Sunday, March 13, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #5

Despite of the claims of Joseph Farrell, the Dandolos do not appear to have been descended from Mesopotamian slaves. Later, when they were one of the most prominent families in Venice, the Dandolos would promote the notion that their ancestors were among the leaders of the the refugees who had fled the depredations of the Goths and the Huns in the fifth century and that thus they were one of the founding families of Venice. This was a common claim among the families of Venice who wanted to assert that they did indeed belong to the aristocracy, much like Americans who place great stock in the claim that their ancestors come to the New World on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock. According to the legend favored by the Dandolos themselves, they were prominent citizens of Padua before moving to the islands in the Venetian Lagoon, where they took their rightful place among the Rialto elite. The truth is less clear. There is no mention of them at all in the earliest histories of Venice, written in the first half of the eleventh century. A history known as the  Venetiarum Historia, dating to the 1360s, does aver that the Dandolos were among a latter wave of refugees who in 630 had fled the town of Altino, about ten miles inland from the Venice Lagoon. According to this account they settled first on the island of Torcello, north of the Rialto islands. The historicity of the Venetiarum Historia has been questioned, however, making it a dubious source for Dandolo family history.

The first mention of the Dandolo family name on a contemporary document dates to December 20, 982. On this date Doge Tribuno Menio (979–91), three church officials,  and 131 prominent citizens of Venice signed an agreement to donate land for the foundation of a Benedictine monastery on a small island south of main Rialto islands, now known as the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. The first two citizens to sign the document were Stefano Coloprino and Domenico Morosini, two of the most powerful men in Venice at the time. Other names appeared in order of importance. The forty-second signature on the list of 131 was one Vitale Dandolo, presumably an ancestor of Enrico Dandolo. From this we may include that the Dandolos had joined the ranks of the prominent families of Venice but were not yet among the highest ranking elite. Yet the family was clearly on ascendant. By 992 one Lucio Dandolo was serving as Procurator, or financial manager, of San Marco, and another Dandolo,  Carlo,  was appointed to the same office in 1033. The leader of the clan, however was Domenico Dandolo, who was actively involved in trade with Constantinople in the years 1018–25 and owned at least one boat.

The family added luster to their name by bringing back from Constantinople the body of Saint Tarasius and adding it to the large collection of relics already found in the city. Tarasius (c. 730—806) was born and raised in the Byzantine capital and was later the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. He was a noted Iconodule who believed in the veneration of icons, in staunch opposition to the iconoclasts who had come to power after Byzantine Emperor Leo III had ordered the destruction of many icons back in the 720s and 730s. Before accepting the post of Patriarch of Constantinople in 784, Tarasios made the Empress Irene promise that she would restore the veneration of icons, which she did. He was also active in the movement to unite or at least reconcile the Roman and Orthodox churches. For this he was granted sainthood by both branches of the faith. His feast day is celebrated on February 25  by the Eastern Orthodox Church, using to the Julian Calendar, and on March 10 by Roman Catholics, the same day according the Gregorian Calendar.

Tarasius’s rule as a unifier of the two churches resonated strongly in Venice, which throughout the first centuries of its existence had swerved back and forth between allegiance to the Orthodox Church in Constantinople and Catholic Church in Rome.  By the eleventh century it was firmly in the Catholic camp in religious matters, but due to its trade ties with the East it was still inextricably linked with the Orthodox world of the Byzantines. Not for nothing was it known as the westernmost city of the Orient. These bonds, it was thought, would be further strengthened by having the body of Saint Tarasius, the unifier, in Venice where it would be properly venerated. No less, it would attract pilgrims from all over the Catholic world who would drop a lot of cash in  the city, pilgrims at the time being the equivalent of today’s tourists.

