PIETY and ecclesiastical observances were very favourite amusements with the Venetians, so much so, that some native historians have assigned that as the final cause of the long prosperity of the city. The great event in connection with this passion, one of the most remarkable in the history of relics, was the translation of the body of St. Mark from Alexandria to Venice, where it was in the course of three centuries enshrined in a church of the highest value in the history of Medieval architecture, and especially in the art of mosaic, examples of which it has preserved of various kinds and dates, while they have disappeared by time and accidents in Rome and elsewhere. Besides, St. Mark and his lion appear in a hundred different pictures of the school, they were bound up with the very life of the city, and became identified with it more completely than any other patron-saint ever was with the locality under his charge. So self-sufficient did the piety of the Venetians become, and so confident were they in the efficiency of their patron, that the Roman ecclesiastics said, with irony, that Venice had a pope of its own, Il papa Marco.
By the middle of the Ninth Century the sailors and merchant adventurers of the Lagoon had excelled all others on that side of Italy, and absorbed nearly all the trade of the East. At that time, Alexandria being under Mahomedan rule, a little fleet of Venetian ships was lying in the harbour there, when the church wherein lay the remains of the Evangelist was pounced upon by the ruling powers, and the coloured marbles with which it was lined carefully removed for the purpose of decorating a rising palace. The Mahomedans were by no means unmindful of relics, but the priests belonging to the church were frightfully agitated lest the holy body should suffer profanation. The Venetian merchants, whose plans were laid, came to their aid, offered their ships as a temporary asylum for the precious burden, and, having once got it on board in a basket, put to sea. Theft was indeed the only way in times of peace such invaluable objects could be acquired, Mahomedans as well as Christians held them so tenaciously; but this did not seem to displease the saint, who forthwith began a career of miracle working, warning the captain of the particular ship to whose yardarm the sacred basket had been attached, in fear of the examination for contraband goods, to furl his sails, and so forth. When safely landed at the spot now occupied by the church of San Francisco della Vigna (which still possesses one of the earliest pictures of the school, the colossal Virgin of Negroponte), an angel was said to address him with the words Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus, words afterwards placed on the open book under the paw of the lion, and the mad joy of the people overflowed in feasting, music, processions, and prayers. The former patron, St. Theodore, was laid aside for the Evangelist, and, by the help of the Greeks, the most wonderfully rich mass of building, golden mosaic within and crusted marble of many colours without, began to rise.
And yet it has been questioned whether any bones or body of a saint was ever brought there. Two centuries after, in 1094, the Emperor Henry III. made an express pilgrimage to the shrine, when its contents could not be found, had disappeared, temporarily withdrawn themselves, as it was said. This untoward affair cast the city into mourning, until one morning the Sacristan perceived, on entering the church, a fragrant odour, and a brilliant light issuing from a particular column. At first he feared a fire was breaking out, but on approaching he saw a human arm protruding from the stone. Very soon Doge and bishop, with priests in hundreds, were kneeling before the rent and illuminated column, when the protruding hand dropped a ring from one of its fingers into the bishop’s bosom. The solid mass opened, and an iron coffin was visible, in which were the remains of St. Mark. This was on the 24th of July, ever after kept as a feast; but, strange to say, since that time the burial place of the body has remained unknown. The secret was said to be confided to a few, but, indeed, the next Doge (or rather Carossio, the usurper of the Doge’s throne) has been accused of stealing the relics. The ring, itself a sufficient curiosity, was stolen, and disappeared in 1585.
In connection with this church, the art of mosaic, which had been practised long before by Greeks at Ravenna, entered Venice. With the mosaists came other artists, and on the island of Murano, besides the glass-workers, various Byzantine craftsmen began working. It is to this island and to these painters, of whom, however, individually we know nothing, we must look for the beginning of all the arts in Venice.
The two outlying islands, too far away from the seventy or eighty on which the city stands to be considered a part of it, Torcello and Murano, are long strips of still thickly inhabited houses, with symptoms of antiquity as great as any part of the capital. To the last named island the manufacture of glass was confined by the government, and held in the profoundest secrecy; but there can be no doubt this secrecy was initiated by the workmen themselves, who were foreigners, and that the workshops of Constantinople continued to a rather late time to export objects of art of all sorts, glass and pictures in particular, not only to Venice, but to all the coast towns of Italy. During the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Centuries the whole interior of Italy was overrun by northern conquerors, and production had entirely ceased. This being the case, the cities along the coast, Venice, Ravenna, Ancona, and round by Naples to Genoa, the rival at a later time of Venice, were better off than interior towns. Late Roman art during this period dies out.
