Treasury of San Marco
The places in Venice which hold an intense, almost disturbing, fascination for those who venture into them are numerous. But there is perhaps nowhere one feels this more than in the narrow vaulted halls, flanking the patriarchal basilica, which house the treasures of San Marco. Here the fragile and precious symbols of empires now vanished have found their last resting place beside the trophies from the Alexandria of the Ptolemies, the Rome of the Low Empire, and Byzantine and Frankish Constantinople, all put into the service of the Most Serene Republic of Venice which had conquered, enriched and conserved them.
The principal purpose of these treasures is certainly religious: these gems, set in gold and silver-gilt, are liturgical vases and the pieces in all shapes were made, used or even diverted from their original function, to encase the innumerable relics which, as much as the jealously-guarded secret of the channels of her lagoons and the power of her navy, protected Venice from her enemies. The contemporary visitor may be astonished by this accumulation of holy relics, and may even be irritated at what might seem to him an inversion of values such as the reliquary holds, in his eyes, over the relic. To understand such a collection one must take into account its fundamentally religious character. However, it is undoubtedly true that love of beautiful objects also guided the Venetians' choice, eager to adorn their Basilica with the richest and most precious items that the Mediterranean world could offer.
The Treasury of San Marco is kept in the ancient rooms between the church and the ducal palace, accessed by means of a door in the south transept embellished with a 13th century mosaic which, in memory of the fire of 1231, depicts two angels bearing the reliquary of the Cross, miraculously left intact.
The small vestibule leads, on the left, to the sanctuary and, on the right, to the actual Treasure. In eight niches in the sanctuary walls there are numerous precious reliquaries containing the relics of saints that were gathered from Constantinople to the Holy Land and from places outside the eastern Mediterranean basin. The Treasure consists of an overall 283 pieces in gold, silver, glass and other precious materials.
The oldest nucleus is a part of the booty brought to Venice from Constantinople between 1204 and 1261 after the Venetian conquest. For the most part they are liturgical chalices, bowls and patens in semi-precious stone mounted on Byzantine enamelled gold-work. It also includes two icons of the Archangel Michael with enamelled frames. To these may be added late-antique vases in glass and semi-precious stone and bowls of Islamic origin, all of great interest. Lastly there is a nucleus of western objects, some of them Venetian filigree. Other pieces - gifts from popes, European princes or the doges themselves - were added subsequently.
When the Republic fell in 1797 part of the Treasure was pillaged. What was saved was returned to the church in 1798, but between 1815 and 1819 precious stones and pearls were sold to pay for restorations.
The Treasure is divided into four sections:
Objects from Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, including two beautiful lamps in rock crystal sculpted in the form of fish and two amphorae with handles in the form of animals, each one obtained from a single block of precious oriental agate.
Objects by Byzantine goldsmiths dating to the centuries around the year 1000: chalices and patens in semi-precious stone with mountings in gold and silver ornamented with cloisonné enamels, also present in the two portable icons with the image of the Archangel Michael.
Objects of Islamic art (9th - 10th century): worthy of mention is the splendid bowl in turquoise glass with stylised animals in relief and mounting in gilded silver, set with semi-precious stones.
Objects of western origin: including the famous perfume-brazier in the form of a small building on a central plan with five cupolas, as well as many other pieces in which filigree work is predominant.