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Of Belief

Pope Gregory XIII once confessed that “I am pope everywhere except in Venice.” A Venetian historian, in 1483, reminded the cardinals of his city that “Venice was their true parent, and the Church only a stepmother.” That is why Venetian cardinals in Rome were often considered by the papal authorities to be little better than spies. Because the bones of Saint Mark were preserved in the heart of Venice, the city claimed an apostolic status equal to that of Rome. Its power and authority effectively meant that it had inherited the mantle of the Holy Christian Empire.

So it was a very Venetian church, overwhelmingly subject to state control. The doge was considered to be a sacred no less than a secular figure. When the bishops of Venetian colonies on the terra firma received instructions directly from the pope, they relayed them to the council of ten for approval. Members of the clergy were forbidden entry into any of the state archives, and those patrician families who held ecclesiastical benefices were prohibited from involvement in ecclesiastical affairs. It was believed and widely stated that the supposed divine origins of the city meant that it had received its powers directly from God, and was simply retaining the traditional authority of state over church.

The state supervised all matters pertaining to the Church, including the content of sermons and the administration of the mass. Bishops were appointed by the senate. The bishops themselves never questioned the process, in any case, since all of them came from patrician families. No churches could be erected without the permission of the government. In the official documents of every period there are references to “our see of Grado” or “our bishops of Olivolo.” There was also such a thing as state theology. It was painted on the walls of the ducal palace. The state had its own liturgy, quite different from that in use elsewhere, with texts that included homage to Mark above all other saints. Heresy, therefore, was principally a crime against the state. It has been suggested that the Venetian Church was inspired by the Byzantine state Church, in which religion was seen as an aspect of proper governance, but it was also directly rooted in the experience and situation of the city. It was not part of the Italian mainland. It had created its institutions ab novo. It refused to submit to any external authority.

So Venetian religion was a very potent and efficient mingling of superstition with practicality and good sense. When an Italian movement of fervent proselytisers, known as the Bianchi for the white robes that they wore, came to Venice in 1399 they were forbidden to process or preach in public; they were spreading an apocalyptic message on the eve of a new century. When one group did try to file into the Square before the church of S. Zanipolo, the leaders of the council of ten were waiting for them. They wrenched the crucifix from the hand of the principal worshipper, tore off its arms and threw the pieces of the cross at the others. The procession was then broken up, according to a chronicle, “with many insults and injuries.” That is how the Venetian authorities dealt with any threatening minority. They could not endure dissent or disorder, however pious in origin.

Venice, however, did tolerate those who posed no threat. At the time of religious innovation in the sixteenth century, the authorities were not opposed to the presence of Protestant students at the University of Padua. Venice became known as a haven for European reformers who had fled the more orthodox kingdoms of the north. The city had always been open to travellers and merchants from the rest of the world. So it had no problem with foreign faiths. It had important trade relations with heretical nations such as England and the Netherlands. Commerce came first. Venice had to remain an open port. The German merchants, lodged in the centre of the city, were Lutherans. It made no difference. The English ambassador to Venice at the time of James I, Henry Wotton, believed that the city might in fact join the reforming nations. That was wishful thinking. Venice may have distrusted the papacy but it would never cease to believe in the Virgin and the intercession of the saints. It was unthinkable. They would have liked to reform the Catholic Church, of course. They would have liked to reform the pope out of existence.

The people were in any case excessively devout. They evinced what Defoe called “prodigious stupid Bigotry.” In a more kindly tone Philippe de Commynes wrote that “I believe God blesses them for the reverence they show in the service of the Church.” There were more than a hundred churches from which to choose. There were statues and pictures at every corner. The aisles were filled with worshippers. There were endless processions, each with its own particular form of ritual—the procession of Corpus Christi, when a senator and a poor person walked side by side ahead of the others and rose petals were strewn across the route; the procession of Good Friday, when lamps and torches and candles were placed in front of the great houses; the ceremony of Palm Sunday, when a myriad of pigeons was set free in front of the basilica; the procession of the doge to the convent of S. Zaccaria on Easter Day. Each ceremony had its own social, as well as religious, purpose. A culture of public processions is very common within authoritarian societies.

