VENICE, Italy (AP) — "Every stone is a treasure,'' says the technical director of St. Mark's Basilica's vestry board, indicating the prized gold-leaf mosaics overhead, the inlaid stone pavement and the marble clad walls of the 923-year-old masterpiece.
And many are vulnerable to the infiltration of sea water during the lagoon city's ever-higher tides.
Constructed atop two previous churches on a site that early Venetians believed was among the most secure in the Canal City, St. Mark's Basilica suffered at least $5.5 million in damage during last month's devastating great tides. The first, on Nov. 12, was the highest in 53 years, followed by two above 4.9 feet, a series of severe inundations never before recorded.
Though the highest was seven centimeters less than the famed 1966 flood of 6.36 feet, St. Mark's chief caretaker, Carlo Alberto Tesserin, said, ''We say this was the worst.''
Unlike other natural disasters, like, say, an earthquake that leaves images of collapsed bell towers and fallen walls, fresh damage from the Venice floods is so far not visible to the naked eye.
''Someone who comes to Venice to see the high water, and who goes to St. Mark's Square the next day, sees tables in the square, says, 'Hey, look, the orchestra is playing. Nothing is wrong here.' While, in reality, what is hidden, is everything we have verified in these days,'' said Tesserin, who submitted the damage estimate earlier this month to city and national officials.
Peaking at 6.14 feet above sea level, last months'great tide was accompanied by wind gusts of up to around 75 mph that pushed the waters even higher, flooding through the windows in St. Mark's crypt of patriarchs. The gale-force gusts buffeted the Basilica's domes, tearing away lead tiles, Tesserin said. Both floodwaters entering from the windows and the ripping away of lead tiles were firsts in the Basilica's history.
Witnesses reported waves in St. Mark's Square never before seen. The Venice Patriarch told a news conference that they were like waves at the seashore, a first in his experience despite having witnessed ''the piazza full of water many times.''
''It was the first time that I was truly afraid,'' said Giuseppe Maneschi, the vestry board technical director. The assault was three-pronged: Water was entering from the piazza, through the narthex; from the crypt windows, while also pushing up from below the Basilica. Maneschi worked with others to move precious objects, like a standing crucifix, higher.
The crypt remained under water for nearly 24 hours, while two more exceptional floods at 5 feet kept the Basilica closed for a week. Before reopening, workers washed the Basilica floors four times with fresh water — a necessary treatment but one that carries risks as the salt is abrasive against pavement stones, Maneschi said.