We began our pilgrimage to Italy on October 19th in Venice, the ancient maritime republic on the Adriatic Sea. Venice, now part of Italy, was once an independent global power, and like other small maritime states–England, Holland, Portugal– was skilled in using the sea. Even today, the region around Venice is economically better off than other regions of Italy, largely because of Venetian economic acumen.
But now the city is largely a museum. Crowds of tourists everywhere. We were fortunate to celebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Mark’s, the great basilica, which began as the private chapel of the Doge of Venice, but was destroyed by fire in 976 AD. The present basilica began to be built from that date.
For centuries, the Venetian republic was linked to the Byzantine and Muslim worlds through the sea and much of its wealth and many of its treasures, like the relics of St. Mark, come from that part of the world. Its buildings and its art are also strongly influenced by the building and art of its trading partners.
An excellent new book on the history of Venice, (City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Robert Crowley, 2012) offers a vivid description of the part Venice played in the Crusades and its relations to the Muslim and Byzantine empires. Its history can throw light on our relationship with the Middle East today. For example, the sack of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade has poisoned the relationship of the eastern and western churches from that time on. War can poison the relationships of people for centuries.
The best commentary on the art of Venice and Padua I’ve found is John Ruskin’s, The Stones of Venice and Giotto and his Works in Padua, both available free at Apple’s iTunes on the internet. Ruskin has a beautiful description of the art in St. Mark’s Basilica, one of the great wonders of the world.
Ruskin points out that the church built next to the Ducal Palace was a reminder to the Venetians that their business and politics, as well as their private lives, were subject to the judgment of God. Whether they liked it or not, when they returned from their great voyages of business and war, they faced this church.