8. The invention of tradition

While the structure and detail of the patriarchino certainly remained fixed in its inherited, historical form, as a liturgy under the control of the Doge the possibility of amplification remained. Since it was, in effect, a liturgy of state, most changes in its operations and emphases were a direct reflection of the changing fortunes of the Republic. In this sense the patriarchino was also capable of accomodating popular participation, usually through processions. One ever-present source of liturgical expansion was the continued importation of relics and the 're-discovery' of existing ones. Perhaps more than any city outside Rome, Renaissance Venice was a city of relics. Pilgrims stopping there on their way to the Holy Land often followed a standard itinerary that took in the most important of them; the indulgences that could be accumulated in Venice constituted a considerable investment in salvation.(23) Printed hagiographic manuals from Natali's Catalogus sanctorum onwards advertised the wealth of such relics to be found in Venetian churches, from the right hand of St. Cyprian to the body of St Lucy and many others; for foreigner visitors this carefully accumulated hoard was presented as yet a further demonstration of the special character of Venice as a Holy and Apostolic City. In many cases politico-religious motivations seem to have been uppermost in selecting relics; often the most spectacular to be acquired, these usually involved Dogal initiatives. In other cases relics were evidently carried off specifically to adorn Venetian churches already erected in their honour, a process of accretion that often gave rise to increased ceremonial and new decorative schemes. There was a particularly strong wave of this in the early seventeenth century, when five important reliquaries from St. Mark's, including samples of the Precious Blood and fragments of the True Cross, were re-discovered in the Basilica itself together with a large number of less important relics. In celebration of this the Procurators organised a procession followed by mass in St. Mark's. The newly-discovered relics were carried around the square accompanied by members of the scuole grandi and a number of the city's parish churches, stopping at three places in the Piazza so that they could be displayed to the crowds. In this way an event of importance in the spiritual life of the city, involving the re-habilitation of cult objects of the highest importance, was able to touch the lives of the Venetian population who both participated in the procession and also observed it. Moreover, those who were unable to be present in the Piazza were able to worship the relics, which were subsequently displayed in an elaborate temporary construction in the Basilica, or to read about them in the brief illustrated accounts that appeared in some number shortly after the event.(24)

It was at about the same time, and perhaps prompted by these events, that the Procurators presented a scheme for the re-habilitation of what was to become one of the most potent cult objects in the extensive treasury of the Basilica. This was an icon, which they described as 'the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin Mary painted by the hand of St. Luke the Evangelist', then kept in the sacristy.(25)

Madonna Nicopeia. Venice, St. Mark's Basilica.

Known as the Madonna Nicopeia (Our Lady of Victory), it is a precious piece of Byzantine art, one of a large number of religious images and sculptures brought to Venice from the Middle East during the Middle Ages.(26) It was alleged that it had brought good fortune to those who had carried it in battle in Asia Minor, and the Venetians had long venerated it in the hope that it would bring similar blessings upon the Republic. The Procurators now proposed to embellish the icon with gold, silver and precious stones, and to place it on the altar of St. John the Baptist which was to be specially rebuilt for the purpose. The altar of the Madonna Nicopeia, protectress of Venice, symbolically placed in a chapel next to the high altar of St. Mark's itself, quickly became the focus of new rituals and practices, particularly during moments of crisis; throughout the following centuries it was the Madonna Nicopeia that was publicly carried in procession to ask for deliverance from the plague and for success in war, and it was her image that graced the title-pages of the various reprints of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be recited 'In tempore bello'.(27) Building upon that strong attachment to the Virgin which had always been a component of Venetian civic and religious ritual since its early history, this rejuvenation of the Nicopeia was in turn merely one aspect of a more general increase in Marian devotion in the city which became particularly pronounced after the plague of 1630. In musical terms these conditions are reflected in a wide range of Marian compositions written by composers working in Venice, from elaborate solo motets to simple litanies to be performed in processions.(28)

While on the one hand the patriarchino was fiercely defended, as a symbol of Venetian independence and Dogal authority, on the other it embodied flexible ritual forms which could be altered according to political circumstance. A good example of this process at work is the new importance, in a ritualistic and ceremonial sense, allocated to Santa Giustina after the victory at Lepanto in 1571. In the following year a decree from the Doge and Senate ordered that an annual andata to the church and its attached convent of Santa Giustina be held on her name-day; a full-scale procession, this included not only the Doge and Signoria but also ambassadors and foreign dignitaries. At the church itself a solemn mass was celebrated according to the patriarchino, then the procession returned to the Piazza chanting litanies as it went. There there was a review of the Venetian scuole and of all the clergy of the city, another symbolic act emphasising the personal discipline exercised by the Doge over the ecclesiastical establishment of the city. It was not uncommon for other churches to be visited in the course of the procession. SS. Giovanni e Paolo became a particular favourite after 1575 when a separate chapel devoted to the Virgin of the Rosary was established. Similarly, the parish church of Santa Marina, which in the Venetian consciousness was primarily associated with the recovery of Padua in 1509, was also sometimes visited. These choices were not due to the personal whim of the Doge or to simple convenience, but were carefully made to strengthen the prime function of the Santa Giustina procession as a celebration, within a commonly-understood civic and liturgical framework, of a great Venetian military victory. The increased visibility of Giustina herself in Venetian painting, sculpture and architectural decoration of the post-Lepanto period is a clear indication of the extent to which the local calendar could be modified to serve political or civic needs in tandem with spiritual ones.(29)

* * * * * * *

A great deal of liturgical fexibility which allowed the addition, subtraction, promotion or demotion of individual feasts according to considerations that were essentially political is a distinct feature of the patriarchino and of its ceremonial extensions. But who was it intended to impress? St. Mark's Basilica was not the Cathedral of Venice but primarily the private chapel of the Doge whose presence was constitutionally required on important feast-days. Thereafter the rite found itself increasingly embattled, particularly after the Council of Trent when local uses in much of the surrounding area were gradually abandoned;(30) Tridentine reform was suspiciously and characteristically viewed in Venice as yet further evidence of Papal attempts to broaden secular power. Benefitting from a clause in the Papal Bull which made adoption of Pius V's Breviarium romanum mandatory except for liturgies more than two hundred years old, St. Mark's was able to continue to follow its ancient practices. The importance of preserving the patriarchino from Roman liturgical innovation was frequently stressed in the decades after Trent, often at the highest level. In June 1628, for example, Doge Giovanni Contarini ordered the maestro di coro at the Basilica to ensure that the Mass and the Divine Office be celebrated 'according to the rite, form and ancient use of this Church, without the slightest innovation'.(31) On the one hand the conditions after 1456 strengthened the social and political functions of the rite which became, to an even greater extent than formerly, a liturgy of state, but on the other they made it increasingly more exclusive and less accessible. This may in turn have been another element which encouraged the increase in public occasions, above all processions, when a wider public was able to participate. The question of who was able to witness for the enactment of the liturgy within the Basilica is more difficult to ascertain. For all that St. Mark's was the first church of the state, it is not clear whether its congregation, the 'audience' for this elaborate liturgical ritual so richly spiced with prominent civic overtones was drawn from Venetian society at large or was more restricted.

Back | Fenlon main page | M&A contents page