Venetians are fierce in their love for their city and their pride in its history, culture and beauty. For 1100 years, Venice held its independence despite significant pressure from Rome to adopt Roman law, politics and church. It’s a demonstration of faith in a city that’s slowly sinking into the sea.
As all tourists must do, we toured the palace of the Doge and St. Mark’s Basilica. We entered the Doge’s palace through a courtyard, magnificent in itself and demonstrating three different styles of architecture. The stairway into the palace is covered in 24 carat gold leaf. The Golden Staircase was intended to impress visitors to Venice, particularly those from foreign countries. Impress it does. The gold is everywhere. On the walls, the ceilings, surrounding the endless works of art. Tintorettos abound, massive paintings covering walls and ceilings, most with religious themes connecting the Doge to the church. And of course, reminding anyone who entered of the power of the church.
The church in Venice, though, shares space with statues and art dedicated to peace and justice. As our guide explained, Venetians believed that if their society had these two attributes, it would make for an excellent way of life. My husband and I pondered one morning which would have to come first. Justice first to establish peace? Or a desire for peace fuelling a fair system of justice? My guess – the desire for peace must exist to fuel a fair system. But it was something of a circular discussion.
The approach to justice was progressive for the time, although that’s not to say there weren’t significant excesses and abuses of power. If you were found to have committed a crime, you would be marched swiftly from the rooms in the Doge’s palace dedicated to court proceedings across the Bridge of Sighs to prison. The cells, we learned, were considered humane. Large in comparison to those in other European cities and generally limited to no more than four prisoners at a time. Prisoners were permitted frequent visitors. They received at least two meals a day, more if they had friends or relatives who could pay. They were reminded daily though of how they had fallen, receiving meals through holes in the walls of their cells that were deliberately low, forcing them to bend down to accept their food.
Also in the palace are grimacing faces sculpted in the plaster walls. Next to them are slots in the walls. These allowed Venetians to file complaints against fellow citizens, transgressions of the law. My husband referred to them as tattletale boxes. These complaints could not be done anonymously though. A complainant had to sign his name and have two witnesses agree to add their names. On the other side of the wall, the complaints were collected by two people, each holding a key to a separate lock so as to ensure no messing with the complaints. If, after an investigation, the complaint was unfounded, woe to those who made the accusation. Justice was not pleasant. The tattletale box we saw was dedicated to tax evasion. It occurred to me there are a few corporations whose names I might like to drop in.
We continued on to St. Mark’s Basilica, herded in amongst dozens of tour groups. The basilica is stunning, the gold leaf used here not just for accents and ornamentation. It covers the entire ceiling in intricate mosaics depicting the stories of the Bible. Our guide noted that because literacy was so limited, the pictures were essentially a “bible for the poor”. How ironic given the extreme presentation of the church’s wealth. Nowhere was it more extreme than a huge altar piece, facing away from main body of the church. Access was granted through turnstiles after paying an entrance fee. The entire piece, about ten feet wide and five feet high, depicts the twelve disciples and in particular, the story of St. Mark. The piece was covered in gold of course but that wasn’t all. Almost 2000 precious stones dotted the artwork – diamonds, rubies, emeralds. It glittered even in the limited light. The altar piece weighs close to two tons but can be swung around on a clever pivot system so that those who entered the church to worship could bask in its glory. I asked why it was turned away most of the time. Our guide explained first that it was intended only for the prayerful. And then she said, “And you paid your ticket.”
The main altar of the church has a sarcophagus that supposedly contains the bones of St. Mark. Originally the bones, so the story goes, rested in Egypt. Until two enterprising Venetians stole them, packed them in a basket full of pork so that the bones wouldn’t be questioned, and brought them back to Venice. Presumably, any inspection wasn’t thorough enough to notice a human skull amongst the pig bits. One member of our tour asked the guide if it was true the sarcophagus held St. Mark’s bones. She said she had no idea but she believed in God and therefore chose to believe the story. “It’s just a matter of faith.”