Venice and St. Mark's

No city in the world appeals more strongly to the poetic imagination than Venice. Her site, her people, her history, her institutions, her art, are all alike unique. Appearing first as a little group of fishermen’s huts on a sand bank in the midst of a waste of waters, her solitude and her humility afforded protection to successive bands of exiles flying from ancient cities of the main-land to escape from the scourge of the Northern barbarians, who thronged through the passes of the Eastern Alps to share in the spoils of the ruined empire of Rome. Secure within her broad moat of waves, her foundations were firmly set. Rising in the dawn of modern Europe, she linked the tradition of the old civilization to the fresh conditions of the new. She was independent from the first; her people framed their own institutions, and administered them for themselves. The destiny that ruled her beginnings seemed, as she grew, to have had no element of chance, but to have been determined by foresight and wise counsel. Her position was unrivaled. She lay fronting the East, but tributary rivers on either hand brought the trade of the Western main-land to her gates, while the Adriatic opened before her a broad pathway for commerce and for conquest.

In the character of her people intelligence and energy were combined with fancy and sentiment as in no other Western race. Not only were her statesmen the ablest, her merchants the most adventurous and the most successful, her sailors the best trained, her craftsmen the most skillful of their time, but her artists were the earliest to give fine expression to the new moods of the Middle Ages, her gentlemen were the first in Europe, and the first modern ladies were Venetian. She lacked, however, a poet. Her life and feeling found utterance in other modes of art. She was her own poem.

The affection in which she was held by her people had the depth and intensity of a passion. The large spirit of national patriotism was hardly felt in Italy during the Middle Ages. Its place was occupied by a narrow local sentiment which the natural and political divisions of the land stimulated often to a degree fatal to peace, to prosperity, even to honor. But in Venice this local spirit was justified by the peculiar conditions of her existence. She was nation as well as city to her people. “ First Venetians and then Christians” was a saying which stood her in good stead. First Venetians and then Italians was the abiding sense of her citizens. Cut off by the sea from the main-land, she held herself aloof, and through all her better days it was her steady policy to keep herself free, from entangling alliance with any of the Italian states.

Her interests lay upon the sea, and she sought to extend her dominion over the islands and coasts of the Adriatic and the Ægean, over Crete and Cyprus, and to obtain settlement and power still farther east, rather than to increase her Italian territory. Her close relations with the East affected the character and temper of her people. The commerce with distant and strange lands developed in the Venetians not only foresight and gravity of counsel, strength of purpose, steadiness of will, firmness in peril, and calmness in success, but also the love of adventure, the taste for splendor, the sense of color, and a capacity for romantic emotion. The charm and mystery of the East pervaded the atmosphere of Venice. Mere trade became poetic while dealing with the spices of Arabia, the silks of Damascus, the woven stuffs of Persia, the pearls of Ceylon, or the rarer products of the wonderful regions whence travelers like Marco Polo brought back true stories that rivaled the inventions of Arabian story-tellers. The ships of Venice were indeed the signiors and rich burghers of the sea. Refinement increased with wealth, and while the feudal nobles of the main-land were still half barbaric in thought and custom, the civic nobles of Venice had acquired a culture that isolated them still more than they were separated by position and material interest from the natives of other cities.

Moreover, all that the Venetians acquired, whether of wealth or culture, was concentrated within the limits of their single city, and became an everaccumulating heir-loom transmitted from one generation to another. Seldom did civil discords and tumults, such as many a time devastated every other city of Italy, disturb her tranquillity; no factions of Neri and Bianehi, of Guclf and Ghibelline, divided her people into hostile camps; no army of barbarian invaders or of jealous neighbors ever sacked her houses or wasted her stores; no siege ever distressed her. And thus she grew from age to age in beauty as in strength. Her citizens were the first people of the modern world to acquire confidence in the perpetuity not only of the state, but of their personal possessions. Secure under just laws against domestic oppression, safe within the entrenchment lines of the lagoons, they built for themselves homes surpassing in stateliness and in beauty any homes of private men that the world had seen, — homes not only correspondent to their own love of splendor and of comfort, but to the lofty genius of the city.1

The perpetuity of Venice was a fixed part of the patriotic pride of her people. “ Imperium stabile, perpetuum et mansurum,” says Sabellico, the first, of the official historians of the republic; and Sansovino, writing seventy years later, in the middle of the sixteenth century, begins his description of the government of Venice with these confident words: “ The Republic of Venice, surpassing all other states in grandeur, nobility, wealth, and every quality that may conduce to the felicity of man, hath divers members, all well ordered, as is plainly evident, since through their good disposition it hath endured for one thousand, one hundred and sixty-five years, and gives sign, moreover, that it will endure forever.” 2

With such faith in their city, and such reason for it, and with affection for her quickened by the constant appeal of her material beauty, it was not strange that in the imaginations of her people Venice became personified as a half-divine ideal figure. She is the only city of modern times that has shared and has deserved to share this distinction with Rome and the other great cities of the ancient world. A mythologic legend concerning her origin and destiny gradually formed itself, in which Christian and pagan symbols were curiously intermingled, and which the Renaissance found half ready to its hand when, in accordance with its general spirit, it proceeded to introduce the deities of Olympus in harmonious cooperation with the Virgin and the saints, for the protection and exaltation of the favored city. In almost every other city of Italy,—in Verona, in Mantua, in Florence, in Siena, in Padua, — one finds the attempt of chroniclers and artists to have been to connect the early legendary history of their respective towns with the glories of Rome. Rome was mistress of all Italy except Venice. Here she had no dominion.

Christian to her core, devout in spirit, her history abounding in miracles, her imagination touched by domestic legends of saints and relics, Venice was yet as independent in her ecclesiastical relations as in her civil administration. The authority of the Pope, revered and acknowledged in all matters of faith, was steadily and successfully resisted in all matters that pertained to her own domain. She chose her own bishops; her priests were her own citizens. She admitted no divided claim to allegiance, and would endure no subordination of her authority, even in the church, to that of Rome. Her church was Venetian and not Roman, and that it was so only increased the fervor and constancy of her piety.

