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The City of Saint Mark


The Saint Comes

There was one great transformation in the early history of Venice. In 828 an object was brought to this place that entirely changed its character and its status. It is supposed to have been the body of the great evangelist, Saint Mark himself. The essential story remained unchanged through the centuries. It concerned some Venetian merchants—a class who, from the beginning, took the lead in all the affairs of the Venetian state. Buono of Malamocco and a companion, Rustico of Torcello, had gone on a trading mission to the port of Alexandria. In that alien land they entered into a discussion with the custodians of the church of Saint Mark, who were responsible for protecting the body of the martyred saint lodged in an ancient sarcophagus. These priests bitterly resented the persecution of the Catholic community by the Saracens, and expressed the fear that their precious church might be pillaged and damaged. The Venetians listened with great sympathy, and then suggested to the priests that they might like to return with them to Venice; they might also care to bring the body of Saint Mark with them. That could be considered the price of their journey. It was a piece of business. Despite certain misgivings, the custodians agreed.

The body of Saint Mark was taken out of the sarcophagus and unwrapped from its silk shroud, the relic being substituted by another and less eminent saint. It was then placed in a chest and taken on board the Venetian ship, the merchants first ensuring that the saint’s remains were covered by a layer of pork and cabbage. When the Muslim officials asked to inspect the chest, they cried out “Kanzir, kanzir” (Oh horror) at the sight and smell of the pork. The sainted corpse was first concealed in a sail and suspended from the yardarm but, when the holy cargo had reached open sea, the saint’s body was placed on the deck surrounded by candles and thuribles. Thus the evangelist was safely conveyed to Venice, but not before a number of miracles eased his passage across the Mediterranean.

His arrival could not have been more propitious. By mysterious means Mark informed his guardians that he wished to be taken to the ducal palace rather than to the cathedral church then rising in Olivolo. He was lodged in the banqueting hall, but a chapel dedicated to his memory was erected in an open area where the basilica of Saint Mark’s now stands. It was then a grassy field, planted with trees, as well as a garden and fruit orchard. All this was removed and filled, so that the chapel of Saint Mark might rise.

The devotion to Saint Mark soon outstripped that to the previous saint, Theodore, and the great basilica was eventually raised in his name. The ducal palace needed a shrine to bolster its legitimacy, and it could be suggested that the shrine required a palace; the covenant between them instantly magnified both the status of the doge and the power of the community. If anyone were rash enough to question the account of the divine prize, according to a later Venetian historian, then “let him come to Venice and see the fair church of Monsignor S. Marco, and look in front of this fair church” at the mosaics that faithfully tell the whole story. This may not be evidence that would stand up in a court of law, but it was enough testimony for the pious and the credulous. The mosaics were only the most prominent examples of the cult of Saint Mark. On the great arch, above the right-hand singing-gallery of the basilica, can be found the scene of the embarkation of Mark’s body; there is the ship sailing for Venice; there is the reception of the body in the city. These are mosaics from the end of the twelfth century, made luminous by the decorum and formality of the Byzantine tradition. Mosaics are the filigree upon the silver surface of Venice.

From the beginning, the cult of Saint Mark was as much a secular as a sacred affair. He became the icon and emblem of Venice (together with his winged lion), but he was always associated with the doge rather than the bishop. The open theft of the relic was not an issue. There soon grew up a legend that Mark had been bishop of Aquileia, to the north of the lagoon, before ever becoming bishop of Alexandria. And in any case the fact that the transition had been made with the blessing of Mark himself proved its benefaction. God’s will had been done. Otherwise the theft would not have succeeded. It is one of those circular arguments that are very difficult to break. In the thirteenth century another layer of the story was added. It was claimed that Saint Mark, on one of his missions, sought refuge from a storm and providentially took shelter on the island of Rialto. Here, in the future Venice, an angel appeared to him and proclaimed “Pax tibi, Marce. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” Be at peace, Mark. Your body will one day rest here. There is of course no historical record of the evangelist ever visiting the lagoon.

There are in any case many problems with the original account, not the least serious being the fanciful chain of events that led to the translatio of Mark. That there was some kind of theft seems clear. That a sacred relic was lodged in Venice is also clear. It may or may not have been the body of Saint Mark himself. It might have been any ancient body, wrapped in pious fraudulence as heavy as any shroud. It is likely that the merchants had in fact been sent to Alexandria by the doge, precisely in order to purchase the relic. Its removal to Venice would heighten the sacred authority of the doge as well as the importance of Venice itself. Venice and Mark might rival Rome and Peter. It is interesting that Mark had been secretary to Peter, and that Peter had quarrelled with Mark for being insubordinate and insufficiently devout; these were precisely the charges raised against Venice by successive popes. From the time of the translatio Venice had a most uneasy relation with Rome, never conceding the primacy of the pontiff in its religious affairs.

