In the Footsteps of the Apostles-Part 3
- THE SOUL OF VENICE
Mark the Evangelist is indelibly associated with pride in place: No historical figure is more clearly linked with Venice than her patron saint. His square is the heart of Venice, his basilica the center of its ancient faith. Mark's symbolthe winged lion, its paw upon the open Gospelis as ubiquitous in Venice as the gondola. For the Venetians of the ninth century and after, "Viva San Marco!" was the battle cry, and legends of St. Mark are entwined with the earliest roots of the Venetian Republic. And yet, tradition tells us, Mark died a martyr in Alexandria, Egypt. How did he gain such importance in a Western city-state?
In the delicate balance of political one-upmanship in ninth-century Italy, a young power bound for greatness required theistic no less than military legitimacy. As its patron, the city needed not the third-string dragon slayer it had, St. Theodore, but a titan among saints. And so was born a masterstroke of shadow politics unrivaled in medieval history: In 828, presumably on the orders of the doge, two Venetian merchants named Bono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello stole the remains of St. Mark from his tomb in Alexandria or, some say, conned it from the possession of local priests. Returning to their ship, the conspirators put the saint's remains in a basket, covering them with pork to discourage official entanglements. When Muslim port authorities stopped the thieves and peered into the basket, they recoiled in disgust, crying "Kanzir! Kanzir!""pig" in Arabicand commanded the Venetians to hurry along. On the voyage home, legend tells us, a tempest blew up off the Greek coast. St. Mark, his remains lashed to the mast, quieted the storm, saving the vessel. However embroidered by legend, this brazen theft of the Evangelist's relics gave the fledgling republic a spiritual cachet matched in all of Latin Christendom only by that of St. Peter's Rome. This extraordinary coup set in motion brilliant successes that brought forth a Venetian superpower.
From the earliest days of the Republic, "St. Mark was the flag of Venice," Gherardo Ortalli, a medievalist at the University of Venice and a leading expert on St. Mark, told me. "I don't think there are other examples of saints who were so important politically. Wherever Venice left her imprint, you find Mark's lionin Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Alexandria. On the old Venetian gold coin, the ducato, St. Mark offers the flag of Venice to the doge."
And what of the saint's relics? Are the remains entombed in the sarcophagus in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice really his? What of the skull in Alexandria that the Coptic Church claims belongs to the saint? What of the relic, possibly a bone fragment, said to be Mark's, given to Egypt by the Vatican in 1968, in effect as an apology for the ninth-century theft? Are any of these relics, including that tiny piece of bone in the church in Kerala attributed to Thomas, genuine?
"It's not important if they have the real bones or not," Ortalli said, "because in the Middle Ages they had a very different mentality. You could have 50 fingers of a saint. It wasn't a problem."
For scientists, nonbelievers, many believers, and perhaps for the forensic Thomas, 50 fingers of the same saint is a problem. Even the Catholic Church calls in pathologists to examine, date, and preserve relics in the church's possession. Based in Genoa, Ezio Fulcheri is a devout Catholic and trained pathologist who has worked on church relics for decades. He has studied and preserved the remains of many saints, including John of the Cross and Clare of Assisi, a friend of St. Francis's. "Whenever we can find a relic that is clearly not authentic," Fulcheri said, "we acknowledge that. The church does not want false relics to be venerated." But what of those relics, like St. Mark's, that have yet to be tested? Scholars, scientists, and even clerics within the Catholic Church have called, without success, for scientific testing of the remains in Mark's sarcophagus. Clearly the church has little to gain, and quite a bit to lose, by testing bones of such critical importance. In the case of St. Mark, perhaps it's safer not to knowat least for now.
Not all scientists are eager to press too hard on holy relics. Giorgio Filippi, an archaeologist employed by the Vatican, told me he had opposed the recent analysis and dating of Paul's relics in Rome, announced by the pope in 2009. "Curiosity does not justify the research. If the sarcophagus was empty or if you found two men or a woman, what would you hypothesize? Why do you want to open St. Paul's tomb? I didn't want to be present in this operation." The subsequent investigation, through a finger-size hole drilled in the sarcophagus, produced a bone fragment the size of a lentil, grains of red incense, a piece of purple linen with gold sequins, and threads of blue fabric. Independent laboratory analysis, the church claimed, revealed that they dated to the first or second century. Not conclusive, but better news for the faithful than if they had hailed from the fourth century. The first-century date would mean the bones could be those of St. Paul. Until science advances to the point that testing can reveal fine details such as that the person was short, bald, and from TarsusPaul's presumed birthplace on the Turkish coastwe're not likely to get much closer to the truth.
Mark's bones aside, I asked Ortalli if the pious of Venice pray to their patron saint.
"It's better to pray to the Virgin or to Christ," he said. "St. Mark is more complicated. Apart from the basilica, it is difficult to find a place to light a candle to St. Mark. He is many things, but you don't go to St. Mark with a candle." In Catholic and Orthodox churches believers often light candles to accompany prayers to the saints, mounting them before favored icons or statues. "St. Mark is part of [a Venetian's] identity," Ortalli continued. "It's something in your bonesyou have two feet, and you have St. Mark. When older people are drunk on the street late at night, they often sing, 'Viva Venezia, viva San Marco, viva le glorie del nostro leon.' Venice was constructed with a soul in which St. Mark is the center."
When the Venetian Republic was finally dissolved under Napoleon, the cry of mourning and defiance on the streets was not "Viva la libertà" or "Viva la repubblica" but "Viva San Marco."
By Andrew Todhunter
National Geographic Magazine