Thursday, January 10, 2019

Italy | Venice | San Giorgio Maggiore | St. Stephan


From Greece I wandered north to Venice. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, I am back at my old haunt, the We Crociferi. This is an old Jesuit monastery that has been remodeled into a hotel. They even stuck me in the same room, top floor, at the end of the hall, the most remote place in the whole immense pile. Apparently I am not cool enough to be mixed in with all the young hipsters who stay here.
We Crociferi on the right (click on photos for enlargements)

After throwing my portmanteau in my room I took the water bus to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.
The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, on an island of the same name  about a third of a mile south of St. Mark’s Square 
Domenico Dandolo, the leader of the Dandolo clan at the beginning of the twelfth century, had at least four sons: Pietro, Vitale, Bono and Enrico. He was the grandfather of the Enrico Dandolo—not to be confused with his uncle Enrico—who masterminded the Fourth Crusade and the 1204 Sack of Constantinople. Vitale oversaw the family’s business in Venice and Pietro became a monk at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. Bono managed the family business in the Venetian Quarter of Constantinople, which had been established by the Chrysobull of 1082. Enrico, as we shall soon see, became an important figure in the Church. Signatures of the Dandolos pop up on various documents at this time, attesting the rising status of the family. For example, in June 1107, Domenico and his son Vitale signed as witnesses to a document granting large donations to the Benedictine monastery at San Giorgio Maggiore. Later the year Domenico and his sons Vitale and Pietro served as witnesses to a document transferring ownership of properties in the Venetian Quarter in Constantinople to a church dignitary in the Venetian Lagoon. In February of 1113 Pietro witnessed a thirty-day loan of 130 lire to one Bona Kecii and her daughter Matilda. When the women were unable to pay up he also witnessed the foreclosure and seizure of the property.

Domenico’s son Bono, while managing the family business in the Venetian Quarter of Constantinople, was also involved in the translation of relics, “translation” being the technical term for moving relics from one place to another. Such “translations” were considered furta sacra, sacred theft, because according to Catholic belief at the time, a relic could not be moved unless the spiritual force associated with the relic allowed it to be moved. There were many example of relics which were apparently satisfied with their present location and thus resisted all attempts to move them. If attempts to move, or translate, the relic succeeded, this was prima facie evidence that it wanted to be moved. Thus while it may have appeared that the Venetians were stealing the relic they were actually performing the very pious act of carrying out the wishes of the relic itself. Ultimately, it was God’s Will that the relic in question would end up in the hands of whoever deserved it the most.

In 1107 or thereabouts his brother, the monk Pietro, arrived in the city to take over a post at a church owned by Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. In the course of a conversation with a priest at another church nearby the latter let slip that within his church was hidden the body of Saint Stephan, Christianity’s first martyr (I had earlier visited the Church of St. Stephan in Iran). The two went to church and sure enough, the sweet smell often associated with the bodies of saints was soon detected emanating from the altar. They broke into the stone altar and discovered the coffin containing the body of Saint Stephan. Pietro spirited the body back to the Venetian Quarter and placed it in his own church until arrangements could be made to send it back to his monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. 

Meanwhile, word of the theft of the relic leaked out. The Byzantines were furious, but apparently they did not have the legal authority to enter the Venetian Quarter and remove the body from the sanctuary of the Venetian church. They did, however, make stern objections to the relic being sent back to Venice. So the relic remained in Pietro’s church for a year. Finally the Byzantines cooled down and the the matter of the theft was largely forgotten. Arrangements were made to ship the relic back to Venice by boat. Seventy-two Venetians, important men in the Venetian Quarter, escorted the body of Saint Stephan the Protomartyr to Venice. Among them were Bono Dandolo and Orio Dandolo, a relative of Bono’s. The boat arrived back in Venice in July 7, 1109 (or perhaps 1110), where it was met with great ceremony. The Doge himself oversaw the transport of the body to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where it was placed in the monastery church. For the next six hundred years the acquisition of the relic was celebrated by an annual ceremony. For the Dandolo family the whole affair was yet another feather in their cap. The relics of Saint Tarasius had been brought back to Venice by the first Domenico Dandolo. Now his great-grandsons Pietro and Bono were instrumental in adding Saint Stephan the Protomartyr to Venice’s great collection of Christian relics.

The original monastery and attendant church on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore was destroyed by an earthquake on Christmas Day, 1223. A new monastery was rebuilt and the church itself rebuilt or remodeled at least twice, and then starting in 1560 under went major revisions according to the plans of the great architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). Palladio’s neo-classical facade of the church, visible across the waters from the area of the Ducal Palace, is now one of the most iconic sights of Venice, and perhaps just as famous for eliciting one of art historian John Ruskin’s most memorable outpourings of bile: “It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard.” 

It remains somewhat of a mystery what happened to the relics of St. Stephan supposedly translated here from Constantinople by Bono Dandolo and his compatriots. The relics were presumably there when famous English peregrinator Thomas Coryat visited the church in 1608, two years before the Palladian facade was completed: “I was at the Monastery of the Benedictine Monks called Saint Georges, which is situated on a very delectable Island about half a mile [sic: Coryat did not have the benefit of Google Earth] Southward from Saint Marks place. It is a passing sumptuous place, and the fairest and richest Monastery without comparison in all Venice . . .” Coryat was told the relics of “Saint Stephen the first Christian Martyr” were “under a goodly Altar of red marble . . . ” but apparently he did not see them himself. Coryat did achieve passing fame for introducing the fork, which he first encountered in Venice, to the English dining table. Before then, the English had apparently been content  with using their hands or spearing their solid eatables with a knife. He is also credited with introducing the word umbrella into the English language.

No modern-day guidebook to the church mentions St. Stephan’s relics, and the docent will say only the “relics may be in the altar.” As is the wont of his tribe, he refuses to elaborate. St. Stephan and St. George, the island’s namesake, are memorialized by full-length statues in niches between the columns on the monument facade of the church. On either side of the columns are sarcophagi, topped by busts, of Doge Tribuno Memmo, who along with Orso Dandolo and 133 other prominent citizens of Venice signed to document which established the Benedictine monastery on the island back in the year 982, and Sebastiano Ziani  (r. 1172–1178), who, as you may recall,  brought about the reconciliation of Pope Alexander III (c. 1100–1181) and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1122–1190) which resulted in the 1177 Treaty of Venice.
Palladian facade of San Giorgio Maggiore
Palladian facade of San Giorgio Maggiore
Palladian facade of San Giorgio Maggiore. The sarcophagi, topped by busts, of Doge Tribuno Memmo and Doge Sebastiano Ziani  are to the left and right of the columns.
St. Stephen (left) and St. George (right)
St. Stephen
St. George

The main altar the church. The base, which appears to be red granite, may be part of the altar referred to by Coryat. Whether  or not the relics of St. Stephen are actually still in the altar is unclear.