In the very heart of this unique and splendid city, and worthy of the city of which it was the most sacred and superb adornment, rose the church of her patron saint. Here was her treasure lavished, and her wealth consecrated; here her piety, her pride, her imagination, found expression, and here was the symbol of her power. It was under the banner that bore the winged lion of St. Mark that she won her victories and extended her dominion. The saint to her was more than St. George to England, or St. Denis to France, or St. John Baptist to Florence, or St. Peter to Rome. He was specially her own, for, according to the tradition which she cherished, she had been destined by the will of Heaven, long before she rose from the sea, to receive and guard the body of the, saint, and to flourish under his effectual protection. She believed, though the legend was never received by the church universal, that St. Mark had been sent by St. Peter as apostle to Aquileja, and that on his return to Rome his bark, driven by the wind, came to a landing on the low island which was the first site of the city of the lagoons. Here, while he was wrapped in ecstasy, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “ Pax tibi,Maree. Hic requieseet corpus tuum.” (Peace be with thee, Mark. Here shall thy body rest.) The angel went on to prophesy that a devout and faithful people would here, after many years, build a marvelous city (mirificam urbem), and would deserve to possess the body of the saint, and that through his merits and prayers they would be greatly blessed.

St. Murk was martyred and buried in Alexandria. Centuries passed Venice had founded herself solidly upon the sand heaps of the Rivo Alto and the salt marshes around it. She was gaining consciousness of independence and strength, and her people had established for themselves a settled social and political order, under which they were prospering, when, according to another popular legend, in the year 829, two Venetian merchants, Buono, tribune of Malamocco, and Rustieo, of Toreelio, sailing in tlie Mediterranean with their vessels, for the purposes of trade, were driven by stress of weather to take harbor in the port of Alexandria. There was an edict at this time forbidding the Venetians to have any dealings with the Saracens, or to repair to their ports. The Venetian merchants, compelled to seek safety in Alexandria, visited the church in which the bones of St. Mark were preserved and venerated. Now a certain Regulus, a ruler over the Saracens, was building a splendid palace in the city of Cairo, and was seeking for columns and slabs of marble for its adornment, taking them from sacred no less than profane edifices. The guardians of the church where the relics of St. Mark were worshiped were in fear lest it might be despoiled and desecrated, and the Venetian traders, finding them depressed and anxious, proposed to them secretly that they should allow the body of the saint to be carried to Venice, where the angel of the Lord had prophesied it would find its final resting place. This they did in the hope that by carrying home so precious a treasure their disobedience of the edict against visiting the ports of the Saracens might be atoned for and forgiven. After long and doubtful debate Staurazio, a monk, and Teodoro, a priest of the church, consented to the proposal. But they feared the wrath of the people if the removal of the relies should be discovered. The body of the saint, wound in silken wrappings of which the edges were scaled, lay within a shrine. To conceal its removal the wrappings were cut open behind, and the body of Santa Claudia was artfully substituted for that of St. Mark, so that when, altraded by a sweet and pungent odor diffused from the displaced relies, the faithful docked to the altar, no trace of the pious fraud was visible. In the darkness of night and the fury of a tempest the body, laid in a basket and covered with leaves upon which was laid a quantity of pork, was carried from the church to one of the vessels. Certain officers of the Saracens, seeing the Christians bearing away this load at this strange time, were fain to know what it was, and opening the basket, and finding the swine’s flesh, turned from it in disgust and allowed the sacred burden to pass on its way. The voyage to Venice witnessed many miracles, which gave assurance of the willingness of the saint to be transferred to his destined abode. Pardon for their disobedience was readily granted to the merchants in consideration of the priceless gift which they brought to Venice, and the Doge Giustiniano Partecipazio went, accompanied by the clergy, to the vessel, and with greatest reverence bore the holy relics to the ducal chapel, where they were deposited till a more fitting resting place could be prepared for them.

The Doge at once began the construction of a new church, but he had hardly put his hand to it before his death, in the same year, and the work was left to be carried on by his brother Giovanni, who succeeded him in the dogeship.

This first church of St. Mark’s, erected about 829, stood for nearly one hundred and fifty years. One day in August, 976, a long-smothered hatred of the Doge Pietro Candiano broke out in open tumult. His palace was surrounded, the houses near it were set on fire, and the flames, reaching the palace, drove the Doge to take shelter in the church; but the fire soon seized upon this also, and the Doge, seeking safety in flight, was set upon by his enemies at the portal and barbarously murdered. The flames spread fast, and not till palace and church and more than three hundred houses had been destroyed did they cease their work.

One of the first cares of the successor of Candiano, Pietro Orseolo, was the rebuilding (recreare is the word used by the chronicler) of palace and church. There is no account of the character or progress of the work, but about seventy years later Domenico Coutarini, who was Doge from 1042 to 1051, began to remodel the church upon a new design, reconstructing the edifice, in the essential features of its plan, such as it now exists. The building begun by him was completed by his successor, Domenico Selvo, in the year 1071, and artists were employed to cover its domes and vaults with the splendid adornment of mosaics “ after the Greek manner.” The phrase of the chronicler is significant; for though to him it meant merely the manner of the degenerate Greeks of Constantinople, yet in truth their manner was an inheritance — wasted now and scanty indeed, still a true inheritance — from those Greek artists of the ancient time who had carved the bas-reliefs of the Parthenon, or designed the pattern for the woven peplus of Athena.

The church was complete, but its consecration was still delayed. Ever since the fire of 976, for now a hundred years, the body of St. Mark had disappeared. This was occasion, says the Doge Andrea Dandolo in his chronicle, “ of lamentation to the clergy, and of great depression to the laity.” It was not to be believed that the sacred treasure, the palladium of the city, destined for it by the decree of Heaven, had perished. Without it the new church must remain vacant of its chief dignity. It could not be the divine will that Venice should be deprived of her own special saint Now that at length the church was finished and adorned worthily to contain such a treasure, it was resolved, in June, 1094, to keep a fast throughout the city, and to make a most solemn procession through the church, with devout supplication to the Almighty that he would be pleased to reveal the place of concealment of the sacred relics. And lo! while the procession was moving, of a sudden a light broke from one of the piers, a sound of cracking was heard, bricks fell upon the pavement, and there, within the pier, was beheld the body of the saint, with the arm stretched out, as if he had moved it to make the opening in the masonry; and on one finger was a ring of gold, which, after others had tried in vain, was drawn off by Giovanni Dolfino, one of the counselors of the Doge.

