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Monday, August 13, 2012

Conspiracy, Theft And Sin



No, I’m not talking about current affairs in Washington. We’re in Venice, Italy, and the picture shows a mosaic celebrating a crime. What’s fascinating is that this depiction of a shameful event is proudly displayed in a most unlikely place—on the front of a church. And not just any church. Venice chose to brag about its misdeed on the facade of its greatest church, the Basilica of St. Mark.


The mosaic is called The Removal of St. Mark’s Body from Alexandria. Let’s replace the word removal with theft. Venice has never been a particularly religious place. The City’s unofficial motto for centuries was: We’re Venetians first and Christians second. Throughout most of its history, the city pursued trade and built a vast fleet to maintain a commercial empire, the quest for wealth eclipsing all other concerns. While other cities in Italy were producing saints by the handful, Venice was too concerned with worldly matters to produce a saint of its own.


Eventually, this became a municipal embarrassment with Venice unable to join other Italian city-states in the We Have a Saint and You Don’t Club. In the year 828, Venetian officials decided to crash the club. Who cared if no Venetian was saintly enough to be canonized? Venice’s leaders hired a couple of thugs to sail to Alexandria Egypt to steal the body of St Mark the Evangelist.


The mosaic above was created in the 1600s, but it replaced a similar one much older. The thugs on the left are offering to open the basket but the men in turbans (customs inspectors) are recoiling in disgust and refusing to inspect a basket about to be shipped out of Egypt. Why? The basket has been labeled with a word known to turn the stomachs of Muslims—PORK. Inside the basket is the body of St. Mark, being smuggled out of Egypt.


Rather than feeling shame over this despicable act, the Venetians have celebrated the theft for nearly twelve hundred years. In order to justify the larceny, a legend was created that when the Evangelist’s body arrived in Venice an angel appeared and said: “Peace to you, Mark my Evangelist,” showing in this way that God had determined Venice as the final resting place of the Saint. How convenient.


Over the centuries, Venice created many great artists, architects and musicians, but to my knowledge the city on the lagoon never produced a native born saint. Perhaps Venice shouldn’t have been so arrogant as to broadcast their crime. Maybe God was unhappy with Venice for not producing a saintly citizen of its own. It’s interesting to note that remarkably few Venetians became popes, the most recent lasting only thirty-three days.


By the way, the ancient bronze horses in this photo are replicas of originals now preserved in a Venetian museum. The originals, like the body of Saint Mark, were also stolen, this time from Constantinople.



34 comments:

  1. I love the way you write about history ("We Have a Saint and You Don't" club). I didn't know about St. Mark, but I did know about the horses. I've been to Venice four times (it just turned out that way). In fact, I have a picture of me tying my shoe in front of St. Mark's (you may know this by now-I'm effed up that way). While a pretty neat place, it is a thoroughly filthy place, as well. However, it's the first place I had Tiramisu. And, for that, I'm thankful. Didn't ride any gondolas, though. I was with dudes. Wouldn't have been able to live that down.

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  2. For a city with as much beauty as Venice, the folks who (used to) live there certainly weren't the kind I'd want to be associating with.

    Your posts are always so entertaingly informative- a real treat to read~

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  3. That sounds like a creative solution. Besides, what point was there in leaving a Christian saint's body in a Muslim country?

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  4. Like Al, I love your approach to history!

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  5. Great read Stephen, fascinating!

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  6. As with so many places in the world, a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

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  7. Very cool and kinda wacky at the same time. Who steals someones body? Geez! I've always wanted to visit Italy, though Venice wasn't ever on top of my list. Oh wells!

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  8. Venice is a strange and wonderful city, I am not surprised the Venetians stole St Mark .. or the horses

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  9. Such interesting history! Thanks for enlightening us.

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  10. Being thugs/thieves is so in vogue here that I get this. I hate it, but I get it. I'll be glad when some civility shows back up.

    Well written and entertaining as always.

    Have a terrific day. :)

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  11. A sobering reminder that history was written and rewritten. The accuracy of these events is undoubtedly foiled by the prevailing winds of the day.

