All around the Basilica of Saint Mark, archaeological investigations are bringing to light an ancient cemetery of the 14th and 15th centuries

13 October 2022

Venice, 13 October 2022 – History, politics, culture, and art are constantly intertwined in Saint Mark’s Square, which has always been the beating heart of the Serenissima. With its riot of domes, arches and sculptures, even the Basilica dedicated to the city's patron saint has had a long and rich life since the laying of the first stone, in the distant 832 AD. During the last year and a half, archaeological investigations related to the preservation works of the church have added another important piece to its history puzzle, thanks to the discovery of an ancient cemetery dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. On the occasion of the European Heritage Days and as part of a cycle of informal meetings called “Stories of Piazza San Marco”, the very first results of the excavations around the Basilica of Saint Mark were presented at the National Archaeological Museum of Venice.

During the Late Middle age and early Renaissance, the most popular church in Venice underwent an intense transformation and embellishment. The existing domes were raised thanks to the use of Byzantine construction techniques; the golden mosaic decoration of the interior of the church was completed; the external appearance of the facade was defined. With the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and later thanks to the ships of Venetian merchants arriving from the East, the lagoon city saw the arrival of columns, friezes, marble artefacts, sculptures, and gold objects that provided the church with furnishings of great prestige, contributing to give it today’s appearance.

However, such a sumptuous image lacks a relevant element, which has not survived the passing of the centuries except in historical sources. It is an ancient cemetery of the 14th and 15th centuries, developed along the sides of the Basilica of Saint Mark, which is slowly re-emerging as a result of the preservation works that have affected the subsoil and the foundations of the church itself.

In Venice in the past, it was not uncommon to bury the body of loved ones next to a church; on the contrary, until the collapse of the Serenissima, it was the norm. However, during the last two o three centuries, the entire Saint Mark Square has been the subject of numerous interventions that have made the discovery of ancient burials more uncertain. 

Already in November 2021, near Piazzetta Dei Leoncini, the first mass grave containing bones belonging to several individuals was intercepted. Following the work carefully are Dr Sara Bini, the official archaeologist of the superintendence, and Dr Maria Letizia Pulcini, the official archaeologist of the Regional Directorate of museums in Veneto. They hypothesized that, as part of the construction of the sewer pipe, already in the mid-19th century the workers came across the most superficial layers of the cemetery of the Basilica and, as a form of respect, decided to relocate the remains next to the foundations of the building.

At the beginning of this spring, however, a leg was also found between the Piazzetta’s well and the sewer collector, and from there a series of burials, one behind the other and at several levels, were discovered. Similarly, excavations on the southern side of the Basilica, near the Acritanian pillars, unearthed the remains of a further part of the cemetery.

It is not yet known with certainty who these individuals buried near Saint Mark were, but preliminary analysis carried out by anthropologists, specialized in stratigraphic excavation and the study of human remains, has given the first clues. For example, by examining the pathological profile it turns out that the burials found so far are mainly of elderly men, even if the jaw of a child and the remains of some adolescents were also uncovered. In addition, the stress of the bones indicates that they were not people who carried out very strenuous work, so it can be assumed that they were personalities related to the church and religious services or Venetian citizens who had financed the execution of a fresco, the restoration or the construction of a chapel in the Basilica.

Many are the mysteries about the underground of the Basilica of Saint Mark waiting to be revealed, but the archaeological investigations carried out to date, and which will continue in the coming months, promise to shed light on an unprecedented side of “the most beautiful living room in Italy”.


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