La traslazione di Marco Evangelista a Venezia

🇮🇹 Per la versione italiana clicca qui.

On 25 April, the feast of St Mark the Evangelist is celebrated all over the world. The centre of these celebrations is, of course, Venice, the city that over the centuries has made the winged lion, the symbol of the Saint, a banner that is still used today. The lion, wherever it is encountered, perhaps engraved on the jamb of a door far from the lagoon, clearly indicates that the Serenissima has arrived there. Venice is, in fact, the place where the remains of the Evangelist traditionally rest in the crypt of the imposing and marvellous St Mark’s Basilica, since the present Basilica, whose construction began in 1063, overtook the church previously built in the 9th century, the structure of which is still preserved in the crypt below.

The drafting of this article was primarily dictated by the author’s personal curiosity about an element that is rarely investigated, if at all, in the various treatises on St Mark’s tomb: the sources concerning the eventual translation of the relics. It is known, if not by the general public, at least by a good portion of it, that St. Mark’s body was stolen by Bono di Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello, two Venetian merchants, hidden inside a load of pork to pass customs controls in Muslim Alexandria and reach Venice. However, it is curious to note that this event is often associated more with a popular rumour than with a written source dating back to the same medieval period.

However, the written source does exist and has been studied in depth by critics, historians and philologists on several occasions over the years. The text in question, the most recent edition of which, based on 12 manuscripts, was published in the specialist journal Hagiographica (year 2010, volume XVII) by Emanuela Colombi, is known as Translatio Marci Evangelistae Venetias (‘Translation of Mark the Evangelist to Venice’) and narrates the events in question.

Numerous proposals have been made regarding the date of composition of the text, ranging between 827-828, the year of the events transcribed in it, and the 11th century, mainly because of the numerous references in the prologue and text to events of that period. In any case, this source is not excessively distant from the historical event, so much so that according to some, it was written during the 9th century itself.

The Translatio Marci is part of the so-called hagiographic genre, a modern label formulated to indicate all historical-literary productions concerning the lives and cult of saints. The most famous hagiographic subgenres are the Lives, which focus on the life of the saint as the cause of his holiness, and the Acts of the Martyrs, in which, instead, the holiness of the man derives primarily from his martyrdom. It is essential, however, to understand that these categories and those we will list below are not watertight compartments and that, indeed, in most cases, it is difficult to place a work within a single sub-genre. Less common, but no less important, are the texts that emphasise the place of worship where the saint rests through a description either of the miracles (in life or death) or of the events that happened to his body. The latter type, known by the Latin term translatio (‘transfer’), is exactly that of the text examined here, which describes in detail the transport of St Mark’s body from Egypt to Venice.

For the sake of completeness, it should also be pointed out that the Translatio Marci is part of a literary tradition within the genre of translationes: the furta sacra (‘sacred thefts’). As the name suggests, in these texts the transfer of a saint’s relics takes place using force or deception. From a literary point of view, it is interesting to note the continuous recurrence of certain characters within these narratives: usually, the protagonist is the thief or thieves, as in the case of St Mark, to whom the mission may be entrusted by a patron (secular or lay). At the time of the theft, there is often a helper, who may also be the guardian of the body (in the Translatio Marci, it is the monk Sturatius and the priest Theodore), who ensures the success of the theft despite one or more opponents. In these texts, the two communities involved in the affair, the one that was robbed on the one hand and the one that received the stolen relics on the other, often play a prominent role.

In our case, Venice was the arrival community where the mortal remains of St. Mark the Evangelist arrived in 827-828. This event of great religious resonance was certainly one of the many factors which decreed the power of Venice, especially in the early days when the nearby religious and economic centres of Aquileia and Grado were overshadowed by the lagoon city which was now also the prestigious home of the relics of an evangelist. It is therefore not at all surprising that St Mark’s lion was chosen for the banner of the Serenissima, precisely because of the religious importance that the burial of this saint gave the city before it gained great economic and therefore political weight in later centuries.

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