Some say Venice is the most beautiful city ever built by man, and it
is certainly one of the marvels of Christendom. Situated in a marshy
lagoon off the mainland of northern Italy, its inaccessibility
attracted the city’s founders, who sought refuge from the barbarians
who invaded their mainland homes. The invaders were from central Asia
and many could neither sail nor swim. It is here in the shallow lagoon
of the sixth century that the magnificent city was born. The islands
upon which Venice stands became home to aristocratic refugees, and
later a more modest working class.
By the 15th century the island city became the greatest marketplace
in the western world and the primary port of entry in Europe for food
and merchandise from Arabia, China, and India. Europeans traveled from
far and near to buy spices, gold, oil, animals, jewels, tin, copper,
ivory, ebony, paintings and mosaics in Venice. The center of the
marketplace was the Rialto, which Shakespeare used as his setting in
The Merchant of Venice.
Long before the founding of the city, however, St. Mark is said to
have traveled to the north of Italy and founded the first Christian
community there. When he was traveling back to Rome by sea, his ship
stopped at the islands which would one day become Venice. An angel
appeared to him saying “Pax tibi, Marce, evangelista meus. Hic
requiescet corpus tuum” (Peace unto you, Mark, my Evangelist. Here your
body will rest).
Although St. Mark traveled on to become Bishop of Alexandria in
Egypt and died there, two merchants returned to Venice from Alexandria
in A.D. 828, bringing with them the body of St. Mark. Venice then
adopted as its mascot a winged lion, which is the traditional artistic
symbol of St. Mark. The lion is always depicted gripping a book marked
with the angel’s words Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Mei.
In the centuries following, the Lion of St. Mark was to become
ubiquitous in Venice; it was displayed on everything from the great
cathedral down to the handles of daggers and the covers of prayer
books. Throughout the sixteenth century Venetian architects and city
planners worked with artists and craftsmen to create a city that was
thought to be a work of art. The heart of this masterpiece was the
shrine that eventually became St. Mark’s Cathedral. Its piazza is one
the most famous public square in the world: Piazza San Marco.
The finding of the relics
San Marco Cathedral
original St. Mark’s Church was destroyed by a fire in A.D. 976. After
the fire Venetians searched the ruble for the relics of St. Mark’s
body, but it could not be found. When the new basilica was completed, a
solemn fast was called and prayers were offered in hopes that the lost
relics would be revealed. On June 25,1063, as a procession moved
through the new basilica, a bright light suddenly shone from a pillar
near the altar of St. James. Part of the wall of masonry fell away, and
a sweet fragrance filled the church. It was here that the body of St.
Mark was rediscovered. It had been bricked into the wall by a careless
traditionally known as a city of aristocrats who have lived in luxury
since the tenth century, but the working men of Venice and their
families were the great contributors to Catholic life and society.
While many of the aristocrats idled their time away on superficial
pleasures, the renaissance working man labored hard to support his
family, yet was rewarded more than adequately by generous employers.
Religion played an important role in the life of a Venetian worker,
and all working-class families went to Church each week and took part
in the many Church festivals. Assisting the workers in stable family
and work life were the scuole (plural of scuola, literally meaning
“school”) — confraternities or guilds founded by the Dominicans and the
Franciscans after their arrival in the 13th century. Although the
scuole were founded by priests they existed as charitable fraternities
of laymen grouped together either by trade — gondoliers, shipyard
workers, painters, fishermen, etc.—or according to ethnic background —
there was one for Armenians, one for the Greeks, one for the Slavs, one
for the Albanians, and so forth.
Since the workers of medieval and Renaissance Venice had no
political input, the scuole became a substitute for political activity.
The members of each scuola elected their own officers and paid annual
dues. Each scuola also devoted itself to a particular saint and each
performed a particular work of charity throughout the year. The scuole
granted girls’ dowries, distributed sacks of flour to the poor, gave
pensions to widows and the elderly, and provided for orphans. They also
served as friendly social societies, which celebrated the feast days of
their patron saints with grand pageants.
These scuole provided small communities for the Venetian working
class people, it strengthened their family life and supported one
another through tough times, it helped educate the children and
strengthened the faith of its lay members. Unlike many other areas of
Europe which experienced great strife due to a clash between the rich
aristocracy and the poor working-class, Venice was remarkably free from
strikes, riots and revolutions. Aristocrats, who usually paid the wages
to the working man, were cordial to the lower classes and the working
men were respectful of the aristocracy.
Jesuits of Venice
Santa Maria Cathedral
the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a period of decadence set in
throughout Europe. Venice was not spared. The Church at that time was
forced to establish criteria for the production of art and books. The
Church implemented strict regulations on the Catholic people—almost all
Venetians were Catholic—to protect them from falling into grave habits
of personal sin. This was exemplified by the Society of Jesus, which
was founded in A.D. 1540 by St. Ignatius of Loyola to combat the rise
of Protestantism and to reform the intellectual and moral life of the
The Jesuit order was organized as a spiritual army, and its soldiers
were found in every school, university, library, courtroom and church
through the city. Highly disciplined, the Jesuits attracted outstanding
men to their ranks. They soon came to dominate the intellectual life of
Venice and were very influential through the city. Although they were
an excellent influence upon the working-class of Venice, the
aristocrats had no trouble ignoring them in their complete turning away
is still considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the
world. However, due to its precarious siting on a marshy lagoon, the
foundations of the city are deteriorating. Some 40% of Venice’s
buildings are uninhabited because they are too expensive to upkeep;
many are simply eroding.
In 1966, Venice was hit by a major flood that destroyed many of the
buildings in Venice. On the evening of November 3 of that year water
began to spill over into the streets and piazzas of the city. Venetians
were not alarmed, however, because they were used to the natural high
tide to spill a little water into the streets. What did alarm them was
that when the time for ebb tide came the waters did not recede. Five
hours later another high tide flooded the city even deeper, and
eventually the streets of Venice were flooded with more than six feet
of water, the city’s highest flood in recorded history.
Twenty-four hours later relief came: the water began receding — not
slowly as it usually did, but rapidly, with the force of a miracle.
Within three hours all of the flood water was sucked out to sea and
Venetians once again were able to walk on pavement.
Since then Venetians have become more conscious of the vulnerability
of their city. Many efforts have been undertaken over the past decades
to “save” the city through conservation efforts. But whatever the fate
of Venice is, the city will always be known as the work of art built
upon the mudflats of lagoon islands and dedicated to St. Mark the