“There is a time for everything… A time to tear down and a time to build…
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them… A time to be silent and a time to speak…”
Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 3, 5, 7
We age and, as all things, we change over time. The Basilica di San Marco, the magnificent Italo-Byzantine conglomerate of a building in Venice, is a perfect self-declared manifesto illustrating the complex relationship between originality and authenticity. It is an accretion that has developed over time, through building, tearing down and rebuilding, destruction, theft, repurposing and reinvention. Here architecture takes on a geo-archaeological depth. Saint Mark’s Basilica began with the pious theft of the relics of Mark the Evangelist in 828. This first building was violently destroyed with its doge inside, but the saintly remains miraculously reappeared from a column.
The Venetian concept of time and its own mythology is as liquid as the city itself. Its history was rewritten infinite times as it grew into an im- perial power. Time itself was plun- dered to reinforce the Venetian nar- rative. Cities were invaded and spolia used to create a civic identity with instant historic resonance and phys- ical authority.
Some of the looted building ele- ments were absorbed seamlessly into the overall composition, some were copied, aping antiquity, while others were to be read as separate trophies, such as those from the Fourth Crusade: the four horses from the Hippodrome in Constantinople and the marble piers known as the Pillars of Acre. The porphyry treasures – the embracing Tetrarchs and the Pietra del Bando column fragment – were both strategically placed between church and state. The pietra was used as a platform for announcing public executions and the pillars for displaying severed heads; trophies were symbols of power – past and present. So what is “original” or “authentic”? The original four horses were looted by Napoleon, then returned, and now reside in the museum. The campanile collapsed in 1912 and was rematerialised. The only remaining 13th century mosaic on the western facade is a self-portrait of the basilica as it once was, before radical changes made over time.
Saint Mark’s uses all the reverberative power of direct quotation that extends time through the construction and manipulation of collective memory. Potent relics are displayed both as symbols of themselves and of Venetian conquest. Most of the booty was made up of building material: over half the 600 columns, capitals, mosaics and, not least, marble. Marble revetments were stripped from Hagia Sophia to be pinned like butterflies to the external brick walls of the Venetian basilica. Ruskin described the “muscular power of brickwork” clothed with the brightness of marble. He also used a metaphor of skin, suggesting that seductive flesh had been turned into “arousing artistic stone”.
We cannot stop ageing, but we are now at a point where we can record the surface of Saint Mark’s exquisite watery panels of marble in just a few days, using only an elevated platform and a DSLR camera. Through photogrammetry, an area of about 1 x 2 metres was recorded in a few hours. The resulting photographs were processed in RealityCapture software, and then printed in colour relief using Océ’s elevated printing technology. The result is remarkably similar to the original in terms of colour and relief, but not in terms of material. This data is an essential tool for monitoring the change on the surface.
The preservation of the past, and our connection to it, is never simple. But we now have the means of recording and monitoring, which facilitates a deeper understanding. Time collapses through these articulate objects, or in T.S. Eliot’s words, “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.”