The joy of the people was now as great as their grief had been before. The miracle quickened their devotion and excited their fancy, and on the 8th of October following, “ the church being dedicated to God, the reverend body was laid away in a secret place, the Doge, the primate, and the procurator alone knowing where.”3

The design of the new church, both in its general plan and in its details, was not copied from any existing edifice. It gave evidence in its conception of a quality characteristic of Venetian art at all times and in all departments, — the quality of independent and original treatment of elements derived from foreign sources. This is the distinguishing trait of the artistic races of the world, and this it is which gives Venice a higher rank in the history of the arts than that which any other mediæval Italian city can claim. Florence, indeed, at times presses her hard on the ground of originality, but even the Florentine artists were less inspired by the spirit which remodels traditional types of beauty into new forms, adapted to give expression to the special genius of a people of definite originality, than the great masters of Venetian architecture and painting. Whatever Venice touched she stamped with her own impress. She studied under Byzantine teachers, hut was not content merely to copy their works. She partook of the inheritance of Homan tradition, hut improved upon and modified its rules. She felt the strong influence of the Gothic spirit, — no other Italian city felt it so strongly; but instead of yielding her own originality to the powerful compulsion of the Northern style, she accepted its principles, not as ultimate canons of a fixed system, hut as vital and plastic elements for her own invention to work with, and created a fresh, beautiful, and complete Gothic style of her own.

The architect of St. Mark’s is unknown, but that he was a Venetian is evident from the exhibition of this prime trait of Venetian genius in his work. Constantinople and Home furnished him with separate elements of his design, which he fused into a composition neither Byzantine nor Romanesque, unexampled hitherto, only to he called Venetian, Adopting the. Greek cross for his groundplan, he placed over the point of intersection of its arms a central dome, fortytwo feet in diameter, connected by pendentives with four great arches that sprang from four piers of vast dimensions. Over each arm of the cross rose a similar but somewhat smaller cupola, each cupola, including the central one, having a range of small windows at its base, which seemed to lighten its pressure upon its supports. Through the piers ran archways in both directions, so as to open a narrow aisle on each side of the nave and transept. The level of the eastern arm of the cross was raised above that of the body of the church, to give space to a crypt beneath it, where, below the high altar, the relics of St. Mark were laid in their secret repose. A semicircular apse terminated the eastern end of the nave, stretching out beyond the end of the aisles, which were closed externally by a flat wall, but shaped within into small, also semicircular apses. The material of the structure was brick, but the whole surface of the building, within and without, was to be covered with precious incrustations of mosaic or of marble.

The form of the cross, the domes, the incrusted decoration, were all borrowed from the East, and all had their prototypes in Byzantine buildings. But the crypt and the apses and many of the details were derived from Romanesque examples; and the diverse elements of the two styles mingled here in harmonious combination.

How far the adorning of the church with mosaic and marble had advanced at the time of its dedication in 1094 cannot be told, but the work was not of a nature to be speedily accomplished, and the twelfth century may well have been drawing to its close before the completion of the elaborate and splendid covering of the walls. The consistent and steady carrying out of a system of decoration so costly and so magnificent is a proof of the interest of the Venetians in the work, and of the reality of that piety which was one of the constant boasts of the republic. The church was properly the chapel of the Doges, and, as such, under their immediate charge; but though successive Doges devoted large sums to its construction and adornment, the chief cost was doubtless defrayed by the offerings of the citizens, to whom, year by year, it became more and more an object of pride, and who saw in it the image of the faith and the power of the state itself. It became by degrees the centre of Venetian life, the type of the glory of Venice. And thus while the mosaics of its vaults and domes display the religious conceptions of the age and the sentiment and skill of a long succession of nameless artists, in like manner the slabs of marble and alabaster that cover pier and wall, the multitudinous carvings, and the priceless columns of marble exhibit no less plainly the persistent zeal of traders and men at arms in contributing for the adornment of their church the gains of their commerce or the spoils of their conquests. From far and near, — from the ruins of Aquileja or from the desolate palace of Spalato, from the temples of ancient cities along the coast of Italy or Asia Minor, from Athens or Constantinople, from the islands of the Ægean, from Sicily or Africa — were brought shafts and capitals, fragments of sculpture, blocks of colored stone, to be offeredfor the work of the church. It is a most striking indication of the prevalence of a genuine artistic spirit at Venice, not only that these objects should have been so widely sought, but that the successive master-builders should have had the genius to make such use of this medley of materials, supplied to them irregularly and without order, as to produce not a mere variegated patchwork of carved and colored ornament, but a skillful, harmonious composition, in which each detail seems to be calculated in relation to the general effect with hardly less intention and appropriateness than if all had been so designed from the beginning. Their success, however, lay in the fact that they worked upon a principle wholly diverse from those which controlled the builders of Gothic structures, — a principle which subordinated the effects of pure line and constructive form to those of color. The church was designed to afford broad, unbroken masses of wall for colored surface decoration, and the elaborate multiplicities of form peculiar to Gothic architecture were altogether unattempted. There have been no such colorists in architecture as the Venetians. It was as special a gift to them as the perfect sense of form was to the Athenians. Gifts such as these, limited to single races, to defined epochs, are not to be accounted for by any enumeration of external conditions. Their sources he concealed in undiscoverable regions. But their influence is to be traced in all the most characteristic expressions of the race, and may be perceived often in remote and varied fields of thought and of action. They appear not. merely in art and manners and language, but their subtle influence penetrates into all those relations of private or public conduct in which the imagination claims an interest. Of all the legacies of Athens to the world, none is more precious than the teaching of the intellectual value of form and proportion; of the many heir-looms that Venice has bequeathed, one of the best is the doctrine of the refined and noble use of color.

Though the original plan of the main building seems to have been that of the simple Greek cross, yet not long after its walls were erected an addition to it was begun, by which the western arm was to be inclosed within an atrium or vestibule upon its northern side and western end, and on its southern side with a chapel dedicated to St. John Baptist and an apartment for the sacred treasury of the church.4 This addition,in the course of the twelfth century, gave to the building that magnificent facade which is the most striking and original characteristic of its exterior. Upon the adornment of this facade the resources of Venetian wealth and art were lavished. It was enriched not only with precious marbles, but with carvings and mosaics, till it was made the most splendid composition of colored architecture that Europe has beheld. No building so costly or so sumptuous had been erected since the fall of the empire, and none more impressive in proportion to its size, none more picturesque, has been built in later times.

