The 5 mysteries of Venice

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1. The mysterious burials of the Venice Cathedral: St. Mark and… Alexander the Great?



Anciently the arms of coat of Venice was completely different from today. Until 1261, on the banner of the city there was simply the gold cross of the Byzantine Empire on a blue field. The Lion of St. Mark was introduced only after the arrival of the body of the Evangelist into the city. The representation of Mark as a lion is typical of the Christian tradition, and follows the iconography described in the Apocalypse Book of St. John and in the book of the Ezekiel prophet.



Leonine sculpture in Piazza San Marco


The legend of St. Mark

A legend tells the apostle and evangelist Mark was victim of a shipwreck near Venice. A terrible angel appeared to him in the likeness of a mighty winged lion, and it said him:

“Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum” . [“Peace to you, Mark, my evangelist. In this place your body will rest”].

Today, the coat of arms of Venice is a winged lion that shows a book with the words of the angel.




The rests of St. Mark

Beyond the myth and the legend, there is an interesting historical and literary reasoning that links the Republic of Venice with the evangelist Mark, or with his remains. Some sources [1] attest that two astute Venetian merchants, Rustico da Torcello and Bono da Malamocco, were able to steal the rests of the Saint in Alexandria, in Egypt. The St. Mark’s remains were transported inside a basket containing pork. It was a brilliant idea, even because pork is considered an impure animal by Islamics; the clever merchants would have disfruted this religious belief to avoid the check of the goods to carry. It was 828 a.C. and, during the subsequent years, Venetians started the building of the extraordinary Cathedral hosting the remains of St. Mark. It is the St.Mark’s Cathedral, located in the square with the same name, whose Romanesque-Byzantine style is known all over the world.


The St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Piazza San Marco



 Campanile di San Marco


 Clock Tower in Piazza San Marco.

The disappearance of the remains of Saint Mark 

The Cathedral of Saint Mark was consecrated in 1098. Some strange facts are linked to this event, that overtime contributed to throw an aura of mystery to the devotion to the Saint. Some year before the consecration, during the restoration works, the shrine with the remains of Saint Mark suddenly disappeared, generating a great desperation in the town (however, probably it was preserved in a secure place and thus forgotten). Venice was resigned to consecrate its most important building without the relic it would have been hosted, a paradoxical situation if considering the economic investments and for its prestige. Nonetheless, the day of the consecration, the 25th of June 1098, a miracle occured: Giacomo Casanova tells of a winged lion that suddendly appeared inside the Cathedral and indicated a precise column of the building. Inside the column the lost remains of St. Mark were found. 


Cathedral of Saint Mark, detail.


The mystery of the two bodies 

Many centuries later, around 1000 years from the arrival of the Saint Mark’s remains in Venice (1811), it was decided to move the precious relic under the main altar of the church. The reason was to avoid that a possible flood (the known “high water” of the city) could compromise its conservation. When the transfer operator [2] exhumed the body, he was in front of an incredible enigma: the corpses were two!

The days after the strange discovery, scholars analyzed the historical-interpretative apparatus on which the entire fact was based. Who is buried with St. Mark inside the Basilica of Venice?

For many years this mystery fascinated and created problems for its resolution. Only recently some studies seemed to have found the identity of the “unknown” buried next to the evangelist Mark. Andrew Michael Chugg is the author of these thesis [3]. Chugg hypothesizes that the two Venetian merchants, Rustico da Torcello and Bono da Malamocco, when purloined the remains of the saint in a church near the ancient Rosetta Gate in Alexandria, found two corpses. Since they were not able to distinguish the body of the biblic Evangelist, decided to transport both bodies to Venice. However, the original question persists, although referred to another defined place: Alexandria in Egypt. 

The hypothesis of Andrew Michael Chugg 

Who was the person buried with Saint Mark inside the Egyptian church? Probably he was an important person, given the relevance of his burial companion. Through a precise historiografical analysis, Chugg hypothesizes he may be the Macedonian leader Alexander the Great. Various written sources, attributed to Strabo, Diodorus, Suetonius and other attest with certainty that the remains of Alexander stayed in Alexandria at least until 391 [4].They were located inside his mausoleum until it was destroyed by the emperor Theodosius. Since then traces were lost until now. To support his thesis, Chugg refers of the discovery of a Macedonian funerary slab referring to Philipp II, father of Alexander, today kept at the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art in Venice. 




Are they speculations or the analysis made by Chugg is the truth? Is the man buried inside the Basilica of Saint Mark in Venice really Alexander the Great?


[1] Giovambattista Contarini, Spiegazione della Basilica metropolitana di S.Marco Evangelista. [2] Conte Manin [3] Andrew Michael Chugg, The lost tomb of  Alexander the great, 2004; The quest for the tomb of Alexander the great, 2007. [4] The body of Alexander was mummified during the tolemaic period in Egypt; then, he was transferred to Alexandria and placed in a big Egyptian mausoleum at the intersection of the two main street of the city.
error: Eh no!