Venice – A Saint Comes to Venice

IH Season 1: Venice, episode 5: A Saint Comes to Venice

Last episode, we saw the lagoon encircled by Frankish forces, but the Venetians survived Pepin’s siege and escaped submission to the new feudal order taking root in the rest of Europe. 

The peace treaty between the Byzantines and the Holy Roman Empire – the Pax Nicephori – is the real reason the Franks did not just keep coming back year after year until they broke Venetian opposition with their vastly superior resources, but still, the success of withstanding Pepin’s siege was not just a moral victory. The people of the lagoon saw that they had some real strength when they were united, and that they had land that was defensible against a superior force. Now they had to make more of that land.

(A quick aside here. I was listening to a travel podcast called Untold Italy,[1] and they had a lady on who was a regular guide to Venice. She shared that her pronunciation of doge had been corrected to Doge. This makes complete sense in Italian, and my understanding of various dialects, but I’m going to stick with the pronunciation doge. It gets complicated when you start talking doge, co-doge, vice-doge, etc and don’t have a firm grasp on Italian. Doge and all its derivatives are just easier to make sense of as we talk about these things in English. I’ll continue to pronounce all names as best I can in their native tongues, and when you go to Venice, you can drop your knowledge of il Doge.)

Doge Angello Participazio wasted no time executing a number of ambitious plans to fortify Venice at its heart and rebuild the lagoon at large. He oversaw the rebuilding of his birthplace, Ereclea, which having been twice destroyed was renamed as Cittànova – this literally means “new city,” which is a bit unoriginal, but it guaranteed that Ereclea couldn’t be destroyed a third time. He directed the resettlement of damaged and captured cities like Grado and Chioggia. He appointed directors to fortify the lidi – the breakwaters of the lagoon, build new housing, churches, and monasteries, and to reclaim land from the sea. His civic and civil leadership at this point in Venetian history really can’t be understated. Many of the buildings he directed have succumbed to time, but the foundations remain today.

Venetians did not invent the idea of driving piles into unstable ground to lift their homes out of the water – our friend Herodotus tells us about the Paeonians who lived on stilted housing above a lake in 400 BC[2] – but I haven’t found any sources that show any other society taking pile driving to the level and art that the Venetians were employing by the early 800s. Whenever I look at a map of Venice, the first thing that strikes me is the complete lack of straight lines in any city design. This was intentional as the first architects of Venice understood that they needed to work with the sea and the tides to keep the lagoon alive. This idea of live water – water that is allowed to ebb and flow freely with the tides – is essential not only to where land could be safely reclaimed, but also to the long-term health of the city. The canals carried out all the waste with each tide, and live water prevented the city from becoming a malarial quagmire like every other body of stagnant water at the time. The tide also deposited sediment with each ebb and flow in the lagoon, pointing to natural areas where building could occur without impeding the tide. In these areas of sediment buildup and muddy sandbanks, the Venetians pounded pile after pile deep into the sand and clay until it reached firmer, stable ground below. Unlike the more common practice of spacing piles out – think the gaps that exist between posts on those beautiful ocean resorts in Tahiti, or the piers of Southern Californian beaches – the Venetians pounded pile after pile, right next to each other, to build a firm base of wood, and then they built stone foundations up from there until they rose above sea level. Protected from the air by their great depths and stone coverings, these piles quickly petrified and continue to provide Venice’s foundational strength today. So take a minute and look up a map of Venice, and admire the complete hodgepodge of lines that show the tremendous patience which was used in identifying the natural flow of water, the corresponding dead zones of sediment deposits, the mind boggling number of trees that were cut and transported to the growing city, and then hoisted up and pounded down, over, and over again, with the finest power tools Medieval times had to offer – underfed humans. It is a feat so easy to take for granted – brutal, manual labor so long finished and buried – but those piles not only made the land for Venice to grow on, but provided the foundation of an empire, and continue to support the city as everything below them and around them sinks.