And in truth, not merely picturesque, but pictorial. The system of mosaic decoration with which arches, vaults, and domes were covered was intended not merely for ornament, but as a series of pictures for religious instruction. The Scriptures were here displayed in imperishable pictures before the eyes of those who could not read the written word. The church was thus not only a sanctuary wherein to pray, to confess, to he absolved, but also a school-house for the teaching of the faithful. It was like “avast illuminated missal,” its pages filled with sacred designs painted on gold. One of the inscriptions on its walls truly declares in rude rhyme, —


The scheme of its pictorial decoration includes the story of the race of man, his fall and redemption; the life and passion of the Saviour, and the works of his apostles and saints.

The ceiling of the atrium, or fore-court of the temple, was naturally, according to the order of thought of its designers, occupied with subjects from the Old Dispensation; and there appears to have been an obvious and impressive intention, as has been pointed out by Mr. Ruskin,5 in the conclusion of the series with the miracle of the fall of manna.

It was to direct the thoughts of the disciple to the saying, “ Your fathers did eat manna and are dead,” and to bring to his remembrance that living bread whereof “ if any man eat, he shall live forever.” Entering the central door of the church, he would see before him, dim in the distance of the eastern end, the mighty figure of the Saviour throned in glory, and uttering the words, —


Then turning, and looking upward to the wall above the door by which he had entered, the worshiper would behold the same figure, with the Virgin on one side and St. Mark on the other, Christ himself holding open upon his knee the Book of Life, on the pages of which is written,

“ I am the door; by me if any man enter in he shall he saved; ” and above, on the moulding of red marble around the mosaic, were the words, “ I am the gate of life; enter through me ye who are mine.” (Janua sum vitae; per me mea membra venite.)

It was thus that Venice received within the church of her patron saint the followers of the faith of which she boasted herself the bulwark and the hope.6

At the beginning of the twelfth century St. Mark’s was essentially complete. But such a building was not erected by contract, with the stipulation that it should be finished at a certain date. It was not, indeed, regarded as a work that admitted of definite conclusion, but rather as one to be continually in hand, to be made more excellent from generation to generation, the constant care of the state and of the people, an object of unceasing interest and of endless increase in beauty and adornment. There was never a time when some one of the arts was not adding to its embellishment. Of much that was done no record remains, but the history of the building can in part be traced from its own walls, in part from written records. During the twelfth century the Campanile was carried up above all the other towers of Venice, and from that time has been the most conspicuous signal of the city by sea or by land, It stands, after the common Italian fashion, detached from the church, with whose low domes and enriched arcades its own simple and stern vertical lines are a vigorous and picturesque contrast.7 For at least two centuries (1125-1350), the structures annexed to the main body of the church, and forming a part of it as seen from without, including the baptistery, the treasury, and the forecourt or vestibule, were slowly advancing toward completion and receiving their rich adornment of marble and mosaic. All this work corresponded in general style with that of the church, and was in harmony with its general design. But meanwhile a great change was going on in the taste of the Venetians. The influences of the East were losing ground before those of the West, and the Byzantine elements in Venetian architecture were giving place to those of Gothic art. It was about the end of the fourteenth century, or perhaps in the early years of the fifteenth, that all the incongruous but picturesque and fanciful mass of pinnacles and tabernacles, of crockets, finials, and canopies with pointed arches, which is in such striking opposition to the older and simpler forms of the building, was set up on the church. They enhance the impression of variety and wealth of adornment, they give a strange and complex character to the façade, but they serve no constructive purpose; they are mere external decoration; and though their effect is brilliant and surprising, it is not in keeping with the scheme of the earlier builders. These architectural adornments, with no meaning but to increase the richness of the front, have, indeed, a real significance as marking a change in the moral temper of Venice and a loss of fineness in her perceptions of fitness and of beauty. She was growing luxurious, sensual, and prodigal. A century earlier she had known how to use the forms of Gothic architecture with dignity, and with imagination all. the more powerful for being held firmly in restraint. But this new adornment of St. Mark’s indicated by its wantonness the beginning of a new epoch of Venetian art, in which architecture, sculpture, and painting, after having long united their powers to express the sentiment and faith of a high-spirited community, were to become the ministers to its ostentation and the servants of the luxury and display of private citizens.

The moral history of Venice for five hundred years is indelibly recorded on the walls of the church, the decoration of which had been the chief task of her arts; the arts are incorruptible witnesses, and form and color are undeniable indications of spiritual conditions. The testimony of mosaics and marbles concerning the character and aims of the Venetians corresponds with and is confirmed by the less instinctive evidence of the inscriptions set in the walls or engraved on the monuments of the dead buried within the church.

St. Mart’s, the chapel of the Doges, was used, not for religious services and ceremonies alone, but served as the gathering place of the people when great affairs were to be determined, and the Doge saw fit to summon the citizens to hear and to decide by their vote what course should be followed. Here, too, each Doge, upon his election by the council, was presented before an assemblage of the people, called together by the ringing of the bells, that the choice might be confirmed by the voices of the common citizens. “ We have chosen this man Doge, if so it please you,”8 were the words with which their consent was asked, and it was seldom that the people had reason not to be pleased with the choice. Then before all the people the new Doge, kneeling at the high altar, was invested by the primate with the ducal mantle, and received from his hands the red banner of St. Mark, the triumphant standard of the republic. Near the door by which the Doge entered the church from his palace, above the altar of St. Clement, was an inscription in letters of gold, addressed to the Doge himself; it was the monition of Venice to him: —



“ Love justice, render their rights unto all: let the poor man and the widow, the ward and the orphan, O Doge, hope for a guardian in thee. Bo pious toward all. Let not. fear, nor hate, nor love, nor gold betray thee. As a flower shalt thou fall, Doge; dust thou become, and as shall have been thy deeds, so, after death, shall thy guerdon be.”

