The Venetian Heist

While today it is easy to surmise that San Marco (Saint Mark) is patron saint of Venice, this was not always so. Its first patron saint was once Saint Theodore, a Greek warrior saint to whom the first chapel of the Doge (as the Duke of Venice was known in Venetian) was dedicated, a building which probably stood on the same spot as the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Cathedral).

In 828-829, a fleet of Venetian vessels sought shelter in Alexandria, Egypt. Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello, merchants traveling as part of this fleet, would go daily to pray at the tomb of Saint Mark, who had died in Alexandria. In so doing, they made the acquaintance of Theodore, a priest who warned the merchants that it would be better if the Saint’s body were taken from Alexandria, since the Caliph had ordered the church in which the remains were housed to be demolished to create building materials for new mosques. They apparently replaced Saint Mark with Saint Claudia, who was already in this church, and then smuggled the holy relics onto a Venetian ship, which was protected from shipwreck by Saint Mark himself.

Or so goes the Venetian side of the story.

Whatever the truth, after acquiring the relics of Saint Mark, the Venetians and their Doge decided to adopt Saint Mark the Evangelist as their patron. Adopting such an important personage as their patron (Saint Mark was credited in Christian tradition with penning the Gospel of Mark, which is one of four accounts of the life of Jesus) allowed for the prestige of the city to grow, and it was another step in emancipating themselves from Byzantium.

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