Mosaic floor – Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato
Like many churches in Venice and the surrounding lagoons, Santi Maria e Donato looks seemingly restrained from the outside, concealed in an architectural pattern of plaster arches and red tiled roofs. Hidden inside, however, is a wealth of colour reflective of the lagoon waters themselves, a tumult of aquatic blues and greens in the stones of the mosaic floor. The floor is said to cover the relics of the church’s Saint, Donatus of Arezzo, together with the bones of the dragon he had slain. This intriguingly mythological story is only encouraged by the exotic design of the floor. Like so much of Venetian architectural style, it is Byzantine in influence, with small intricately placed tiles, and tiny triangles growing out of spheres like sun bursts. The dragons themselves are wonderfully fantastical, with bird-like heads complete with plumes and beak, wings that flourish to an organic fern-like curl, checker-board breasts, long snaking tails topped with a flame, and clawed webbed feet which, like the colours of the tiles, reflect the watery situation of the church. More accessible, and perhaps less overwhelming, than the vast mosaics of Venice’s San Marco, these aquatic dragons bewitch the observer as they step off the boat.
Abside: “Virgine orante”
12th-Century in the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato
The islands of Venice hold much to explore architecturally, but what is perhaps most intriguing is the art each building contains — the murals, engravings, mosaics that cling to the walls, decorating and illuminating the cavernous interiors of the Byzantine churches. The church of Santi Maria e Donato was rebuilt in the twelfth-century and, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this mosaic covers the apse of the church. The Virgin stands vastly above, huge but serene, praying – orante – with palms displayed: a gesture of openness, rather than hands together in the traditional prayer position. The long fingers and cool grey of skin stand out against the warmth of gold and the intensity of blue, drawing us to the humanity of the figure, the tender emotion of the hands and the face . The simplicity of the stance is echoed in the restraint of colour; we have only blue and gold, though each is deeply poignant. The blue is intense in each fold of her cloak, bright despite is age, and evocative of the sea and rivers that run nearby. The gold is glittering in its intricate mosaic glory: a thousand tiny tiles making the gleaming sky; illumination that becomes part of her halo, part of the Virgin, as it is picked up by the threads that line and hang from her cloak. Such delicacy is hard to discern in a photograph; the detail of these Byzantine mosaics is astonishing, making these interiors well worth seeking out.