The close connection of palace and church was the type of the connection between the politics and the religion of the state. There was no divorce between them in theory. The men who founded, built up, and administered the republic were, with few exceptions, men not merely pious, but in a noble sense religious. During the centuries of splendor and power of Venice, a standard of honesty, uprightness, and steady justice in the conduct of public affairs was maintained by her, superior to that of any other mediæval state. The qualities which distinguished the private dealings of her citizens were displayed in her public administration. Her merchants were men of honor, who valued their word. They knew that their prosperity and that of their city depended on the confidence inspired by their integrity. The habit of honest dealing became a ruling principle in Venetian character. There were cheats and thieves and traitors at Venice as well as elsewhere, but there was no laxity toward fraud, and the Venetian ideal of character was one in which honesty and justice were the first elements. The Doge Vitale Faliero, in whose time St. Mark’s was consecrated, died in 1096, and was buried in the portico of the church. Upon his tomb, enriched with mosaics of the Saviour, the Virgin, and the archangels of the last judgment, is an inscription of which the first lines render the old Venetian ideal:


The evidence of epitaphs, however doubtful as regards the character of special individuals, is trustworthy in respect to the qualities honored by the public. Through all the period of the best life of Venice, from the eleventh to the fourteenth century, the virtues of probity and justice are constantly cited as the chief titles to honor of the dead.

“ Justus, purus, castns, mitis, cuique placebat” is the praise of the Doge Sebastiano Ziani, who died in 1188. It was while this just, pure, chaste and mild man was Doge that St. Mark’s was the scene of one of the most striking incidents in Venetian annals, and one that so deeply impressed the popular imagination that a poetic legend concerning it sprang up and so flourished, with the aid of the church and of the arts, as for centuries to obscure the real facts of history. During the twenty years’ strife between Frederic Barbarossa and the Pope Alexander III., — a strife which distracted the whole Christian world, — Venice, though cajoled and threatened by either power in turn, had maintained an independent neutrality. At length the Doge, a man trusted and skilled in affairs, succeeded in prevailing upon the Pope and the emperor to meet in Venice, where, after long and difficult negotiations, terms of accord were settled upon between them. It was agreed that in token of reconciliation there should be a solemn service in which Pope and emperor should take part. The Pope, in presence of a vast multitude of spectators, received the emperor in the vestibule of the church, before the main door of entrance, and the place of this meeting was marked by three slabs of red marble inserted in the pavement.

Great as was the splendor of the scene, and great as its significance may have appeared to the chief actors in it and to the crowd of spectators, they did not appreciate its full meaning. It was in truth the sign of the decisive victory of the ecclesiastical over the secular power,

— a victory of which the consequences are manifest even in contemporary history. The event deserved commemoration, and the popular and ecclesiastical legend, though in great degree a pure invention, expressed more vividly than the true record the essential significance of the facts.

According to this legend, the Pope, poor and deserted, flying in disguise to escape the persecutions of Frederic, took refuge secretly in Venice, and being received into a monastery ministered to the brethren for some days as their cook. At length a Venetian, who had been on a pilgrimage to Rome and had seen the Pope there, recognized him under his disguise, and informed the Doge of his presence in the city. The Doge, accompanied by the clergy and the people, at once went to the monastery, and thence conducted the Pope, with all honor, to the palace of the Patriarch. Then the Doge sent messengers to the emperor to arrange terms of peace, but he angrily refused, bidding them tell the Doge that he demanded the surrender of the Pope, “ and if this be refused,” he added, ” I will come to take him by force, and will set my eagles on the very church of St. Mark.”

The Doge did not tremble when he heard these words. It was resolved to send out a fleet at once to meet the fleet of the emperor. That of the Venetians consisted of but thirty galleys, while that of the emperor numbered seventy-five. On the 26th of May, 1177, the Feast of the Ascension, the Venetians won a signal victory, with their thirty galleys capturing forty of the enemy’s vessels, and taking prisoner Otho, the son of Frederic and the captain of his fleet. Defeat only embittered the stubborn heart of the emperor. After a while Otho persuaded his captors to let him out from prison on parole, that he might try to turn his father’s mind to peace. Great was the joy of his father at seeing him. Then Otho told him that the rout of his armada had been due to no natural cause, but was a manifest judgment of God, and the sign of his displeasure with the emperor because of his persecution of the Pope; and he besought his father to make peace before the arm of the Lord should fall more heavily upon him. At last the stiff-necked Barbarossa yielded to the arguments and persuasions of his son, and the two set out for Venice accompanied by a great train of followers. The Doge and the people went out to meet the emperor, while the Pope in his pontifical robes remained standing on a pulpit that had been erected before the entrance of St. Mark’s. As the emperor drew near, the Pope left the pulpit, and entering the vestibule of the church awaited his approach. The emperor came, and overcome with awe at the sight of the vicegerent of the Lord whom he had so deeply offended and who had visited him with such heavy chastisement, prostrated himself upon the pavement, kissed the foot of the Pope, and prayed for pardon. Then the Pope said, setting his foot upon the head of the emperor, “ Super aspidem et basiliscam ambulabis, et conculcabis leonem et draconem,” or, as translated, “ Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.” (Psalms xci. 13.) The emperor, not yet humiliated so far as to endure patiently such indignity, replied, “Non tibi sed Petro” (Not to thee, but to Peter, do I humble myself); and the Pope answered, “ Et mihi et Petro.” (Both to me and to Peter.) Then the Pope raised him from the ground, and they entered the church with the Doge, all the clergy singing, Te Deum Laudamus.10

Such was the legend which was cherished by the Venetians and adopted by the church. It represents, better than the true history, the popular feeling of the time; and it is itself a piece of the history of St. Mark’s, as having exalted the pride of the Venetians in the church that had been the stage on which a scene Of such import had been transacted. As time went on, they connected these fabulous events with some of the chief dignities and chief festivals of the republic. Or all her festivals there was none more fanciful or more splendid, none which more clearly reflected her poetic temperament, than that of the annual espousal of the Sea by the Doge, on the day of Ascension. The actual date of the origin of this ceremony cannot be certainly fixed, and it seems likely that the custom began not far from the year 1000. But the later Venetians were apt to regard it as being in part, at least, a commemoration of the marvelous and fabulous victory, gained on Ascension Day, over the imperial fleet; and it was believed that the Pope had given to the Doge the first ring which was cast into the sea, as the bridal ring, the sign that as the wife to her husband, so the sea should be subject to the republic.11

Sebastiano Ziani, who thus accomplished peace between the two swords, died an old man in 1178. Fourteen years later a still older man, and one still more famous, was chosen Doge, Enrico Dandolo. The repute of the Venetians for wealth, for arms, for arts, was high throughout Christendom. Their energies were fresh and their spirit unexhausted. It was during the dogeship of Dandolo that St. Mark’s was the scene of incidents of hardly less interest than those attending the pacification of Pope and emperor, and of which, fortunately, a vivid and trustworthy account by one of the chief actors in them has come down to us.

