The mighty Byzantine Basilica of San Marco is one of the must-see destinations for any visitor to Venice – yet upon entering the dazzling golden interior, it’s easy to miss some of the building’s greatest treasures, which lie just off the main thoroughfare. Next time you’re there, be sure to seek out these astonishing artefacts, which include some of the rarest and most ancient artworks in the city.
Tesoro: Tucked into the corner of the basilica’s south transept is a discreet door leading to the treasury – a remarkable chamber packed full of glittering goblets, icons and other exquisitely beautiful ecclesiastical objects, many of which were plundered from Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. Alongside alleged relics such as St Mark’s thumb and a lock of the Madonna’s hair, particular highlights include a twelfth century gilded silver Gospel cover from Aquileia, a Byzantine incense burner in the shape of a domed church, and a tenth century rock-crystal ewer with winged feet made for Fatimid Caliph al-‘Aziz-bi-Ilah.
Museo Marciano: Situated on the first floor of the basilica, via a steep staircase leading from the narthex, you’ll find the Museo Marciano, which houses Venice’s most iconic art work – the four bronze horses of St Mark’s. Believed to have been cast between the 5th century BC and 4th century AD, these majestic stallions are the only team of horses to have survived from the ancient world – also brought to Venice from Constantinople in 1204. Until the 1980s, they stood proudly on the façade of the basilica, before being replaced with copies due to ongoing damage from air pollution. Today they can be admired in all their gilded glory inside the museum, along with an array of other precious artefacts such as vestments, mosaic fragments and illuminated manuscripts.
Pala d’Oro: Hidden behind the high altar containing St Mark’s sarcophagus is the mind-bogglingly opulent Pala d’Oro or “gold altar screen” – made in Constantinople in 976 on the orders of Doge Pietro Orseolo I, and further enriched in later years by Venetian goldsmiths to incorporate yet more loot from the Fourth Crusade. The completed screen, teeming with jewels and miniscule figures, holds 300 sapphires, 300 emeralds, 400 garnets, 1300 pearls and hundreds of other gems and enameled plaques depicting biblical scenes. Before leaving the sanctuary, take a look at Jacopo Sansovino’s door to the sacristy, which incorporates portraits of the celebrated Renaissance painter Titian, as well as the architect Sansovino himself.