Basilica di San Marco, Venice, Italy

St Mark's, Venice, Italy


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mark's
Location: Venice, Italy
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 October 2008, 10:30am

The building

San Marco, the focal point of Venice, was built in AD828 to receive the remains of the evangelist St Mark. The recounting of how his relics were "acquired" from Constantinople and presented to the doge in Venice is commemorated in fabulous mosaics in the west portals of the great church. The basilica was rebuilt after a 10th century fire, and it was enlarged, decorated and elaborated upon through the 13th century. The amount of gold mosaic, marble, porphyry, carved decoration and sculptures in gothic and byzantine styles creates an effect that is beyond exuberant, full of life and spirit and exoticism. You cannot look upon this building for the first time without an open jaw followed by a smile.

The church

With Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey and St Peter's, San Marco probably receives the greatest crush of tourists of any place in the western world. As at those places, which also maintain a schedule of worship, the hordes of visitors must be diverted to the rear and sides of the interior, hushed, and prohibited from taking photos during mass. The basilica is officially a martyrium, the resting place of a martyred saint. It wasn't elevated to be the cathedral church until 1807, being reserved for veneration of the relics and the use of the doge (the elected ruler of the Republic of Venice).

The neighborhood

The basilica, along with the campanile and doge's palace, comprise the Piazza San Marco, which Napoleon called "the finest drawing room in Europe." It is one of the most recognisable places on earth. The backdrop for countless movies, travelogues and posters, the spot is one of vast beauty and has an intense sense of excitement and glamour. The quay looking out from the doge's palace at the end of the Grand Canal is where the throngs arrive and depart in the vaporetto boats. The piazza offers a number of competing ristoranti with outdoor tables and live café music. Tour groups criss-cross the space during all daylight hours. Pigeons, though less a menace than they used to be since their feeding was prohibited, are still a source of free entertainment for children and their parental paparazzi.

The cast

Not listed, but there were three priests concelebrating, assisted by two acolytes (rather mature men) and one reader who was a religious sister.

What was the name of the service?

La Santa Messa con il Popolo di Dio (Holy Mass of the People of God).

How full was the building?

There were about 500 people on nice folding chairs without at all crowding the space. The chairs were mostly full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A sister guessed I wanted one of the multi-language printouts of the readings, and put one into my hands.

Was your pew comfortable?

The chairs were like rather dressy versions of a director's chair, with a cloth sling seat and back. Comfortable enough, but there was no provision for kneeling unless you were in the front row at the kneeling rail.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some hushed murmurings of prayer and greeting, but overall quiet. The hum of tourists circulating around the rear and side aisles was starting to build after an earlier service had ended. It is my guess that the early service was mostly the local faithful, and the 10.30 was comprised much more of tourist-worshippers (like me).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

(In English!) "Good morning and welcome to the Basilica of San Marco." Announcements followed, describing the participation of the choir, the mass setting and anthem. The pieces mentioned were (perhaps) late classical or baroque settings for choir and organ, but not by composers I was familiar with, definitely not Gabrieli or Monteverdi, the most famous of the many musicians associated with San Marco.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. There was the sheet of the readings translated into English, Spanish, French and German. I saw someone near me with a little printed order of service, a copy of which I snagged at the end of the mass.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ. The basilica's current instrument is by the Tamburini firm and is located in the decani side loft overlooking the presbytery. The adult mixed choir seemed to occupy the cantorum loft. I say "seemed" as I couldn't actually see them. I am hoping that the basilica still employs brass choirs for special occasions. The organ sounded pretty, but is probably an accompanimental (not a recital) instrument as is typical in large Italian churches. I was surprised at the drabness of the organ case given the opulence of the basilica's interior.

Did anything distract you?

The beauty and staggering sense of the ancient was my distraction. It is certainly the closest I will get to the experience of Christian worship in a place like Hagia Sophia. I wondered what the church would look like if they cleaned the centuries of candle wax, incense soot, and the breath and odor of almost a millennium of the faithful and curious off that figured marble, mosaic, gilding and bronze, and polished things up. Maybe that would be a mistake. Also the floor is a distraction, again both for its beauty and its age. The intricate tessellated and geometric pavements have heaved wildly where the supporting structure has settled. Where would differential settlement be more likely to show up than a 1200 year old structure built on pilings over a tidal lagoon? Much of the floor in the area where chairs were set up (and it turns out most of the route of tour groups) is covered with a sort of synthetic walk-off mat. Most necessary I'm sure.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Worship was novus ordo, dignified and pretty straightforward, but with no entrance procession (how great that could have been!) or recessional. Mass was, however, celebrated at the high altar. There was incense – the gospel book was censed, as were the altar, ministers and congregation at the offertory. The gospel was proclaimed from a portable lectern, not the pulpit. Sanctus bells were jangled. We received communion under the species of bread only, and outside the rood screen. I think I was struck most by how typical the mass was. Although I certainly couldn't catch the nuances of the spoken Italian, there was clearly no attempt to be creative or to embellish worship, no expectation that people could be induced to sing or participate, no clue that this church is unique or the mass was very different from one you would attend in a working class neighbourhood. The choir and their music seemed remote and only minimally engaged. Given the age and grandeur of the space I expected more. I was disappointed not to be able to see the choir.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 – The homilist spoke in Italian; the only English I heard were the opening words of the service. Again, he spoke from the portable lectern, not the pulpit. Not being able really to follow, I can give him only a middling grade. His style was fairly stiff, and not particularly informal or folksy, but direct and pastoral. He probably has to preach to 500 new faces every week at this particular service.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He preached on Mark 12:13-17 ("Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's") but I really couldn't follow very well. I'm sure it was solid doctrinally. And there was no reaction from the assembly, good or negative.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Just being in San Marco with the devotion, history, holiness and great beauty it embodies, is pretty close to heaven for this worshipper.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The (no doubt) paid choir wasn't that impressive. The mass setting was okay, but the psalm verses were ragged and intonation not so good. The balance was soprano heavy. There were no hymns printed, nor was anything sung by the congregation. Even with so transient a group, something could be done. Only the familiar Pater Noster drew out any congregational participation – no music was provided, but the chant setting is so familiar that everyone was able to join in.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Between the tour groups and the noon mass attendees, you must move along. I came back another day on such a tour. At that time I noticed that the lower marble panels of the gothic rood screen (which were open during the mass, thus allowing some view of the celebrant in front of the gold altarpiece) had been reinstalled, giving a more closed effect to the sanctuary.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None. I had a panini and a nice glass of wine in one of those overpriced cafés in the piazza. Delicious.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

1 – Probably not, but I sure was delighted to visit. A thing about Venetians is that they are polite and pleasant, and this even as their city is absolutely overrun with tourists all year round. I'm not sure how many of us would have their patience.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Most definitely.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

I will remember how ancient the church feels, how richly it is decorated, all at least 700 years ago, and how it is unlike anything else in the West, at least unlike anywhere else I have visited. And what other church's website lists alternate access points during high tides?

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