‘Invasion of the body-snatchers’

‘Invasion of the body-snatchers’

by Peter Harrison.

Everyone who has visited Venice knows St Marks’ Square with its Basilica di San Marco supposedly containing the saintly remains of Saint Mark, the important Christian evangelist and apostle.

I wouldn’t like to and truly couldn’t, put you off this, one of the most wonderful cities in the world, but……

In the early and latterly medieval days of the Christian Church, relics were powerfully attractive. How many knucklebones of Saint Baldo were revered? There were enough splinters of the holy cross sold to make a forest and enough iron nails from the body of Christ to set up a modern day foundry!

The riches brought to the church were greatly enhanced by donations from rural pilgrims, easily impressed by the opportunity to kiss the left toenail of a saint.

Long before the 25th of April became the National Holiday of Italian Liberation, the day was the celebration of the Patron Saint of Venice, Marco, whose bones (earthly remains!) were traditionally thought to be on Muslim soil in Alexandria, Egypt.

The perceived history was that they were transferred to Venice, in the year 828, by two legendary Venetian merchants, Buono da Malamocco and Rustico da Torcello.

Sent by the Doge (Prince) of Venice to steal from the Muslims the precious remains (Islam, strangely for some who know nothing of its history, venerates Jesus Christ and his disciples), two resourceful merchants, not being able to discover the true body, dug up a ‘lesser Christian celebrity’, covered the body up in a cargo of pork and passed through ‘customs’ without being inspected: this because kanzir (pork) was an ‘unclean’ and untouchable export. Thus they earned their fee by selling a ‘load of old bones’ which had nothing to do with Saint Mark.

To add further to the confusion, a British historian, Andrew Chugg, claims that the venerated tomb of St Mark in Venice contains not the great evangelist but the body of the most famous warlord in history. He claims that the mummified remains, buried beneath the altar of St Mark’s Basilica, in fact belong to Alexander the Great. The Macedonian king lived in the 4th century BC and had divine status in his lifetime and a following for many centuries after. By his 30th birthday he had conquered an empire stretching 3,000 miles from Greece to India.

died aged 32 or 33 and for 700 years his corpse lay entombed in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which he founded. In the 4th century AD it vanished. Chugg, the author of several books on Alexander, believes the confusion occurred when the warrior’s body was disguised as St Mark to protect it from destruction during a Christian uprising.

“Both bodies were said to be mummified in linen, and one seems to disappear at the same time that the other appears – in almost exactly the same place, near the central crossroads of Alexandria,” he writes. “It’s a strong possibility that somebody in the Church hierarchy, perhaps even the Patriarch himself, decided it might be a good plan to pretend the remains of Alexander were those of St Mark”. If this is true, then it was Alexander’s remains – not those of St Mark – that were stolen by Venetian merchants and taken back to their native city some four centuries later.” In fact, three early Christian sources state that St Mark’s body was burnt after his death.

Happily, whoever lies in the Basilica is not of great importance. Venice
remains one of the world’s most picturesque destinations and a visit will give the traveller a lifetime of memories…..


How did the Bridge of Sighs get its tragic name?


The only covered bridge in Venice, pretty from the outside but gloomy and entirely enclosed inside. Narrow windows let in very little light through their wire netting and, for many who passed through, Casanova included, this was their last chance of a glimpse of  the outside world, San Giorgio and the Lagoon; a very macabre history.

The most accepted opinion is that the Ponte dei Sospiri got its name in the 17thcentury when it was the connection between the old prison and interrogation (often/usually torture) rooms in the Doge’s Palace and the new prison.  Prisoners, who passed through it, would most likely see the beautiful sight of the city and freedom for the last time and let out a deep sigh…..

 Truthfully, by the time the bridge was completed, summary executions at the hands of the inquisitors had ceased but many who were incarcerated would never see freedom again and ‘investigations’ were still far from gentle!
 A nicer and more romantic theory is that, if lovers kiss under the bridge while drifting below on a gondola at sunset, they will enjoy eternal love. Therefore, the “sighs” come from lovers, overwhelmed by their love and the romantic imagery of the location and its legend.
Venice‘s Bridge of Sighswas designed by Antonio Contino and built to span the Rio di Palazzo (Palace River).
If you are old enough to remember the science-fiction comics from the ‘50s showing skyscrapers connected by enclosed bridges above the ground, Venice’s Ponte dei Sospiri, could well have been have been the inspiration for such architectural fantasy.


Part III: Food, drink, eggs and…… chocolate.  
As Easter is the end of the Lent ‘fast’, food naturally plays a major part in the celebrations. Eggs and roasted lamb are common elements everywhere. A generous supply of good wine is, naturally, a requisite.

Eggs represent life, fertility and renewal; all essentially symbolic. Dyed or decorated eggs abound and eggs are often found in soups and in a traditional Easter pie (Torta Pasqualina). Roast lamb, or sometimes kid, is a symbol of birth and the shepherd, Artichokes are popular (an imagery, I can’t explain) and special Easter breads vary from region to region. Pannetone and Colomba(dove shaped) breads, are the most well-known.

As in many countries, hollow chocolate eggs, sometimes with a gift inside are given. The tradition is dying out but, years ago, an engagement ring was often enclosed as a marriage proposal!

The biggest chocolate Easter egg in the world, measured over ten metres in height. The egg weighed over seven tons and must have kept the children  of Cortenuova happy for months