    Their art and architecture was likely the closest thing they had to piety.

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  12. I think the arrogance of Venice is one reason people are often so fascinated by it. I remember hearing a story about the great composer Claudio Monteverdi who had some work criticised when he was conductor at St Mark's. Apparently he listened to the criticism, then drew himself up and said contemptuously, "I AM CLAUDIO." And then he walked out, leaving them all standing there.

    (Actually he came from Cremona, but he obviously knew how to hold his own in Venice. My favourite ever opera is Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppaea" which is all about how the glamorous baddies come off best. Again, very Venetian in spirit, even though it's set in Rome. Or perhaps they were all like that in those days)

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  13. In fact, here's the finale - when the scheming Poppaea gets her mitts on her coveted crown, and crazy Nero gets his mitts on her, having ditched his faithful wife. Don't you love a happy ending?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qBhJbws1i0c&feature=fvwrel

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  14. I really enjoy your stories of lesser-known history. And the thing I love most? That they labeled the basket "pork."

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  15. Thanks for the interesting history lesson. I'm esp. impressed by how bright and vibrant the colors of the mosaic are. Is the original that colorful, or has it been photographically enhanced?

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  16. did you make most of that up? pork?

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  17. ...the quest for wealth eclipsing all other concerns... Venice: the original Washington, D.C.!

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  18. Venetians are the reason we can't have nice things.

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  19. Who said crime doesn't pay?
    A rather interesting history behind a piece of art.

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  20. It's so ironic that a lot of the cities known for their pomp and history is also ripe with intrigue and crime. Nothing much changes in the world... a pity.

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  21. Speaking of the Muslims...were we speaking of the Muslims?....I just read a story of the Battle of Nicopolis in the 14th century where the Turks absolutely kicked the batcrap out of the thumping-their-chests crusader army. Not that the Turks were Girl Scouts; it was just nice to see the pompous-mostly French-crusaders get knocked flat on their asses (and hundreds even lost their heads-now WHERE will I put my helmet?). Of course, not soon after, the Turks themselves were effed up by Tamerlane. But, still, isn't it sad and pitiful that I'm reading a story about the 14th century?

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  22. Oh, where was I going with this? Oh, yeah. Venice provided the naval support for the battle. Really didn't help much. Even though they had a saint. And those horses.

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  23. I think that maybe you are missing the point. When an artist goes and makes an astounding depiction of something like this, it puts a population in a peculiar place. Take the crucifixion of Christ (for example). By putting an amazing masterpiece up depicting the crucifixion of Christ, can you accuse the one displaying it as celebrating the fact that the son of god was killed by Romans? No. I think a painting done in such a way, transcends the crime. If someone were to paint a particularly stirring painting of the World Trade Centers being destroyed, is the person daring to display such a thing celebrating this act of terrorism? I think it's a celebration of art and not the crime.

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  24. This was more interesting than my history classes at school. :D

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  25. Fascinating. Thanks for an illuminating post.

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  26. What an interesting story. I didn't know this, although I guess it's not surprising that relics and statues were stolen. It sure has happened a lot; museums throughout Europe are loaded with booty from Greece and Egypt.

    I wonder if Mark is also represented in the Quran, holy book of Islam? I bet he is. I know Jesus is, as are many other figures from the Bible.














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  27. I love these posts! i am somehow very interested in the art you write about...yet I have never progressed past stick figures.

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  28. I like arty posts like this, talking about the history behind the art.

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  29. art illuminating cultural values in such an in your face way. i love it!

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  30. G'day CC. Great post, very interesting. I was in Venice a couple of years ago and I really liked the place. Shame I didn't find out a bit more of it's history before going as I knew nothing of any of that until reading your story.Take care. Liz...

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  31. I've always founf Italy and it's cities one of the most magnificent and intriguing places on earth. I am also impressed by your knowledge and interest in art. Keep blogging! I read yout other posts too...YOU'RE AN AMAZING CHATTERBOX

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  32. thanks for sharing.

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