Though the wood was plentiful, these tremendous projects did not pay for themselves. Venice needed money to fund these projects and develop its state identity as a seafaring nation. As we’ve seen, Venice was already bringing in money through its saltworks, as well as fees for transporting goods, and the slave trade. By the early 800s, it was also undertaking more and more of the direct transport of goods from the Levant (the area from Egypt to modern Syria) and Constantinople. These were very dangerous voyages: first, simply because of the distance; second, because of the naval technology; and third, because of the pirates. In these times, there were sailing seasons when the weather and predominate winds made passage from one side of the Mediterranean to the other not only favorable, but possible. And look at a map and the distance between Venice and Constantinople, then think that they were making those trips in boats that were more reliant on oars than sail, lacked keels that allowed for truly powerful sails, so boats with sails had to be wider and slower, which made them easier targets, and the captains made that trip back and forth without a compass, because it wasn’t invented yet. With all these limitations, sailors were forced to stay close to shore, to use land and landmarks as their guides, which exposed them to the varying depths of the sea near land, giving them little buffer to navigate when gale would rise up and push them towards those obstacles, and gave them little warning when pirates would come out of protected coves and attack the larger, slower boats necessary to make such ponderous and treacherous journeys. 

Sailing along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea was dangerous, especially along the Dalmatian coast which is now largely modern Croatia, because of the vast number of inlets and islands that allowed for surprise attacks that would capture Venetian ships laden with valuable goods, enslaving citizens, ruining investors, and harming Venice’s burgeoning economy. These Slavic pirates will become known as the Narentian pirates, named after the Narenta River which offered than an easily defensible base from which to raid Venetian commerce for over the next century and a half. We’ll keep meeting them, but for now it’s enough to understand the gravity of their threat to Venice, their decentralized nature, and that the economic record of any Doge after Agnello Participazio is going to be largely defined by how they handle the piracy problem.

Now, please indulge me in this pirate tangent. I want to raise a question I have about this period that I don’t think can be definitely answered. Frederic Lane astutely observes, “[w]ealth may be gained from seamanship in two ways, by commerce and by piracy. Well-established maritime powers such as nineteenth-century Britain have generally depended on and defended peaceful commerce, but in the early history of most maritime peoples piracy is prominent. It appears not only glorious but even respectable when viewed with the perspectives with which Victorians looked back at the founding of British sea power by men such as Sir Francis Drake. Even in Drake’s day, to be sure, while English voyages across the Atlantic or into the Mediterranean were mainly for purposes of plunder, English voyages in the North Sea sought earnings from transport services rendered strictly according to law.”[3] Commerce and piracy. Venetian histories clearly emphasize their commercial exploits, but I have yet to find anything that acknowledges piracy as brazen as Drake’s. In Venetian history, the pirates are bad guys, preying on the industrious Venetians. I mean, it’s all plausible – the Venetians were able to grow up under the decaying, but still protective, wing of the Byzantine navy and come into their own in a way the British sea power state could not, but if we’ve learned anything about Venetian history so far it is that there are usually multiple versions of events that aren’t exactly state historian approved. And I think we’ve arrived at one of the earliest successes of Venetian piracy, even though it is never called that.

Doge Angello Participazio had an expansive vision for Venice, and a skill for implementing it, unrivaled by any of his predecessors. The infrastructure he built, and master plan he developed certainly fit the bill of statesman more than pirate. But, for all his temporal success, he was just like his predecessors on the question of hereditary rule, and by the time he died he had elevated his sons to co-doge. We’ll ignore what a hot mess that sibling rivalry was and focus on the one who won and took control of Venice – Giustiniano Participazio. 

By 827, when Angello died and Giustiniano took his place, the reliquary tradition in Western and Byzantine Christianity was becoming increasingly more important and essential to worship. Each city claimed its own patron saint, as well as other various relics, which they believed brought them special protections and would grant them miracles. Pilgrimages to these relics brought notoriety, and eventually great economic benefits, to the cities with the most prestigious and prolific saints and their relics. If you wanted an important city in medieval times, you needed important dead people to live in your city, and more specifically, the churches of your city. 

Receiving new relics as gifts or rewards was a pretty common practice during the medieval tradition. During this immediate time period, Doge Giustiniano received the body of Saint Zacharias – the father of John the Baptist – as a gift from Emperor Leo the Fifth for Venetian assistance in fighting Muslim invaders in the Byzantine land of Sicily. A church was built to house these relics, La Chiesa di San Zaccaria. It has been rebuilt several times over the centuries, but you can still go today and see these relics. This was certainly a saint with gravitas, but he lacked a personal connection and miraculous tradition with Venice.

