One year, post-final exam at university, I sat with friends on a wall of a college overlooking the Cam river, bustling with punting tourists. In between swigs from a bottle of cheap bubbly and various emotional outbursts regarding freedom, we found great entertainment in listening to the very creative ‘histories’ of Cambridge that the punt guides recounted to their spell-bound tourists in the boat below. With an air of superior professorship the punter would peer down loftily at his humbled disciples and say with breezy confidence tales so outrageous only an American tourist would believe them. My personal favourite was hearing that Jesus College was named after its founder.
Italy has its own, rather more elegant, version of the Cam river punters – the Venetian gondoliers. These great orators, opera singers and, not least, charmers of the fairer sex, have a repertoire of such gloriously fabricated tales of Venice that one is in no way offended by being fed this alternative, invented history of the city. In fact, construction of its history was a key tool in the Venetian Republic’s harness of power and politics, and Venetians have been legistimising their religious and state dominance for thousands of centuries using ingenious historical fabrication. The gondoliers stories are merely another branch in this mode of enriching La Serenissima, this time for the proliferation of tourism. In fact, their fictions and fables are positively tame compared to the deceptions of the Venetian Republic.
A Stolen Patron Saint
The Lion of St Mark stands proud and noble in every corner, crevice and construction in Venice. It lords over the Piazzetta of St Mark and from its vantage point on the pillar it scans the seas ready to pounce on incoming enemies. It surveys Piazza from starry background on the clock tower. It even remains dignified when ridden by giddy children in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini just to the left of the Basilica. Now the lion is almost synonymous with Venice, it is her defining symbol, but it didn’t reach this point by accident.
In the early 800s Venice was under the protective patronage of a certain St Theodore, who still clings to his column in the Piazzetta very much in the shadow of the adjacent Lion. But the Venetians were in need of a rather more preeminent saint, trying as they were to disentangle themselves from Eastern and Western powers, and an Evangelist would certainly provide the required gravity. The Venetian state concocted a cunning plan, legitimising their adoption (or capture) of St Mark by exploiting a certain interpretation of biblical legend. As convenience would have it, tradition states that Mark had been caught in a terrible storm while sailing and was stranded on an island in the lagoon of Venice when an angel appeared to him and relayed the comforting words;
May Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here your body will rest.
It must be admitted, those words could be easily misconstrued in the way the Venetians did. Although probably suggesting Mark repose for a while to rest his weary feet, the Venetians maintain it was a prophetic remark about the final resting place of his body. Using this logic, two Venetians set out to reclaim (steal) the body of the Evangelist from Alexandria, probably under State orders. Rather ingeniously, after snatching the body, they managed to make off with it by placing it in a barrel covered with pickled pork thus repelling any inquisitive Muslims. Although not an altogether dignified arrival, it was rectified by placing his body in a great Basilica. Thus he became the unequivocable protector of Venice and his Lion the quintessential symbol.
Lost and Found
After the trouble taken to steal and legitimise the theft of the body, one would assume it was laid in a very carefully chosen place away from any harm. As it happens the Basilica burnt down in 976 and undoubtedly the body too was lost. But that didn’t faze the Venetians. Their creativity once more astounds. After spreading about that the location of the precious body had been ‘forgotten’, all were summoned to a great service to beg for divine guidance. Suddenly there was an apocalyptic rumble from a pillar and a theatrical splitting of stone. From within the pillar the body of St Mark was gradually revealed in a most convenient miracle. Whether the presumably satisfied smile on the face of the Doge had anything to do with it we can only speculate.
The location of this miraculous rediscovery of the body is marked by a red plaque on a pillar in the Basilica.
What a Coincidence!
A patron saint is one thing, but having a founding story good enough to become legend is quite another. Venice went the whole hog and her founding date, 25th March 421, gave the city a firm foothold in Christianity, being as it is the date of the Annunciation (and incidentally coinciding with the founding of Rome). As Muir (1981) succinctly summarises;
In Venice the founding day of the city was mystically conjoined with the founding of Rome, the beginning of the Christian era, the annual rebirth of nature, and the first day of the calendar year. (Muir 1981, 71)
That’s certainly the stuff of legend. The Rialto Bridge permanently reminds visitors of the Christian significance of the founding date. On one side of the bridge is Angel Gabriel sending the Holy Spirit, the dove, to the Virgin Mary on the other side. Thus the Annunciation is eternally performed and eternally blesses the Grand Canal, the artery of Venice, that runs beneath it.
The Piazzetta Lion of St Mark
As one Venetian commented perplexingly, “Venetians never tell the truth. We mean precisely the opposite of what we say.” (Berendt, 2005, 2) I have assumed some of the spirit of a Venetian in this article; I said above that the Lion topping the column on the Piazzetta is that of St Mark, which simultaneously is and isn’t true. While the Lion now conforms to the archetypal Evangelistic beast, it didn’t begin its life with this appearance or even in Venice at all.
It is possible that this Lion originated in Cilicia in 4th century BC as a winged, horned creature to carry the statue of Sandon, the god of Cilicia. At any rate, it certainly was not an Italian medieval production as;
…the head with two long striped moustaches, the determined and round eyebrows, the mane with stylized winding designs, contribute to a “fearful” effect with an undeniably “oriental” mark which suggests that the animal was originally a chimera. (http://www.meravigliedivenezia.it/en/the-lion/index.html)
During the 11th and 12th centuries Venetian merchants frequented the East and presumably seized the lion statue in true Venetian unscrupulousness. The statue was remodelled to assume the role of Lion of St Mark and new wings were fitted.
However, when Napoleon took control of Venice he gifted the Lion a brief sojourn in France. At the end of Napoleon’s rule the Lion was returned to his column, in 1815, but was most unfortunately dropped during the process and broken into pieces. Thus the Lion we see today has not only Eastern origins, but also many remodellings of wings, tail and paws. But perhaps this makes it the most accurate symbol of Venice by amalgamating East and West, just as the Venetian Republic strove to do to create its vast trading network.
The history of Venice is shrouded in uncertainly, yet a Venetian will recount the founding myths as surely as if he had witnessed them himself. The historian Paolo Sarpi once commented, “I never, never tell a lie, but the truth not to everyone”.
Morris, Jan. Venice. Faber and Faber Limited, 1960.
Berendt, John. The City of Falling Angels. Hodder and Stoughton, 2006.