Some enterprising Venetians merchants and priests in Constantinople soon located the body in a monastery near the city and concocted a plan to steal it. Surreptitiously they moved the remains of Tarasius to an awaiting ship belonging to Domenico Dandolo, who then transported it back to Venice. Dandolo was greeted with hosannahs  and the body was transported with great ceremony to the Convent of St Zaccaria, the church of which had been created to house the body of yet another saint, Zaccarios (Zechariah), This relic had actually been the gift of Byzantine Emperor Leo V the Armenian (r. 813–820 and had not been stolen. Zechariah appears both in the Bible, where he figures as the father of John the Baptist and the husband of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and in the Quran, where he  named as the guardian of Mary and also as the father of John the Baptist.

The Convent of St Zaccaria itself was home to Benedictine nuns, many of them from the city’s most affluential families, who over the years had acquired a reputation for less than strict observance of their monastic vows. In 855 Pope Benedict III was granted refuge here during the upheavals surrounding the ascension of the notorious Antipope Anastasius, named pope over the objections of church hierarchy by Roman Emperor Louis II. Anastasius was eventually sent packing and Benedict III placed on the papal throne. In gratitude to the sisters who had succored him in his hour of need (I am not suggesting anything untoward here), Pope Benedict donated to the convent a significant collection of relics, including the remains of the Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298—373) and a piece, one of many, of the True Cross. (Athanasius is also a saint according to the Egyptian Coptic tradition. During a visit to Rome in 1973 Pope Paul VI gave the Coptic Pope Shenouda part of Athanasius’s remains, which were then taken back to Egypt. The relics are now in Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo. Most of Athanasius’s remains are still in the Church of St. Zaccaria.)
 Tomb of Saint Zaccaria and Saint Athanasius in the Church of St. Zaccaria. Photo by Didier Descouens. (click on photos for enlargements)
 Painting of St. Zaccaria Church and adjacent Monastery by Francesco Guardi (1790)
The Church of St. Zaccaria became famous for its assortment of relics and was soon a magnet for pilgrims visiting the city. The addition of the body of Saint Tarasius, spirited from Constantinople by Domenico Dandolo, only added to its luster.  The acquisition the relic—overlooking the small detail that it had been stolen—also added the esteem to the Dandolo family as a whole. In 1055 Domenico’s son Bono was named as one of two ambassadors to the court of Henry III of Germany, where he met with Henry and negotiated a trade treaty with the Germans. The next step in the Dandolo family’s ascendency was the founding of a parish church. Many Venetian families had cemented their membership among the elite by funding new churches and now it was the turn of the Dandolos. Teamed up with another local family, the Pizzamanos, they built the Church of Saint Luca (Luke) near one of the first Dandolo residences. The oldest document mentioning the church dates to 1072, although it may have been actually founded decades earlier.

The church in front of which I am now standing is on the site of the original Church of Saint Luca. The structure was largely rebuilt in the early 1600s and was reconsecrated in 1617. The exterior is rather plain, but the interior contains frescos by  Sebastiano Santi (1789–1866) and other works by Palma il Giovane (c. 1548–1628 and Paolo Veronese (1528–1588).
Exterior of the Church of San Luca
Interior of Church of San Luca (photo by (photo by Didier Descouens)
Ceiling Fresco by Sebastiano Santi (photo by Didier Descouens)
Veronese, one of sixteenth century Venice’s greatest painters, mentioned in the same breath as Titian and Tintoretto, is perhaps most famous for his monumental “The Feast in the House of Levi”. Measuring 18.20 by 42 feet, it was one of the largest canvasses painted in the sixteenth century. It was intended to be a painting of the Last Supper, a conventional enough theme. Veronese included in his painting, however, dwarfs, buffoons, drunken Germans (a common depiction, but an obvious anachronism), dogs, and a host of other extraneous characters that seemingly had no place in a painting of the Last Supper. The Inquisitors of the Catholic Church soon called Veronese on the carpet and demanded to know just what he had meant by this seemingly blasphemous treatment of such an important event in the life of Christ. Given three months to alter the painting or else, Veronese countered by changing the name of the painting to “The Feast in the House of Levi”, in reference to episode in the Gospel of Luke:
And Levi made himself a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of tax collectors and of others that sat down with them. But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
The Inquisitors relented, perhaps because the painting did appear to contain sinners, and the painting was hung in the church of  San Zanipolo in the Castello district of Venice. It now covers an entire wall in Venice’s Accademia art gallery.
I eventually visited the Accademia and was able to see Veronese’s “The Feast in the House of Levi”. It is one of the most popular paintings in the museum, and I had to wait for an hour before I could take this photo without someone standing in front of it. The time was well spent, however, since the painting presents a host of intriguing details. Especially amusing were the Black Africans peeping around the columns. Were they casing the joint? None of this, of course, has anything to do with the Last Supper, or with the Feast of Levi for that matter. 

