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STARC Researchers Digitally Document The Unknown Graffiti Of San Marco Basilica In Venice

With the collaboration and permission of the Procuratoria of St. Mark (the board of curators responsible for the protection, maintenance and repairs of the San Marco basilica), STARC researchers initiated an ambitious project to digitally document, visualize and study the vast body of historical graffiti preserved at the monumental complex of the basilica of San Marco in Venice.

Between January 29 and February 2, 2018, a team of STARC researchers consisting of Mia Trentin, whose postdoctoral research on medieval graffiti inspired the project, Dante Abate, expert in digital 2D and 3D documentation, and Nikolas Bakirtzis, with expertise in medieval art and architecture, conducted a preliminary survey of the building. Work focused in the digital documentation of selected examples of graffiti in their spatial setting and explored the potential for the use of advanced imaging and visualization technologies in preparation for a broader systematic survey to be planned later in 2018.

The project is part of Mia Trentin’s postdoc offered jointly by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) / the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and CyI. Dr. Trentin’s postdoctoral research supervised by Profs. Donna Cox (NCSA/UIUC), D. Fairchild-Ruggles (Landscape Architecture/ UIUC) and Nikolas Bakirtzis (CyI) concentrates on the development of an advanced methodology to document, study and visualize medieval and post-medieval graffiti across the Mediterranean; with a particular focus on tracing the passage of travelers and pilgrims along the maritime routes of the Eastern Mediterranean. We see this project belonging in the broad research scope of our Art Characterization work. In addition, research in San Marco and Venice is well integrated into the STARC / CyI-led project “Mediterranean Palimpsests: Connecting the Art and Architectural Histories of Medieval and Post-Medieval Cities”, with support through the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative. The systematic documentation of graffiti in Cyprus and the broader region will also be integrated in a comprehensive digital repository as part of CyI’s DIOPTRA: The Edmée Leventis Digital Library for Cypriot Culture.

Graffiti remain a little known and virtually untapped historical source that provides original new insights into the visual and literary culture of part societies. At the San Marco Basilica incised inscriptions, as well as images of figures, symbols and abstract geometrical shapes, on almost every reachable exterior and interior surface preserve the passage of officials, church custodians, locals, travelers and pilgrims from the magnificent building, thus reflecting the multicultural character of the city and the political and religious relevance of the Basilica.

Being the center stage of Venetian religious, cultural and ceremonial life since at least the 9th century in its early forms, the basilica is the epitome of the city’s rich and complex civic and cultural identities. Its external facades provide an eclectic assemblage of spolia, mostly from Byzantium and Constantinople, meant to serve the construction of a distinct visual identity for the Venetian Republic with clear links to Antiquity and the Eastern Mediterranean. Statues, marbles bearing inscriptions, decorated in relief architectural pieces, columns of various materials and colors and all kinds of building material in second use synthesized together with the use of Byzantine, Gothic, Islamic and Baroque architectural forms reflect the strategies of cultural appropriation employed by the Venetians. The building, in fact, was meant to be the Republic’s visual medium to show and affirm his political and religious primacy in Medieval and Modern Mediterranean. The basilica’s interior is equally embellished with rich marble furnishings and columns, beautiful marble revetment covering its vertical surfaces and lavish pavement floors also featuring an extensive use of materials in second use. The upper part of the five-domed basilica is entirely covered with splendid mosaics of global importance, set in a shining gold background.

Although the history, art and architecture of the great monument have been extensively studied, and San Marco still inspires the great interest of scholars, its large body of graffiti remains virtually unknown. These inscribed testimonies continue to be an untapped historical resource waiting to be analyzed, studied and contextualized. This is exactly the focus of our work: to be the first to properly record, study and interpret this important source of information for one of the cultural and religious hubs of the Mediterranean. At the same time, our work aspires to help the establishment of a methodological protocol for the documentation, cataloging and visualization of graffiti. The use of advanced technologies is of key importance and we count on the collaborative contribution of NCSA/ UIUC.