Effie Ruskin remarked of the ordinary Venetians that “they don’t seem to believe anything particularly, but are superstitious by habit.” That is possibly the best definition of Venetian piety. When an Englishman, visiting a Venetian church, did not kneel at the elevation of the host he was taken to task by a Venetian senator. The Englishman said that he did not subscribe to the doctrine of the real presence, to which the Venetian replied, “No more do I. But kneel as I do, or else leave the church.” The devotion of the people was also the greatest possible bulwark for the state itself.

The use of icons and relics meant that such devotion knitted all of the people together in a bond of piety. The body of Saint Mark guarded all of the citizens. But there were many other saints to be touched and seen. There were, at the last count, more than fifty dead saints in defensive formation. They were considered, in a city without walls, to be essential. One monastery possessed the relics of twelve separate saints. It is surprising that there were enough saints to go round. In November 1981 two gunmen rushed into the church of S. Geremia, ordering the priest and congregation to lie on the floor. They then seized the mummified skeleton of Saint Lucy and stuffed it into a sack. The head of the saint was broken off, unfortunately, and rolled into the aisle. The silver death mask of Lucy was also left behind. A month later the poor saint was found discarded in a hunting lodge near Venice.

The Venetians greatly preferred what might be called “full body” relics. They needed the whole body because insecurity in the spirit demands completeness. Yet in exceptional circumstances an arm or a leg would do. The head of Saint George was lodged in the Benedictine monastery on the island of S. Giorgio Maggiore. His arm had arrived some decades before. There were pieces of Saints Peter, Matthew, Bartholomew and John the Evangelist, scattered through the various shrines of the city. The head of the prophet Jonah, saved from the belly of the whale, had also somehow made its way to the city of the lagoon. The body of Saint Tarasius was doubly celebrated because it had miraculously escaped fragmentation; two robbers from another city had tried to remove his teeth, but the saint refused to yield them up. The whole thing came to the city. When a Dutch traveller of the seventeenth century went to gaze upon one piece of sacred flesh, he found it “whole and undamaged, with her breasts and her carnal appearance looking as though it was smoke-dried meat, feet and hands, since this holy body had been in the fire.” Or, perhaps, some enterprising merchant had burnt another body so that it might pass as the genuine article.

Saint Isidore of Chios was buried in the doges’ chapel. The head and the body of Saint Barbara, unfortunately separated, were stolen from their shrine in Constantinople and transported to the lagoon. When the Venetians were forced out of Crete by the Turks, they took the body of Saint Titus with them. Two Venetian merchants smuggled the body of Saint Simeon the Prophet from a church near Saint Sophia; it was reported that they had encountered “some difficulty.”

It was said that whenever a Venetian entered a famous shrine the first question would always be “What can we steal for Saint Mark’s?” Monks of foreign monasteries were bribed to give up their honoured dead. Other saints were simply pillaged. So the basilica itself was compared to the house of a pirate retired from business. Of course the thefts were excused under the guise of piety. It was said that these translations—we may call them borrowings—succeeded because the saints themselves wished to be enthroned in Venice. They wished to receive more prayers and more veneration. Otherwise they would have refused to leave their original shrines. Saints can be very stubborn. So the arrival of a purloined relic in the city was yet another sign of God’s grace. It was a very convenient argument.

The relic-hunters were merchants under another name. The relics were in a sense also merchandise. They were collectable. They were a source of revenue from the religious tourists coming to the city. They were in themselves valuable—the crown of thorns that had once rested on Christ’s head was valued at the sum of seventy thousand ducats.

In the basilica of Saint Mark’s was a vessel containing drops of the blood that Christ shed while enduring the agony in the garden of Gethsemane. There were thorns from the crown, fragments of the true cross, and a portion of the flagellation pillar on which the Saviour had been bound. Here also are to be found portions of the hair, and a sample of the milk, of the Holy Virgin. The basilica is an enormous reliquary. In this way the Venetian Church could be associated in spirit with the heroes and heroines of early Christianity. By forging relics, as often happened, the Venetian authorities were inventing a religious history for themselves. But they could not supply the native saints to close the deal. There were more Venetian artists than Venetian saints.

There were a few native saints but, typically enough, they were all in some sense connected with the political status of the republic. Saint Pietro Orseolo had been a doge of the tenth century before retiring to a monastery. Saint Marina recovered Padua for the republic. Saint Lorenzo Giustiniani was a favoured son of the city who was intimately involved in the struggle to re-establish the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The holiness of the Virgin surrounds him.

