today, reflected in the architecture, for example in the use of ogival arches. This arch is from the facade of Basilica San Marco, but the form can be seen adorning countless Venetian palazzi.
The private chapel of the Venetian Doges, San Marco is a fascinating example of these cross cultural influences as it is at once encrusted with references to Near Eastern architecture and yet uniquely Venetian. The form of the great basilica is decidedly Byzantine, laid out in a square cross with an enormous central dome, recalling the Hagia Sophia. The interior decoration also draws inspiration from the East, adopting the lustrous golden mosaics typical of Byzantine architecture. This thirteenth century example, a dramatic depiction of Genesis from the porch of the church, retains the distinctive style of Byzantine mosaics and may even have been executed by Eastern workmen. Inside, some of the later mosaics remind us that we are indeed in Italy – mosaics executed after designs by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese retain the glowing golden backdrop but update the figures in keeping with the artistic ideals of the High Renaissance.
Finally, outside we see some ‘borrowings’ from Eastern architecture that are rather more literal. Encrusted to the surface of the church are countless carvings and pieces of coloured marble stolen from Istanbul during the Fourth Crusade, 1204. This dark episode came about when a group of Catholic crusaders, reputedly on their way to retrieve Jerusalem from Muslim invaders, instead attacked the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire. This shocking betrayal drove a great schism between the Western and Eastern branches of the church, and led ultimately to the fall of Christianity in the Near East (ironically the very thing that the crusaders were, in theory at least, trying to prevent). The booty acquired by the Venetians is today amongst some of the most famous parts of Basilica San Marco – the exquisite bronze horses from the facade, some of the byzantine enamels included in the Pala d’Oro, and the striking porphyry carvings of the Four Tetrarchs (below). By displaying all of this war booty so prominently on one of their most public and politicised buildings, the Venetians hoped to show their dominance over the East. Certainly, they showed how their architectural style had overcome the slavish repetition of Byzantine motifs, and had developed a strong voice of its own.