San Marco, or St. Mark, in Venice, Italy is the subject of this issue’s limited edition print of a sketch by Ladd Ehlinger. This is the main cathedral of Venice that faces on the huge square famous for the pigeons that also inhabit it with the people. The campanile (bell tower) is unseen in this view. However, one is aware of it’s presence because of the large shadow cast upon the facade of the church. Incidentally, the campanile has been totally rebuilt due to the collapse around 1912 of the original structure. It probably collapsed from failure of the pile supported foundation. LIke New Orleans, most everything in Venice is pile supported due to the weak soils, and consequently most campaniles lean because of overstressed piling due to unequal loading as well as overloading due to ignorance of the designer (soil mechanics is a 20th century science and engineering discipline).
St. Mark is built on the remains of a Basilican plan church on the same site dating back to 830 AD that burned in 976.. A Basilican plan has a long narrow nave that was useful for processions, whereas the the plan of the current St. Mark’s is a Byzantine design of a Greek cross with equal arms in all directions, which is an expression of a different spatial and religious theory. It emphasized the unity and one-ness of the creator by expressing the space as one-ness and as a division of a square instead of the then traditional long narrow rectangle.
On top of each arm of the cross are domes and at the crossing is a dome larger than the others. From the inside, the domes appear equal, yet there are false domes fabricated of timber over the actual, structural masonry domes on the exterior to compensate for the angle of vision in the square, to raise the height visually to the external observer. The masonry domes would not be visible to an observer in the square otherwise and one would not know that there were domes over the spaces.
The interior of the church is a typical Byzantine church with numerous mosaics and colored marbles everywhere, a polychromatic experience. The mosaics tell old and new testament stories in brilliant colors. Similar expressions were added to the exterior during the Renaissance period.
The exterior has numerous trophies of the many trading and military victories of the Venetians that have been blended to adorn the facade: bronze horses from the triumphal arch of Nero in Rome,columns of porphyry, alabaster and verde-antico from Constatinople and Alexandria. All of the sculpture, mosaics and color from the mosaics and marbles present a dazzling array for the observer that dominates the square.
Ladd Ehlinger AIA