It has been observed with some surprise that, in the absence of candidates from home, the Venetian authorities named many of their churches after Old Testament prophets. There are in fact forty Old Testament figures in the Venetian calendar of saints. That is not a feature of western Christianity. But it is an integral aspect of the eastern Church, from which Venice borrowed so many details of its devotion. There were churches for Saint Moses, Saint Job, Saint Daniel, Saint Samuel and Saint Jeremiah. The Venetians identified themselves with the chosen race that had similarly wandered over the wilderness in search of a divinely ordained homeland.

There were some visiting saints. Venice was, after all, the city of tourism from earliest times. The most famous of these divine travellers must be Saint Francis who, after attempting to convert the sultan, arrived in the city at some point in the 1220s. He stayed in Venice itself, and soon became aware of some birds singing on certain trees among the marshes. He rowed to that spot with a companion and, when they alighted on the marshy ground, Saint Francis began to pray aloud. But the birds kept on singing. The saint then commanded them to be silent. They obeyed, and would not depart until he gave them approval. On this site, then, there rose a church and a monastery of Franciscans.

The Venetians themselves had no particular fondness for the pope or for the Catholic faith beyond Venetian territory. The Jesuits, considered to be the agents of the papacy, were unpopular in Venice; it was the practice of children to follow them, crying out “Go away, go away, take nothing with you and never come back.” Pius II called the Venetians “traders” and “barbarians” and “hypocrites.” He declared that they “never think of God and, except for the state, which they regard as a deity, they hold nothing sacred, nothing holy.” The Venetians in turn regarded the papacy as an enemy, a ruler of Italian lands rather than a representative of God. The city was an arena for pope-baiting. There was a famous story of a Venetian prisoner who, on hearing the news of the accession of Sixtus V, clapped his hands. “I will be free now,” he said, “for he buggered me when I was a boy.” That was the kind of story Venetians enjoyed. They were delighted to hear, from one of their ambassadors to England in the sixteenth century, that there were prints in London of the pope shitting out medals and mitres and beads.

So the powers of the Inquisition were, in Venice, restrained and restricted. There was no Spanish or Roman fervour. The Venetians insisted that, on the tribunal, three secular judges should act as a balance against three ecclesiastics. It was established in the city in 1547 but typically, in a city known for its superstition, the principal objects of its enquiries were women accused of witchcraft. The testimonials of these trials reveal an informal, and almost relaxed, mode of interrogation. The Venetian authorities had a tendency to record the most trivial details. So we can hear the people again—“and as she said these things, she was crying …” “Oh, he said, there’s one thing I’ve forgotten to say …” “As he did not know how to reply, he kept silence for the length of one miserere.”

It cannot be assumed that the Venetians were necessarily genial judges. It is simply evidence of the fact there was already in the city a well-attested culture of civic denunciation. Venetian citizens were used to being accused by one another. But harsh punishment was rare. There were few executions for heresy, in comparison with other Catholic states, and there was little use of torture. Those women who were convicted of witchcraft were commonly sentenced to a period in the pillory.

The Venetian Church was capable of independent power because its authority was firmly based upon the will of the people. The priests were elected by the property owners of each of the seventy parishes. It was a relatively democratic system that demonstrates how indissolubly religion and society were mingled, reminiscent of the procedures of the early Christians. It has been estimated that one quarter of the priests of Venice were of patrician status, but this must mean that the overwhelming majority of the approximately six hundred clergy were ordinary citizens or even perhaps from the popolani. The word for parish priest in Venetian dialect, pievano, is derived from the Latin word plebs. So the unique role of the priest in the parish may ultimately spring from the earliest democratic societies of those who came first to the lagoon. It certainly helps to explain the rootedness and strength of Venetian popular devotion. The priests acted at every level of the parish. They took on the role of notaries, drawing up wills and marriage contracts; they were financiers, arranging the wages and costs of their churches; they were arbiters in social disputes. The priest could also act as a lawyer, or as an accountant.

