Venice and the Islamic East

The Myth of how St. Mark’s bones were discovered and brought back to Venice:

“In the second year of Doge Giustiniano [828] the body of St. Mark was brought to Venice from Alexandria in Egypt.  It happened as follows.  The caliph of the Saracens had ordered the erection of a magnificent palace in Alexandria, but he lacked the construction materials necessary and decreed therefore that the marble columns be removed from the Christian churches of Egypt so as to be available for the new building.  Right at that tme the tributes Bobo di Malamocco and Rustico di Torcello–two prominent [Venetian] figures involved in large-scale trade–who despite a ban decreed a few years earlier, set anchor with three ships loaded with everything imaginable in the port of Alexandria, having been swept there by a fierce storm.  During their stay in Egypt the crew frequented Mass in the Church of St. Mark where the saint’s body was preserved.  One day Bobo and Rustico went to the church and found two Greek clergymen, the monk Stauracio and the presbyter Teodoro, in great despair.  They asked the clergymen what it as that troubled them and thus they learned of the caliph’s decree.  So the two Venetians said: ‘The precious treasury you preserve in your church is in grave danger of being desecrated and ill-treated by the Saracens.  Give it to us for we will know how to honor it as it deserves.  In recognition our doge shall not fail to bestow upon you great rewards.’  Persuaded by the Venetians’ reasoning, the two clergymen obliged: but first of all it was necessary to circumvent as much the watchfulness of the Christians of Alexandria as that of the Saracen customs agents.  The Christians were swindled by the shrewdness of the Venetians and their two Greek accomplices, who switched the body of the Evangelist with that of another saint, while the customs agents were decieved by the top of the box which, amongst the sacred relics, conatined ham and other cuts of pork meant  which, as everyone knows, was as offensive to the Saracens as it was the Jews.  When the box was opened at the customs office, the agents began to cry ‘khinzir, khinzir! a word that certainly expresses repugance and horror, and of course they authorized the consignment straight away.  Bobo and Rustico joyfully transported their treasury to Venice. ”

Carboni, Stefano. Venice and the Islamic World, 828-1797. New York: Yale University Press, 2007. 14

The first recorded contact Venice had with the Islamic Eastern world was in 828, the year that two Venetian merchants removed the relics of St. Mark the Evangelist from a Coptic church in Alexandria. The relics were brought back to Venice and presented to Doge Giustiniano Partecipazio, the Doge who commissioned the first Palazzo Ducale. Giustiniano’s successor, Giovanni Partecipazio began the construction of the Doge’s Chapel, today’s Basilica of San Marco. The myth of St. Mark emerged and Venice began to identify itself as the New Alexandria. With this cultural assimilation of eastern identity and the city began to expand its trade to the eastern and southern Mediterranean and became the port from which pilgrims left for the Holy Land. Although constantly interacting with the East, Venice was still considered Western and as such was placed in an unusual cultural crossfire.

Next:  A History of San Marco Basilica

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