Dandolo had been Doge for six years when, in 1198, Innocent III. was chosen Pope. He was but thirty-seven years old, a man of resolute will, of ardent temperament, and with a political genius that made him not only the foremost statesman of his time, but gives him claim to rank with the ablest in the long line of the. successors of St. Peter. He had hardly become Pope before be devoted himself, with all the energy of his vigorous character, to inciting the rulers and the people of Europe to a new crusade. He recognized the effect of the crusades in increasing the authority and extending the jurisdiction of the papacy. There was no lack of motive to excite zeal in a new expedition for the recovery of the Holy Land. The true cross had been lost; Jerusalem was in the hands of the infidel; with the loss of Jaffa, in 1197, scarcely a stronghold remained for the Christians in Palestine, and the Latin kingdom was little more than a name. But Saladin, the great leader of the Mahometans, was dead, and his power had fallen into weaker hands. Let but a determined effort be made, and there was yet a chance to free Christendom from the ignominy of leaving the holy city of its Lord in subjection io the Saracen.

Innocent dispatched his briefs and sent his messengers throughout Europe, to rouse the hearts of men and to press upon them the new enterprise. He proclaimed an indulgence, by the terms of which all those who should enlist in the crusade and do the service of God for one year under arms should be relieved from all penalty for the sins of which they should devoutly make confession. Nowhere was the cause more ardently preached or the cross more readily taken than in the lands of France. The fervid eloquence of Foulques, priest of Neuilly, near Paris, stirred the blood of young and old, of high and low. Among those who pledged themselves to go across sea to fight in the cause of the Lord were Thibaut, the young count of Champagne and of Brie, Louis, count of Blois and of Chartres, both cousins of the king; Simon de Montfort, who had already served well in the Holy Land, and who was years afterward to acquire terrible repute in the miscalled crusade against the Albigenses; and, following the example of these leaders, many more of the chief barons of France. In the spring of 1201 the preparations had so far advanced that six envoys were sent to Italy to make arrangements for the embarkation of the crusaders from some Italian port. Furnished with full powers they proceeded to Venice, because they knew that there they would find a larger supply of vessels and of needful stores than at any other port. Geoffroy de Villehardouin, marshal of Champagne, was the head of the commission, and in his chronicle of the conquest of Constantinople he reported their proceedings, and the later doings of the crusaders, with a spirit, simplicity, and picturesqueness that make his narrative one of the most interesting and delightful pieces of early French literature, as well as the most important historical record of the events which he describes. His book affords such an image of the character and temper of the times as is not elsewhere to be found.

On the arrival of the envoys at Venice, at the season of Lent, in February, 1201, the Doge, “ a man very wise and of great worth,” welcomed them cordially and with much honor. Having presented to him their letters of credence, it was agreed that four days afterward they should lay their propositions before the council. At the appointed time “ they entered the palace, which was very rich and beautiful, and found the Doge and his council in a chamber, and delivered their message after this manner: ‘ Sire, we are come to you on the part of the high barons of France, who have taken the sign of the cross in order to avenge the shame of Jesus Christ and to reconquer Jerusalem, if God permit. And, because they know that no people have so great power to aid them as you and your folk, they pray you, for God’s sake, to have pity on the Land beyond the Sea and on the shame of Jesus Christ, and to take pains that they may have ships of transport and of war.’ ‘ In what manner? ’ said the Doge. ‘ In every way,’ said the envoys, ‘ that you can propose or advise, provided only they can meet your proposals.’ ‘ Certes,’ said the Doge, ‘ ’t is a great thing they have asked of us, and it seems truly that they are devising a high affair. We will reply to you eight days hence. And marvel not if the delay be long, for so great a matter needs much reflection. ’

“ At the time fixed by the Doge they went back to the palace. All the words that were uttered there I cannot report them to you, but the end of the conference was this: ‘ Gentlemen,’ said the Doge, ‘ we will tell you the decision we have taken, if we can bring our great council and the commonalty of our land to confirm it, and you shall consult together to see if you can agree to its terms. We will provide fit vessels to transport four thousand five hundred horses and nine thousand squires, and ships for four thousand five hundred knights and twenty thousand foot-soldiers. And we will agree to provision them for nine months. This is what we will do, at least on condition that four marks shall be paid for every horse and two marks for every man. And we will make this agreement to hold for one year, counting from the day we shall leave the port of Venice, to do service for God and for Christendom in whatsoever place it may be. The sum of this expense before-named amounts to eightyfive thousand marks. And thus much more we will do: we will add fifty galleys armed for the love of God, on condition that so long as our joint company shall last, of all the conquests we shall make of land or of goods, on sea or on land, we shall have one half and you the other. Now, then, consult and see if you can do and bear your part.’

“ The envoys went out, saying that they would talk together, and reply on the next day. They consulted and talked together that night, and agreed to do it, and the next day went to the Doge, and said, ‘ Sire, we are ready to conclude this convention.’ And the Doge said he would speak to Ins people about it, and would let them know what he found out.

“ The morning of the third day, the Doge, who was very wise and worthy, summoned his great council, and this council was of forty men, the wisest of the land. And he, by his sense and wit, which was very clear and good, brought them to approve and will it. Thus he brought them to it, and then a hundred, then two hundred, then a thousand, till all agreed and approved. Then he assembled at once full ten thousand in the chapel of St. Mark, — the most beautiful that can be, — and he said to them that they should hear a mass of the Holy Spirit, and should pray God to counsel them as to the request that the envoys had made to them. And they did so very willingly.

