But for no matter how short a time one is in Venice, a large proportion of it should be sacred to idleness. Unless Venice is permitted and encouraged to invite one’s soul to loaf, she is visited in vain.
S. MARK’S. I: THE EXTERIOR
Rival cathedrals—The lure of S. Mark’s—The facade at night—The Doge’s device—S. Mark’s body—A successful theft—Miracle pictures—Mosaic patterns—The central door—Two problems—The north wall—The fall of Venice—Napoleon—The Austrian occupation—Daniele Manin—Victor Emmanuel—An artist’s model—The south wall—The Pietra del Bando—The pillars from Acre.
Of S. Mark’s what is one to say? To write about it at all seems indeed more than commonly futile. The wise thing to do is to enter its doors whenever one has the opportunity, if only for five minutes; to sit in it as often as possible, at some point in the gallery for choice; and to read Ruskin.
To Byzantine architecture one may not be very sympathetic; the visitor may come to Venice with the cool white arches of Milan still comforting his soul, or with the profound conviction that Chartres or Cologne represents the final word in ecclesiastical beauty and fitness; but none the less, in time, S. Mark’s will win. It will not necessarily displace those earlier loves, but it will establish other ties.
But you must be passive and receptive. No cathedral so demands surrender. You must sink on its bosom.
S. Mark’s facade is, I think, more beautiful in the mass than in detail. Seen from the Piazza, from a good distance, say half way across it, through the red flagstaffs, it is always strange and lovely and unreal. To begin with, there is the remarkable fact that after years of familiarity with this wonderful scene, in painting and coloured photographs, one should really be here at all. The realization of a dream is always amazing.
It is possible—indeed it may be a common experience—to find S. Mark’s, as seen for the first time, especially on a Sunday or fete day, when the vast red and green and white flags are streaming before it, a little garish, a little gaudy; too like a coloured photograph; not what one thinks a cathedral ought to be. Should it have all these hues? one asks oneself, and replies no. But the saint does not long permit this scepticism: after a while he sees that the doubter drifts into his vestibule, to be rather taken by the novelty of the mosaics—so much quieter in tone here—and the pavement, with its myriad delicate patterns. And then the traveller dares the church itself and the spell begins to work; and after a little more familiarity, a few more visits to the Piazza, even if only for coffee, the fane has another devotee.
At night the facade behaves very oddly, for it becomes then as flat as a drop scene. Seen from the Piazza when the band plays and the lamps are lit, S. Mark’s has no depth whatever. It is just a lovely piece of decoration stretched across the end.