Many other consequences flowed from the translatio. The presence of the saint was supposed to guarantee Venice from assault or blockade, and thus lend credence to its claim of invulnerability. Venice did survive, unscathed, until the time of Napoleon. The blessing of the saint would also unify the islands of the lagoon under the leadership of Venice, a political and social transition that did indeed take place over the course of two or three centuries. There were rumours that the head of the evangelist had been left behind at Alexandria, but the Venetian accounts insist upon the wholeness of the body. Insecurity in the spirit demands completeness elsewhere. The wholeness of the relic was also an analogy for the organic interdependence of the islands of the lagoon.

It is important, too, that the saint arrived by sea. The sea had become Venice’s true element, and there was no better way of sanctifying it than by claiming it as the shining path of divine protection. The mosaics in the basilica emphasise the image of the ship upon the waves. In a later legend a trio of saints—Mark, George and Nicholas—commandeer a fishing vessel and quell a storm in the lagoon that has been brewed by demons. On his disembarkation Mark presents a gold ring to the fisherman, who in turn gives it up to the doge. Power over the sea is transferred from saint to fisherman to leader. It is one of the formative myths of Venice, engaged in its continual fight against the waters.

There is also the question of free trade, upon which Venice depended. At the time of Mark’s translatio, the Byzantine emperor had imposed a trade embargo between Christians and Saracens. But in defiance of that prohibition the two merchants had transported their holy cargo from Alexandria, perhaps clearing the way for other less precious commodities. It was a hit against the emperor and a good omen for the merchants. If you cannot farm, as the Venetians used to tell the pope, who also complained about their trade with the infidel, you must fish. And that included fishing for saints. It was said that at the time of the opening of the sarcophagus in Alexandria a delicious odour as of “sweet spices,” filled the city. Venetian traders were well known for their bartering of spices.

The relic also secured the independence of Venice. The city’s previous guardian, Saint Theodore, was of wholly Byzantine provenance. By supplanting Theodore with Mark, Venice was asserting control over its own destiny. So Saint Mark became a synonym for Venice itself. It would seem that half of the Venetian males are still christened Marco. The red flag of Mark became the Venetian standard. The winged lion is everywhere. The essential and eventual autonomy of Venice was assured by the remarkable, if not miraculous, events of 828.

There was a great fire in Venice in 976, in the course of a rebellion against the reigning doge. In that conflagration the church of Saint Mark was utterly destroyed. It would have been supposed, then, that the combustible relic would itself have been consumed in the flames. In fact it was to all appearances “lost” until 1094, when by curious chance a piece of column fell away revealing the last remains of the evangelist. It was certainly a miracle that he had withstood the great fire. And, against all the odds, he is still with us. Until recent years it was reported that his body lay beneath the high altar of Saint Mark. In the summer of 1968 Pope Paul VI handed certain relics of the evangelist to a delegation of Coptic church-leaders, but confirmed that the rest of the body was still in Venice. The thumb of Saint Mark, as well as the famous gold ring given to the fisherman, are still preserved in the treasury of the basilica. The old bones still live in the imagination of the people.

There is a further reminder of the saint throughout the city. The lion of Saint Mark is the emblem of Venice; it can be found in stone and in bronze, carved in relief or in the round. The lions are to be found on the ducal palace and the doge’s chapel; they stand in front of the shipyards of Venice; they guard various grand houses and communal spaces. Every public building in Venice once bore an image of the beast. The winged lion stands on a pillar at the harbour. The lion was a symbol of both religious and political intent. The leonine symbol is one of authority and of paternalism. It is also a token of justice. All of these associations come together in the ubiquity of the lion on Venetian stones and walls.

As a companion of the Evangelist, the spiritual connotation of the lion was clear. But the lion could also be ferocious. It could be aggressive. It was a way of symbolising the might of Venice, if it were ever roused. An inscription of the mid-fifteenth century reads: “Behold the winged lion! I pluck down earth, sea and stars.” The lion of Saint Mark was often depicted with its hind legs in water, and its front legs upon the land, an apt indication of Venice’s pretensions to lordship both of the sea and of the mainland.

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