“ When the mass was said, the Doge sent word to the envoys that they should humbly beg the people to consent that the convention should be concluded. The envoys came to the church. They were greatly looked at by many people who had never seen them. By the consent and wish of the other envoys Geoffroi de Villehardouin took the word and Said to them, ‘ Gentlemen, the highest and most puissant barons of France have sent us to you, and they cry you merey, that you may take pity on Jerusalem, which is in bondage to the Turks, and that for God’s sake you would aid them to avenge the shame of Jesus Christ. And they have chosen you because they know that no people who are on the sea have so great power as you and your people. And they bade us fall at your feet and not to rise till you had promised that you would take pity on the Holy Land beyond the sea.’ ” The memories of the church were eloquent in seconding the appeal of the envoy. More than a hundred years before, the people had been summoned to St. Mark’s to deliberate as to the part that Venice should take in the first crusade, and had resolved to join in the holy enterprise. The favor of Heaven had attended them, and they had brought back with them, as a sign of its grace, the most precious body of St. Theodore, chief patron of Venice next after St. Mark, and the body of St. Nicholas, who was another of their heavenly advocates. Again, in 1123, they had met in St. Mark’s once more, to resolve, in the presence of the Lord, to take share in a new crusade; and again the fame of Venice had been increased by the deeds of her crusaders, her dominion had been extended, her power in the East augmented, and she herself had been enriched with new store of relics and with those stately columns that now stood at the edge of the sea, near to her palace and her church, monuments of the ancient glory of Tyre, transferred to the still more glorious modern city.

The voice of such memories and monuments as these was clear. There could be but one answer to the new call to help to rescue the sacred walls of Jerusalem. And so when Villehardouin had finished his address, he tell us that “ the six envoys knelt down weeping, and the Doge and all the rest burst into tears of pity, and cried out all with one voice, and stretched their hands on high and said, ‘ We promise it! We promise it! ’ Then there was such a great noise and uproar that it seemed as if the earth trembled. And when this great uproar was quieted, and this great emotion (and greater no man ever saw), the good Doge of Venice, who was very wise and worthy, mounted to the pulpit and spoke to the people, and said to them, ‘ Gentlemen, behold what honor God has done you! for the best people in the world have turned from all other people and have sought your company in so high an emprise as the deliverance of our Lord.’

“ Of the fair and good words that the Doge spoke I cannot report to you all; but the end of the thing was that they took till the morrow to draw up the papers. . . . And when the papers were completed and sealed they were brought to the Doge in the great palace, where were the great council and the little. And when the Doge delivered his papers to them he knelt down, and with many tears he swore upon the saints to keep in good faith the agreements that were in the papers; and all his council did in like wise. And the envoys on their part swore to hold to their papers, and that the oaths of their lords and their own oaths should be kept in good faith. You should know that many a tear of pity was shed there. Then the envoys borrowed five thousand marks of silver, and gave them to the Doge to begin the fleet; and then they took leave, to return to their own country.”

The news that the envoys carried to France of the good will and the promises of the Venetians was received with joy. But “ adventures happen as it pleases God,” says Villehardouin, and many things occurred to disarrange the plans of the leaders of the crusade. At length, after Easter, in May and June, 1202, the pilgrims began to depart from their country. Many of them journeyed to Venice, but not all who had promised to do so proceeded thither, so that when all who had gone there met together, they were greatly troubled, finding themselves too few in number to keep their bargain and to pay the promised money to the Venetians. Such as had come were received with joy and honor by the Venetians. They were all lodged on the island of St. Nicholas, near the city, and the army, though small, was “ very beautiful and composed of good folk.” The Venetians provided them well with all needful supplies, and the fleet which they had got ready was the finest any Christian man had ever seen, and sufficient for three times as many people as there were in the army. “ The Venetians,” says Villehardouin, “had fulfilled completely their agreement, and done much more even; and now they summoned the counts and barons to perform their part, and they demanded the money due them, for they were ready to set sail.” But when the price of passage had been paid for all the crusaders who had come to Venice, the sum fell short by more than half. After long and bitter debate, it was agreed by the crusaders, in order that the expedition might not be broken up, that each one of the rich men among them should give, over and above his share, all that he could spare or borrow. “And then,” says Villehardouin, “you might have seen quantities of fine plate of gold and silver carried to the palace of the Doge to make payment. And when all was paid, the sum still fell short by thirty-four thousand silver marks; and those who had kept back their property were very joyous, and would set nothing thereto, for they thought then that surely the army would fall and go to pieces. But God, who consoles the disconsolate, would not suffer it thus.”

“ Then the Doge spoke to his people, and said: ‘ This folk can pay no more, but let us not therefore break our word; let us agree that the payment of the thirty-four thousand marks which they owe us be postponed till God let us, we and they, gain this sum together, on condition that they help us to recover the strong city of Zara, in Slavonia, which the King of Hungary has taken from us.’ ” And so, finally, it was arranged.

“ Then they assembled one Sunday in the church of St. Mark. It was a very great feast, and the people of the land were there, and the greater part of the barons and pilgrims. Before the high mass began, the Doge of Venice, who was named Enrico Dandolo, mounted the pulpit and spoke to the people, and said, ‘ Gentlemen, you are associated with the best people in the world, for the highest affair that has ever been undertaken; and I am an old man and feeble, and have need of repose, for I am ill of body; but I see that no one could so govern and lead you as I who am your lord (sire). If you will permit me to take the sign of the cross, in order to guard and direct you, and my son to stay in my place and guard the land, I will go to live or die with you and the pilgrims.’ And when they heard him, they all cried with one voice, ‘We pray thee, for love of God, that you do this, and that you come with us.’ Very great was then the emotion of the people of the land and of the pilgrims, and many a tear was shed, because this worthy man might have had such great reason for staying at home; for he was an old man, and though his eyes were fair to look on, yet he saw not at all, for He had lost his sight through a wound on the head.12 But he had a very large heart. He came down from the pulpit and went before the altar and knelt down, weeping much; and they sewed the cross on the front of his tall cap of cotton, because he wished that the people should see it. And the Venetians began to take the cross in great numbers. Our pilgrims had great joy, and very deep feeling on account of that cross which he had taken, because of his wisdom and his prowess. Thus the Doge took the cross, as you have heard. Then they began to deliver the ships and the galleys and the vessels to the barons for setting sail, and so much time had passed that September [1202] was drawing near.” The resolution of the Doge, ninety-four years old as he was, is an effective illustration of the spirit that made the crusades possible, and not less of that which inspired the great works of church building of this period.

