“Silencio! Ssssss! Silencio! Ssssss!” At three-minute intervals a voice came over the PA system at St. Mark's Basilica in Venice. The swarming sound of tour groups, like a thousand bees in a golden hive, subsided momentarily. Then the voice of our guide, Alessandra, came over our headsets and the tumult began rising again.
Venice's gold-inlaid Byzantine jewelbox at the eastern end of St. Mark's Square was built in 1063, although a church has stood on this site at least since 832, a mere 1,180 years ago. Since that time, this has been the resting place of St. Mark the Evangelist, whose remains were stolen from Egypt after that land was overrun by Muslim invaders. Today, St. Mark lies in a stone sarcophagus encased in glass, which serves as the base of the main altar behind the iconostasis. Since yesterday was the Feast of St. Mark, brilliant red flowers still decorated the sarcophagus today.
Over the altar arches an alabaster baldacchino, whose four columns are carved with 80 scenes from the life of Christ. A stunning Pala d'Oro (golden altar piece) stands upright behind the altar and facing to the rear. On Christmas, Easter, and the Feast of St. Mark it is turned toward the nave.
The interior walls of the basilica are almost entirely covered in mosaics: a breathtaking Bible in tiny 24-karat tiles, covering a total of 4,000 square meters. It was a guidebook to salvation history at a time when only priests and religious were literate. The three domes over the nave are especially striking. From front to rear, they represent the Resurrection, the Ascension, and Pentecost.
We had almost exited the Basilica when I realized that throughout our tour of the interior I had been wearing the enormous sun hat that I have breaking in for the Camino de Santiago. How many people thought to themselves, That godless cretin? And here I was thinking that while the rest of the world gawked, I was having a religious experience.
Outside, mosaics grace the five portals of the façade. Alessandra noted that only the leftmost mosaic dates from the Byzantine era; so it is the only one lacking that visual trick of the Renaissance, perspective. The marble columns on the façade are loot from another raid: the fourth Crusade which set sail from Venice in 1204 and, headed for the Holy Lands, sacked Constantinople instead.
From the front of St. Mark’s, Alessandra led us to the twin pillars forming the gates of the city, near the waterfront at the front end of the Doge's Palace. On one pillar is the winged lion, symbol of St. Mark. On the other is an image of St. Theodore, patron saint of Venice before 832, although which St. Theodore (Amasea or Stratelates) is still debated by historians.
That was just about all the art history I could handle. Katie got in line at the Doge's Palace to view the art on display there, while I took a marble bench looking out on the waterfront. I had a memorable encounter with a Sicilian man and his granddaughter, during which we struggled to communicate, he in Italian, I in English, while the granddaughter only smiled. We all agreed that Boston is a great place. I showed them pictures of my daughters on my iPhone. Then, after they departed, I moved into the sunlight, sat against a pillar, and began reading.
After a few paragraphs — suddenly silence! The vast humming crowds — tour groups led by guides holding mauve umbrellas and flags from twenty countries, porters dragging pyramids of boxes stacked on handcarts up and over the bridge in front of me, beautiful women smoking cigarettes and teetering on four-inch heels over uneven cobblestones, far too many kids wearing tee shirts with logos on them but nothing really to say, and that obese couple stumbling as they studied their cell phones (they had to be Americans) — suddenly it all stopped. I looked up from my book and saw that, as on a highway where you are stuck in traffic and the road mysteriously opens before you without explanation, the bridge in front of me was empty. One swell of crowd had passed, another had yet to crash in front of me. Only a couple of children and a Gondolier for hire stood in my immediate field of vision. Behind them sparkled the emerald-green water of Venice, with black gondolas bobbing in the foreground, their silver prows rising skyward.
It was as if I had fallen asleep beside a mountain stream and then wakened in the middle of the night with a start to realize that the stream had stopped running.
And then the tumult rose again.
Alessandra had told us that if we wanted to escape the noise of the city, we should visit St. George's Island, opposite St. Mark's. There, she said, we would find a monastery with "only three or four monks now" and a church with another bell-tower from which we could look back at the city.
Katie and I took the boat to St. George's and enjoyed the silence. The top of the bell tower whistled in the wind as we looked back toward this great island city. In fact, Alessandra had told us, it is really 118 islands. "Each time you cross a bridge," she had said, "you are in another world."