Anyone who has been to Venice or has merely studied photographs of St. Mark’s Basilica will undoubtedly have noticed the unusual “decorations” topping the stacked domes of the iconic church. These crystal-like three-dimensional constructions are called
Tibor Tarnai, Janos Krahling and Sandor Tabai have written a technical paper containing everything you may ever want to know about star polyhedra, available on-line at http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org/wenninger/seteight/PAP209tarnai.pdf .
According to those scholars, on Hungarian Protestant churches (and therefore 16th-Century or later), star polyhedra represent the Star of Bethlehem. None have been found in Europe that pre-dated the Renaissance. In fact, the first known appearance is in the mosaic pavement of Basilica di San Marco, attributed to Paolo Luchello, “a planar projection of a small stellated dodecahedron”. Note the word “planar”, which means two-dimensional.
The domes atop San Marco were constructed in the 13th-Century, 300 years before the Protestant revolts, and (although I cannot pinpoint a date), its three-dimensional star polyhedra may have been in place since that time. Venice always has been a kind of stellar constellation of its own in legend, culture, art and deed.
Another of the many innovations of Venice?
Starlight, Star Bright
Judging from the Hungarian scholars’ paper, the earliest executions of the device for architectural use were two-dimensional that, along with a super-majority of the three-dimensional variety utilized from the Renaissance onward are many-pointed masses that look like, well, our common representation of stars.
The authors did not illustrate or provide other examples of the unique star polyhedra that surmount the domes of San Marco, earlier or later in history. Perhaps they exist, perhaps you know and can share the secret!
Sadly, for curious star-gazers, the view of the San Marco stars is always from afar , whether from the promenade above the narthex, from the roof of the Torre dell’Orologio, atop the Stairway of the Giants in the Cortile of the Palazzo Ducale, through your telephoto lens from the Piazza, or on the imported postcard you scored on the Riva.
Intriguing, but not satisfying!
Solving the Problem
Please re-read my April 3, 2011 post about Campo San Zaccaria (available on-line at http://wp.me/pVUDj-1ix ). On your next opportunity, venture there, approach the garden corner closest to the front of the churches, and look inside the iron fence.
There on the ground amidst the shrubbery is a three-dimensional Venetian star polyhedron, caged like a rare animal in a zoo, that is related to others of the species seen sparkling in the sun or silhouetted against the sky day and night like first-magnitude stars atop the Basilica (I love to mix metaphors!).
You can study the size, design, materials and the details of construction at your leisure without engaging in the highly illegal, extremely dangerous and very ill-advised ascent of the stacked domes of the Basilica.
Never do that!
What is Up is Down and What is Down is Up
Another paradox to add to the list of the many in and of Venice! Everywhere else on earth, you are advised to look up to see the stars with clarity, and on a clear night to boot. In Venice, day or night, rain or shine, no closed days, free admission, and no closing hours, even “photography allowed”, I recommend that you look down to best see one of the very unique Venetian stars…
Your chance to touch a falling star (almost)!