Given his familiarly with the Gospel of Luke it is perhaps understandable that he was called upon to produce a work for the Church of Saint Luca (Luke). His altarpiece, which can still be seen in the church, portrays the Virgin Mary appearing to St. Luke as his writes Gospel. Presumably the work was done for an earlier version of the current church, since, as mentioned, the church underwent major renovations in the early seventeenth century, after Veronese had died in 1588. That a parish church like Saint Luca was able to acquire the work of a master like Veronese would seem to indicate that it enjoyed a certain degree of affluence long after the Dandolos were gone from the scene.

Oddly enough, nowadays the church turns up in tourist guides and history books not because of its association with the Dandolos and famous artists like Veronese but because  it was the burial place of the notoriously licentious gadfly and poet Pietro Aretino (1492–1556). Alessandro Marzo Magno, in his engrossingly entertaining  Bound in Venice (2013), a study of the early publishing industry in the city, tells us that Aretino was:
A genius. A pornographer. A pervert. A refined intellectual. Pietro Aretino has been called all of these and more. And, at the end of the day, all of them are justified. He published what can be defined as the first pornographic book in history. And he . . . invented the figure of the author-celebrity, the writer-star that droves of nameless readers throng to see.
Born out of wedlock in Arezzo (Aretino = “from Arezzo”), the young Aretino first achieved literary fame with a pamphlet entitled "The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno”, Hanno being the pet elephant of Pope Leo X which had died in 1516. This bitterly satirical work, which lampooned both the Pope and other political and religious panjandrums, and other similar works earned him the title of “the Scourge of Princes”. But royalty also avidly sought his friendship. The King of France, François I, presented him with  a three-pound gold chain with links in the form of serpent’s tongues as a token of his affection. One of his most notorious literary productions was entitled Sonetti Lussuriosi (Salacious Sonnets):
Let’s fuck, heart of mine, let’s fuck soon
Since to fuck is what all of us are born to do
And while it’s the cock that you adore, it’s the vulva that I love more.
Pornography it may be, but as poetry it is not exactly Wordsworth. Also, the sentiment expressed may have been less than accurate, since Aretino was a bisexual who once complained that the women of Venice were so seductive that they induced him to ignore his male lovers.

Aretino died of an apoplectic fit brought on by laughing too hard at an obscene joke he had heard about his sister and was entombed in San Luca Church. It is not clear what his connection with the church was or why he ended up here. The staid parish church has no other known connection with pornographers. He may simply have lived in the neighborhood and was interred at the nearest church, but there is no actual evidence of this. A blasphemous epigram on his tombstone was effaced during the Inquisition in Venice and his tomb disappeared sometime later. The only surviving copy of Sonetti Lussuriosi, his pornographic masterwork, was sold in 1978 by Christie’s art house in New York to an unknown buyer for $38,000. Despite Aretino’s rather questionable place in the ongoing history of civilization it is still his name that pops up first when the  Church of San Luca is mentioned in many current-day sources.
 Portrait of Potty-Mouthed Poet Pietro Aretino by Titian

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