Venice itself, dating from this period, had no traditions whatever. No antique spirit inspired sculpture as at Pisa and Rome, nor even at a later time did it practically adopt the Renaissance, especially in architecture, like the rest of Italy. There seems to have been, in the early Venetian temper, a dislike to adopt benefits of an intellectual sort from the terra firma which the island power had subjugated, from Padua and Verona particularly; and the advantage of trade with the capital of the Eastern Empire continued the Byzantine influence in other matters. At the same time we must recognise in the architecture of the advancing city a quite independent character: sculpture there was none under Greek religious influence. It must be remembered also that Eastern Art not only continued its traditional forms and conditions, it retrograded; and its pictures gradually became more hieratic, parting from living nature altogether at the very time free artistic impulses were beginning in the West.
We must not, therefore, expect to find any authentic pictures dating very early in Venice. There were painters on the Continent a century earlier. Giotto’s noble work in the Arena was accomplished at the very commencement of the Fourteenth Century, 1306, and yet near as it was, and in the territory of the Republic, it appears to have had no influence on the painters of Murano; the most prosperous state in Italy, Venice, at that day continued without painters, and imported its art with its manufactures.
The existing specimens of native mosaics, according to Kugler, are the mosaics in the church of St. Cyprian, in the town of Murano, completed in 882, representing the Virgin between saints and archangels. With incomparably more force, however, he says, the Byzantine type is represented in the Church of St. Mark, that curious fabric being begun in 976, at the latest, the earliest wall and cupola pictures therein go back to the Eleventh, and perhaps to the Tenth, Century. The floor, the walls, and the pillars, half-way up, were covered with the most costly marbles, while the rest of the interior upper walls, waggon-roofs, and cupolas, comprising a surface of more than forty thousand square feet was covered with mosaics on a gold ground ; a gigantic work which even all the wealth of Venice spent six centuries in patching together. Thus it is that we find all the successive stages of development in these mosaics, down to ” the lowest mannerism of the school of Tintoretto,” perpetuated in the edifice. Many of the earlier are so noble in design, and so curious in an archaeological and mythological point of view, that it is surprising they have not been more studied and reproduced. The single figures are for the most part conventional and similar to others of the same personages elsewhere; but the long series of subjects from the Bible, beginning with the first verse of Genesis, are full of thought and mystical beauty. In all those showing the progressive stages of creation, God is represented in light yellow and bright garments, partly white, not as in later Art in deep red and blue approaching to black. He stands calmly, as he does not fly with rolling draperies and great feet extended, as in Michelangelo, or in Raphael’s imitation of the same, and is attended by, or rather his acts are witnessed by, angels in light blue, one, two, or three; a single angel in the creation of Light (which is represented by bars of gold rushing out of two globes, one red, the other black), having one wing yellow, the other blue; three angels in the creation of the vegetable world. In others that follow, as in that wherein their Maker is telling our first parents to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth, we see the most unhesitating candour of representation, showing the long journey and the many changes our ideas of the Deity have passed through since these mosaics were considered their fitting expression.
The effect on the eye made by the interior of St. Mark’s, which is only lit from above, is certainly gloomy and oppressive, but gorgeous and overpowering. We must remember that there was no need for light except at the altar, which was blazing with lamps, when the people assembled, and that glass windows were at their rarest at the time the church was planned ; but it strikes upon the heart of the visitor as the piled-up offerings of men who were willing to buy the favour of Heaven with the richest gifts. From the tesselated pavement, undulating like the waves of the sea (whether or not intentionally is a question lately raised, and still unsettled, although it is said the groining of the crypt is perfect), up to the gilt ironwork on the tops of the cupolas, it is complete. Outside the mosaics are for the most part late. The only old one of the five, over the five portals, shows the difference between the decorative sense of the end of the Fourteenth Century and the beginning of the Eighteenth, when the others were mostly done. The spaces covered are con-cave hemispheres, and in the earlier mosaic the forms are made to bend with the curvature towards the centre, like reflections in a glass ball; the later resists the curvature of its own surface, contradicting the architectural basis, and looking like a picture applied.