Roderick Conway-Morris

Trading places

Venice and Alexandria were, as far as the Venetians were concerned, twin cities. According to legend, St Mark had visited Venice before going to Alexandria, where he preached, performed miracles and was martyred. When two Venetian merchants stole the saint’s remains from Alexandria in 828, they were merely fulfilling the prophecy of the Angel that had appeared to Mark in the lagoon and, addressing him with the ringing words ‘Pax tibi Marce, Evangelista meus’, had predicted that a great city would arise upon these waters, which was to be his last resting place.

The origins of the mythical links between Venice and Alexandria were as much mercantile as mystical. For hundreds of years the spice trade with Alexandria yielded the immense profits with which the Venetians built that great city on the waters.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, became a shorthand emblem for the Egyptian port. It appears prominently in a miracle scene in a 14-part panel depicting the life of the Evangelist, and the translation of his relics to Venice, that greets visitors at the beginning of this engaging exhibition.

The panel was executed by Paolo Veneziano and his sons Luca and Giovanni for St Mark’s Basilica in the mid-1340s, commissioned by Doge Andrea Dandolo, the last of the doges to be buried in the Basilica in 1354.

The lighthouse figures in five mosaics in St Mark’s and, when the campanile of the Cathedral church of San Pietro di Castello was redesigned and faced with brilliant white Istrian marble in the 1480s by Mauro Codussi, it was in imitation of the famous Alexandrian lighthouse. Ironically, by this time no trace of the Egyptian original remained, having been replaced by a Mamluk fortress.

The first Venetian diplomatic agreements were made with Egypt’s Islamic rulers in the early 13th century.

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