Their parishioners were undoubtedly the most superstitious in Italy. The transcripts of the witch trials themselves reveal the intense credulity of the people. It was a city of omens and of prophecies. In 1499 the senate consulted an oracle known as “the spirit of Ferrara,” asking such questions as “Are we to have war or peace with Milan?” and “Shall we lose Pisa?” In 1506 the doge and the council of ten were informed of the birth of a winged and hairy monster. In 1513 the council of ten deliberated on the warnings of an astrologer. There were many superstitions and superstitious practices. It was good to die on a Saturday. If it rained on the bier of the departed, the soul would be saved. It was unwise to walk between the two columns in the piazzetta; misfortune would surely follow you. A guest who crumples a napkin at dinner will never come to that table again. If the clock strikes the hour when you are asking the time, you have heard the knell of your own death. The first person whom you meet on New Year’s Day holds the clue to your fortunes; a humpback is a sign of good fortune, a lame person is an omen of bad luck. These superstitions, and many others like them, were still current in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The witchcraft of Venice was different from that of the mainland. It was the witchcraft of a tightly knit urban and mercantile society open to all the superstitions of the East as well as of the West. It was said that it was the delight of witches to unchain the gondolas, by night, and set sail to Alexandria. When the hair of children was cut, their mothers used carefully to gather it up in case it fell into the hands of the hags. You could recognise those who had been cursed by witch or demon. Their faces had the colour of green fruit, and their eyes were narrowed. Those who fell under a curse experienced a range of unpleasant symptoms: some felt as if dogs were devouring their flesh, or that a mouthful of food had stuck in the throat, or that their bodies were invaded by a freezing wind. Storms at sea were blamed upon the agency of fiends, which is why Saint Mark, and the other saints, stood guard by the side of the lagoon.

Yet the witches were also part of the religious culture of the city. They invoked the Virgin and the saints. One notorious witch, known as Apollonia, told the Inquisition that she prayed “in the name of God and the Virgin Mary, who puts her hands before mine.” To stop a bleeding nose it was necessary to recite a ritual formula—“Blood stay strong, as Messer [Lord] Jesus Christ stayed strong in his death. Blood stay in your vein, as Messer Jesus stayed in his passion.” One of Casanova’s earliest memories concerned a nosebleed. His grandmother immediately took him in a gondola to a witch on the island of Murano, where he was promptly cured. It is an indication of Catholic folk culture with very ancient roots. It survived in Venice.

The key to Venetian witchery, however, lies in the acquisition of money. It was a culture in which scholarly necromancy was used to find hidden treasure. The discovery of treasure was a Venetian preoccupation. The pursuit of magical gold recurs again and again in the records of the Inquisition. One patrician had secretly imparted to friends that he knew of a huge mass of gold, guarded by spirits, in a deep cavern. It is as good as a fairy tale, suited to Venetian ingenuity and credulity. Alchemists were always welcomed in Venice; the prospect of turning base metals into gold was too alluring to resist. At the end of the sixteenth century there was a famous Venetian alchemist, Giambattista Angello, living in London.

And of course the spirit of commerce was also present in dealings with the supernatural powers. The devil had always to be paid for his services, for example, with salt or with a coin. The transaction had to be seen to be fair on both sides. Magic could be used for political purposes. There were many cases when the devil was summoned to reveal the names of those who would be successful in the election to the great council. Gamblers used spells and symbols. It was a culture, also, in which love potions flourished. One such potion was sage mingled with menstrual blood; when it was mixed with the food and drink of a male, he became irresistibly attracted to the woman who had dispensed it to him. Where people are packed so closely together, the passions may run high.

More than any other place in Italy, Venice was a harbour for ghosts. There are few other Italian cities where ghost stories are part of cultural tradition. Yet by the eighteenth century the city had become the setting for wraiths and phantoms, continued in a book such as Alberto Toso Fei’s Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories published in 2004. In a real sense Venice was haunted by its past. It wanted to keep hold of its past. What better way to express it than to see ghosts in the corners? It was said that, on the vigil of All Souls, the dead left their resting places on the cemetery island of S. Michele and crossed the lagoon into the city. Each spirit visitant then returned to his or her home, and sat invisible by the kitchen fire. How did you see a ghost? Only those whose baptismal rites had been interrupted, or improperly conducted, possessed that ability. The lure of money, to the Venetians, was also to be found in the spirit world. The most frequent type of ghost was one who had concealed its treasure before death.

Some of the grander houses were reputed to be haunted. Certain passages of water were avoided. There are stories of shrieking skulls, of statues coming alive, of strange creatures of the deep. The Venetians have always loved the bizarre and the fantastic. Living on water opens the mind to the supernatural and to unconscious association. From this watery and uterine landscape, strange shapes will emerge representing the dreams or nightmares of humankind. Hence in Venice the intense fear of magic.

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