The first patron saint of Venice was Santo Teodoro – Saint Theodore – a 4th century Roman soldier and Christian martyr who became known in the 9th century as a dragon slayer.[4] Theodore was an excellent choice as a saint for nascent Venice – he was very popular in the Byzantine empire just as Venice was starting in the mid 400s, and by the mid 500s he was also an established saint in Rome, and homage to him as the patron saint of the city showed Venice’s place in both worlds. But, having been burned to death in a furnace, and the number of churches dedicated to him in Byzantium and Rome, made relics of Saint Theodore very hard to come by and an insufficient draw for Pilgrims and State powers alike. If Venice wanted to raise its prestige, it would need a more notable saint to match its ambition.

I’m going to lay out what we know, and then throw in my speculations. We know that in 828, two Venetian merchants, Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello were in Alexandria on business. Alexandria had once been a Christian anchor in the Levant and was the final resting place of the Evangelist Saint Mark. Alexandria had fallen to the Muslims and its Christian sites were in danger of being broken down for parts and their iconography was in danger of total destruction. The enterprising Venetians managed to do a body swap so the faithful Christians there wouldn’t know he was missing when the smell of embalming spices was released by the opening of his tomb, snuck the remains and relics of Saint Mark to their boat, and then got them past the Islamic customs inspectors by covering the remains in pork to hide the relics and dissuade the inspectors from looking beyond their gag reflex. The Venetians were beset by storms and dangers all the way home, but Saint Mark appeared to them and guided them through their dangers and safely home. His remains and relics were taken directly to Doge Giustiniano and stored in the ducal palace until a new church, the first Basilica di San Marco, could be built.

This Basilica has been rebuilt and remodeled a number of times, but this event is of such importance that a mosaic still remains at the BAA today, depicting Boco,  sneaking the remains past the custom inspectors. I will find a picture of that mosaic and put it on our Instagram account Italian histories.[5]

We also know that business to Alexandria at that time was illegal because Emperor Leo the Fifth had banned trade with the Muslims over a decade earlier, but there were as many as ten Venetian ships in harbor at the time, so illegal activity was not uncommon. We also know that even though the Christian sites were in danger, Alexandria had been conquered almost 180 years earlier in 642, so the danger was not of the “when they breach the walls we’ll lose everything” variety, though that danger is easily inferred during this period. Also, the need to trick believers into thinking that nothing had been moved by finding another body to replace Saint Mark’s shows a less than imminent threat on the life of the saint. Saint Mark also had a personal connection with the lagoon that no other saint had, having established the Patriarch of Aquilea and, according to legend, been visited by an angel while stopping a Rivoalto during that same trip and receiving the message, “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum.” “Peace be with thee Mark, my evangelist. Here thy body will rest.” Lastly, taking the relics directly to the Doge and the political power of the lagoon, and not the ecclesiastical power – the patriarch, the bishop, or the main cathedral of the city – was outside the common practice of reliquary storage, display, and acquisition, and it gave the Doge power to withstand Papal efforts to subjugate Venice to his own authority – no small achievement as this again stopped the feudal model from coming into Venice.

So, my speculation is that Buono and Rustico where on an organized mission to acquire a new patron saint for Venice. And not just any saint, but an evangelist whose relics would be second only to the relics in Rome, and one who already had connections with the lagoon from when he personally established the Patriarch of Aquileia. In a period of unprecedented growth, and beautifully organized civic development, I find it easy to believe that Doge Agnello saw a perfect opportunity to enhance the religious and political foundations of Venice and his son followed through on the plan that would raise Venice to claims of importance and authority that could only be challenged by Rome. The timing fits, but the evidence isn’t all there, like so much of this period, so I’ll leave that speculative call to you. But as I see it, this acquisition of a new patron saint, one of tremendous and growing importance in the medieval world, was not an opportunistic act of piracy, but a caper level theft that elevated piracy to statecraft and converted Saint Mark, patron saint of Alexandria to San Marco, patron saint of Venice and her nascent empire.

Next episode, after such a thoughtful and successful doge, Venice regresses to the mean.

[1] My apologies to the Untold Italy crew – I got their name wrong when I was recording that part without my notes, and then I tried to voice over and my 5 podcasts episodes of experience did not do that well, so I just edited out my botched name and owned up to it in the footnotes. It’s not cowardly, it’s academic. Ha!

[2] Herodotus, Histories Book 5.16

[3] Lane Venice A Maritime Republic, pg 24


[5] I was able to find a picture of the Basilica façade here

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