Symbols are important and for the once great power that was Venice, she drenched herself in a catalogue of powerful symbols like the lion of St. Mark. It helps to align yourself to religious greatness and who greater than the evangelist St. Mark himself. The lion of Venice is winged, holding a book (the real symbol of St. Mark) on which is inscribed the words, “Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus” uttered to Mark by the angel that greeted him in his Venetian dream. In simple language the angel said, “Peace to you, Mark, my Evangelist; here your body shall lie” which was an impressive piece of symbolism created entirely by the Venetians themselves. They backed up this policy of greatness by association by stealing the relics of St. Mark from Alexandria in A.D. 828, giving the city a truly powerful celestial benefactor and protector, whilst at the same time provided a nice little earner for the city with a ceaseless flow of pilgrims and their coins!
Long before the ‘adoption’ of St. Mark as patron saint of Venice, the city was facing a European crisis born over, would you believe, the destruction of all icons and holy images and symbols as ordered by Emperor Leo III in A.D. 726. This was a period when the Lombard invasion from the north had obliterated Byzantine rule in Milan, Verona and Florence. Rome resisted, but Lombard rule found its way to Spoleto and Benevento. Apulia, Calabria and Sicily remained under Byzantine rule, as did much of the Italian coastline. Both the Lombard’s and the Vandals before them showed little interest in the sea! Leo III with his new edit of destroying all icons and holy images hoped that by succeeding in doing so he would weaken the Byzantine church’s influence in Italy. Rebellious garrisons from the coastal towns and villages rallied, refusing absolutely to comply, began to recruit from their own, including choosing their own commanders, asserting their independence. Those that gathered around the Venetian lagoon chose a certain Urus, or Orso from Heraclea, who was given the title ‘Dux’. That title, transformed by the rough Venetian into ‘doge’ was to be passed down through 117 successors until the end of the Venetian Republic in 1797!
And that hat, symbol of his exalted office in the Serene Republic of Venice as beautifully portrayed by Giovanni Bellini in his painting of Doge Leonardo Loredan (after 1501, as seen in this image); where does that come from? It emerges from the 14th century onwards in Venice and most likely modeled after the Phrygian cap, which the ancient Romans believed represented the ‘badge of liberty’ hard won by the inhabitants of Phrygia, a region of central Anatolia, part of the western provinces of the vast Roman Empire. For the Venetians, when it came to their Doge and his ‘corno ducale’, those symbols represented everything that was Venice!
Enough of history, as entertaining and amazing as it is, one needs to eat and in a Venice that is being bombarded by an onslaught of tourism, eating well is becoming more and more difficult in this mesmerising city on the sea. A rule of thumb anywhere is to eat where the locals eat and in Venice that means eating ciccheti; bite size, delicious nibbles that is this town’s version of tapas! One of the best places to enjoy such a meal in Venice is Al Mascaron, 5525 Calle Lunga Santa Maria Formosa, Castello district. Telephone (041) 5225995. It’s open from noon to 3.00pm and from 6.00pm until 11.00pm and don’t forget, it’s CLOSED ON SUNDAY. So there goes another of my hard earn secrets of Venice!