The most valuable collection of Byzantine silver and gold in the world lies hidden in the side wing treasury at St Mark's Basilica. Mainly coming from Venice's plundering of Constantinople in 1204, this collection has its own chequered history but is still beautiful and impressive.
In total, there are 283 items remaining for visitors to see. Gathered mainly as part of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, some of the collection was destroyed by a fire as early as 1231, whilst more was used by Napolean in 1797 (melted down) to pay troops; still more was later needed to finance the nineteenth-century restoration of the basilica itself.
One end of the treasury houses a large collection of relics. These are pieces of materials and human remains; here the collection includes fragments of the True Cross, milk of Mary and blood of Christ, a thorn from Christ's crown, three stones used to martyr St Stephen, the skull of St John the Baptist and many others. If relics make you feel uncomfortable then you can stay at the end of the treasury where other thins are stored; the collection is at least split up to allow this.
The treasury is organised in four sections, depending on the origins of the items. There are sections for ancient or medieval items, those from the Byzantine or Islamic worlds, and finally western additions.
Silver gilt octagonal ewer with sardonyx slabs. 10th-11th century.
The treasure served a purpose beyond the liturgy, being displayed on the altar to impress visiting dignitaries and demonstrate the power of the doge. At the height of its power, Venice was a truly rich and mighty state.
Some items date back to the Roman empire and were later adapted and embellished by the Venetians themselves. This sardonyx ampulla, for example, blends a stone vessel from the second or third century with metalwork from thirteenth century Venice.
The hoard features items with illustrious histories of their own. This includes the chalice of the emperor Romanos, a silver-gilt sardonyx chalice with gold cloisonné enamel and pearls. The stone dates right back to around the third of fourth century, the metalwork from Constantine's time (959-963).
The most famous single piece is the Pala d'Oro, which is not in fact in the main treasury itself, but stands in the sanctuary outside. This golden altarpiece was commissioned by doge Pietro Orseolo and has been added to by subsequent rulers. A huge 3 x 2m golden spread it uses a staggering 1927 precious gems and 187 enamel plaques in addition to the gold and silver to depict the saints.
You have to pay an extra entrance fee, but if you are interested in splendid treasures and religious relics, then it is very much worth it. Even if the Catholic use for the items means nothing to you, they are still so beautifully made and stunning that they are worth going to visit. Tickets can be bought in advance or at the entrance.
The treasury is right inside the basilica, at the back on the right hand side in the rooms through the south transept. It is on the ground floor so easily accessible. The main room is not particularly large so might not be suitable for big groups.