By Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., Georgia State University
You don’t have to be a Marxist to notice the often astonishing overlap between big money and big religion. Nor to be somewhat shocked by the bigness of the whole affair.
Consider the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, one of the most popular and most-densely populated tourist destinations in Italy, nearly rivaling its much larger cousin in Rome. It is a striking monument in every way, not least for the bizarre mish-mash of architectural elements and artistic styles that define this most funky profile.
It’s a beautiful monument, and quite possibly the single most famous piazza in the world, but it’s a crazy kind of beauty.
The Church of San Marco in Venice is as much a testimony to the mercantile spirit–and the sheer rapaciousness–of the Venetians as it is to the catholicity of their faith. Stolen columns and bronze horses, the stolen corpse of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the stolen autograph copy of this same Mark’s Gospel—all of this, and much more, eventually found a home in this most opulent jewel of this Most Serene Republic.
The general plan of the shrine dates back to the 800s, with the floor plan of the Greek cross borrowed from the Byzantines, and the five onion domes borrowed from the Muslims. This unique Venetian aesthetic—of semi-shameless borrowing and creative thievery—defines the unique place this sanctuary holds in the history of art and of empire, alike.
Christian legend has it that Mark the evangelist laid over on one of the islands in the Venetian lagoon, while en route from Aquileia to Rome. It was there that he received an angelic vision, greeting him with the words Pax tibi, Marce evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum, “Peace unto you, Mark my evangelist; your body will rest here.” A suspect story, since Mark’s Greek was poor and his Latin non-existent, but this didn’t keep the Venetians from carving the first half of this famous Latin phrase under the paw of nearly every winged lion that graced every major port or entranceway in the empire.
In any event, some ambitious Venetian merchants brought the prophecy to reality when they carted Mark’s corpse away from the then-Arab port of Alexandria, and gave it as a gift to the Doge, the elected short-term emperor of the Venetian Republic, who promptly commissioned the Basilica.
And so commenced the long, complicated story of religiously inspired Venetian looting. The city as a whole is awash in the corpses of Christian luminaries, from Jesus’s grandfather, Zeccaria, to early Christian martyrs like Lucia and Hieronymos, to a host of later Christian officials, administrators, and saints.
A closer look at the facade of Mark’s marvelous Venetian basilica reveals that hardly anything matches. It is as if things were taken from anywhere and everywhere, then placed wherever they seemed to fit. And that’s pretty much how it was. It’s almost as if your crazy uncle set out to build a church entirely from the things he found laying around in his attic. Columns in all sizes and shapes, gorgeously marbled stone in various colors—all of this was carted back to Venice by ambitious Venetian merchants, from places as distant as Sicily, Ravenna, Constantinople, and points farther to the east.
But surely the crowning ornament—and the most shocking act of rapacious self-aggrandizement—came during the now-notorious Fourth Crusade, led by the Venetian Doge, Enrico Dandalo, in 1204. The Venetians were the only power at the time with the naval resources to transport such a large land army. And so they did, but at a cost. They essentially took the army where they needed dirty work done: to the rebellious port city of Zara on the Adriatic coast first, and then on to Constantinople. The city was taken after a long siege and ceded to the Franks, while the Venetians were content to load their boats with ill-gotten treasures, most notably a beautiful team of four bronze horses that now grace the front porch of the Basilica (copies of them, actually–the originals are inside). This is when the Venetian Republic began to style itself “Byzantium on the Adriatic.” But it was a stolen Byzantium at that.
The creation of that far-flung naval emporium that coincided with this ambitious architectural program was remarkable, and has left a surprisingly unified architectural style on much of the Mediterranean: from Venice, all along the Adriatic/Balkan coast and the Ionian islands, through the southern mainland of Greece and the supremely important island of Crete, then continuing east all the way to Cyprus. It is remarkable when you look at the map, how one relatively small city came into control of such a massive mercantile network (Venice was in this regard much like Singapore, five hundred years ahead of its time).
In the name of Saint Mark, the Venetians held onto it energetically and creatively for centuries, from the Fourth Crusade to the mid-1600s. But then the Ottomans entered the Mediterranean and essentially imitated the route of Venetian conquests in reverse–from Cyprus, through Greece, and all the way to the Ionian islands, which they never managed to secure for themselves.
Venice bounced back briefly under the Doge Francesco Morosoni, nicknamed Peloponnesiacus, for his significant retrieval of territory in southern Greece. But these Venetian gains came at a cost the Greeks paid themselves: Morosoni laid siege to Athens, where the Ottomans were holed up on the Akropolis, and were using the Parthenon as a powder magazine. Morosoni knew this… and promptly shelled the place. The explosion was heard on islands fifty miles away, locals thought it was an earthquake, and the destruction of artworks that had survived for some 2000 years was immeasurable.
True to form, Morosoni took the treasures that had not been blown to smithereens back to Venice, such as the monumental marble lions from the Athenian harbor—the Greeks called it Piraeus and the Venetians “Porte Leone” for the statues they coveted–and installed them at the monumental entranceway to the Venetian Arsenal.
And then, with astonishing suddenness, it all came undone. Such a thriving business center, with its titled Senatorial class and a wealth that earned it the nickname of “the Most Serene (Serenissima) Republic”… all of this was decidedly at odds with the egalitarian spirit of the French Revolution of 1789.
An up-and-coming general in the Revolutionary French army named Napoleon was in charge of operations in northern Italy. He surrounded the city with his artillery, like a latter-day Morosoni, and threatened to reduce the city to rubble if they did not surrender.
“I want no more inquisition, nor more Senate; I shall be an Attila to the state of Venice; the winged lion of Saint Mark must lick the dust,” he declared. So the city submitted, and the Venetian Republic gave way to the French Republic, and the territory of the Veneto was handed off to the Hapsburgs in 1797. But surprisingly, Napoleon did not loot Saint Mark’s, which would have seemed like symbolic payback.
No, he had his eyes set on Rome.
Napoleon’s revolutionary army continued south into the territory of the Papal States. French forces occupied Rome and looted the brand new Vatican Museum, completed just four years previously, and took everything of any value back with them to Paris.
And so the same, mad dance began anew.
Only this time the ill-gotten loot did not go to a church. It went to a museum, those preeminent temples of modern times.
When it comes to big churches, big money, big art collections, and big religion, the lions never lay down with the lambs.