This is not the place to tell the story of the crusade, which did little for the honor of the cross, but in the course of which Constantinople was besieged and taken by the allied forces of the French and Venetians. From the pillage of the imperial city Venice gained many precious objects. Her piety was rewarded by receiving from the Doge as part of the booty a piece of the true cross, one of the arms of St. George, a part of the skull of St. John Baptist, the body of St. Lucia, — Lucia nemica di ciascun crudele, — the body of St. Simeon, and a phial of the blood of Jesus Christ. The crusaders were not of a temper to respect the priceless works of ancient art with which the city was adorned: the statues of marble were shattered, those of bronze melted down; but Dandolo interposed to save the four horses of gilded bronze that Constantine had carried from Rome to decorate his hippodrome, and in 1205 they were sent to Venice, and shortly after set up on the front of St. Mark’s, — a strange but striking ornament of its fanciful facade,13 and a permanent memorial of the share of Venice in the crusade.

The story of St. Mark’s is an epitome of the story of Venice. So long as Venice lived, St. Mark’s was the symbol and expression of her inner life. Among the noble works of men, few more beautiful, few more venerable, adorn the face of the world. It is the chief monument of one of the communities which in its time did most to elevate and refine mankind. For a long period the Venetians served as the advance guard of modern civilization, and their history can never cease to be of interest to the student of political institutions and of the highest forms of human society. “ From the top of the fair building of the tower of St. Mark’s,” says an old traveler, ‘‘you have the fairest and goodliest prospect that is (I thinke) in all the worlde. For therehence may you see the whole model and forme of the citie, sub uno intuitu, a sight that doth in my opinion farre surpasse all the shewes under the cope of heaven. There you may have a synopsis, that is a general viewe, of little Christendome (for so doe many intitle this citie of Venice), or rather of the Jerusalem of Christendome,” and among all the sights of this glorious city the chief is “the beautiful church of St. Marke, which though it be but little, yet it is exceeding rich, and truly so many are its ornaments that a perfect description of them would require a little volume.”

Charles Eliot Norton.

  1. The Casa Dario on the Grand Canal near San Gregorio, built about 1486, one of the most elegant of the smaller palaces of the Renaissance, bears on its facade the words “ Urbis Genio Joannes Darius.”
  2. F. Sansovino, Del Governo de’ Regni et delle Republiche. Venetia, 1567, p. 169.
  3. This secrecy was doubtless adopted in order to secure the body against the possibility of being a second time stolen. Thefts of relics were not uncommon in the Middle Ages. The wonder-working relics of a famous saint were the source of great profit to the church where they were preserved.
  4. It is possible, indeed, that the hall at the western end, with its triple portal, supporting a gallery, may have been part of the original design. It appears certain that it was constructed before the northern or southern additions. The exact dates are not to be ascertained, nor are they of great consequence, for the whole work belongs to the great period of creative activity and imaginative design throughout great part of Europe, extending from the close of the eleventh to the beginning or middle of the thirteenth century, 1075-1225.
  5. I am glad of the opportunity which the mention of Mr. Ruskin’s name affords me to refer to his Stones of Venice, and his recent, still incomplete St. Mark;s Rest, as the books from which a better acquaintance with the qualities of Venetian art and of Venetian character may be gained than from all others beside. The dry bones of history are changed to a body with a living soul by the inspiration of his genius.
  6. “ Sempre l'antemurale della Cristianità” was her own claim.
  7. The Campanile frequently suffered from strokes of lightning and from fire. In 1439, after its summit had been shattered by lightning, it was restored, and since then has remained essentially unaltered.
  8. This form lasted till the election of Francesco Foseari, in 1423, when it was disused,all semblance of a popular element in the state having by this time disappeared. “Suppose the people were to say No ; what would it matter ? ” asked the grand chancellor. “ Let us therefore only say, We have chosen this man Doge.” See Sanudo, Vito de’ Duchi, 966, E.
  9. Close by the tomb of this Doge is that of the young wife of his successor, Vitale Michele. She died in the first year of the twelfth century, and the inscription which commemorates her virtues gives us a conception of the Venetian ideal of the womanly character at that early time. This record of one of the long train of fair Venetian women, deficient as it is in literary art, but with the grace of childish simplicity, adds an association of tenderness to the historic memories of St. Mark’s : —
  10. Cultrix vera Dei, cultrix et pauperiei; Sic subnixa Deo quo Irueretur eo ;
    Comis in, affatu, nullis ouerosa dueatu ;
    Vultu mitis eras, quod foris intus erat.
    Calcavit luxum, sutfugit quemque tumultum
    Ad strepitum nullum cor tulit ipsa suum
  11. See Sanudo, Vite de' Duchi, col. 511. This famous legend for centuries was very widely adopted, not merely by unscrupulous partisans of papal pretensions, but by many veracious historians. Even Daru, in his Histoire de Venise, i., 230 seqq., maintains it in spite of the fact that Muratori, and before him Sigonius, and Baronius had exposed it as a tissue of fables. A thorough examination of the subject by the Nobile Angelo Zon is to be found in Cicogna, Inscrizioni Veneziane, iv., 574-593. A series of pictures on the walls of one of the apartments of the Palazzo della Repubblica, at Siena, painted by Spinello d’Arezzo in 1407-8, represents the scenes of the story. Siena was proud of being the birthplace of Alexander III.
  12. “ Uti uxorem viro, ita mare imperio reipublicae Venetae subjectum,” — these were the words of the Pope; or, according to another version, Te, fili, Dux, tuosque successores aureo annulo singulis annis in die Ascensionis mare desponsare volumus, sicut vir subjectam sibi desponsat uxorem, quum vere ipsius custos cense aris, quare ab infostantibus nostrum mare quietasti total iter Sanudo, Vite de Duchi, col 510.
  13. Dandolo had been blinded when Venetian envoy at Constantinople, in 1171, by Manuel Comnenus, Emperor of the East. His blindness does not seem to have been complete. His descendant, the Doge Andrea Dandolo, says simply in his chronicle, “ Emannuel itaque erga Venetos furore accensus, se eos ad nihilum redacturum adjurans, in legates, dum ea quae pacis erant requirerent, injuriose prorupit. Cui Henricus Dandolo pro salute patriae constanter resisteus, visu aliqualitar obtenebratus est. Qui illatam injuriam sub dissimulatione secretam tenens, una cum socio Venetias redeunfc.” Lib. x,, ch. 1, § 4. The “ pro salute patriae is a true touch of the Venetian spirit.
  14. After the overthrow of the republic they were carried in 1797 to Paris, but were restored, as an inscription curiously out of place on the front of the church records, by the Emperor of Austria, Francis I., in 1815.