• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

You Can’t Just Make Sh** Up: How Venice Lied to The World About its Byzantine Icon



I recently did a Zoom chat in which I was asked which Byzantine item I’d rescue in a nuclear holocaust. I started by answering that it definitely wouldn’t be San Marco’s Nicopeia (“Bringer of Victory”). I offered a short justification then. I hope, here, to flesh that answer out a little. In a way, it might have served my propagandistic purposes to have abused Venice and shouted “look!” at all the things it stole. The Nicopeia could have been added to the countless objects (like the verde antico green marble of Hagia Sophia’s canopy added to its Pala d’Oro) that make that “most serene” of polities resemble a pirate republic rather than the “Queen of the Adriatic.” Yet the reality is darker. Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1559) was the first Venetian to articulate the legendary claim that the city’s Nicopeia was the same icon that Villehardouin and Robert of Clari referred to in their works on the fourth crusade. In an account on famous voyages, he claimed the icon was Constantinople’s Nicopeia; an icon that rested in the Palace of Blachernae when it wasn’t being taken on campaign by Alexios V: “[AD 1204] The barons and the Venetians battered the walls and towers day and night… in one of these great skirmishes they valorously acquired the imperial standard of the tyrant, but with much greater joy a panel on which was painted the image of Our Lady, which the [Roman] emperors had continually carried in their exploits, since all their hopes for the health and salvation fo the Empire rested in it. The Venetians held this image dear above all the other riches and jewels they took, and today it is venerated with great reverence and devotion here in the church of San Marco.” By 1618, the assertion had clearly gone uncontested as the doge Nicolo Dona, his primicero and the entire Signoria glorified the Nicopeia as the palladium of the Venetian state while translating it to a new altar. However, the claim was hardly spotless. Although a genuine Byzantine article – a late eleventh-century beauty, no less – the icon almost certainly did not arrive in Venice until after the 1231 fire that gutted the Treasury of San Marco. I say almost certainly because it is possible that it was omitted because of its unusual storage situation beneath the capitello, which may have been constructed to hold the icon and not the crucifix that commemorated the miracle of the ciborium’s bleeding when stabbed. Even considering this as a possibility, however, doesn’t fully explain why the medieval inventories didn’t mention the object until 1325 i.e. almost a century after the fire. Indeed, the icon had an unusual trajectory, going from being so unknown as to not even be registered to having legends composed in its honour. Perhaps this was due to the haphazard nature of its pre-seventeenth-century outings, given it was only exposed to public veneration at times of crisis (war, plague, famine, earthquake etc.) and the Marian feasts. At no point before 1617, however, was the icon promoted as the city’s premier civic icon; an image that the primicerio of San Marco, Giovanni Tiepolo, compared favourably to the power of words: “…For if from a few cold words there sometimes arises the power to bring souls to God, all the more should this be expected from a depiction which through vivacity of colours and adroitness of brush-strokes contains the true soul and spirit of its archetype. The word in a book flees before us and like running water transports us in thought, but the image stops us and in a way forces our minds to speak and think.” So far, so good and iconophilic – though doubtless from a counter-reformational perspective rather than an articulation of a noble Byzantine stance. Next, however, he declared Constantinople’s civic intercessor (The Theotokos) as Venice’s own. Indeed, he bizarrely claimed the city shared the greatness of the Virgin because “It was founded on the same day in which the wide and incomprehensible City of the Word Incarnate was founded in the womb of Mary… It is therefore better that the most notable image of Mary… should be located in a city more devout and similar to her than any other.” The Nicopeia – with its fictitious claims – was probably wheeled out to demonstrate that Venice was not toothless (against its neighbours or Islam) when it came to the great game of Christendom’s totems such as the Madonna of Loreto (its first image disappeared before the sixteenth century), its successor (the wooden statue destroyed by fire in 1921) and the Santa Casa (believed to have been transferred by angels in 1291 from Eastern Roman Empire to Dalmatia and thence to Italy). To vie with such eccentric loci, performances for the Nicopeia needed to be hammed up. It was according to this logic that two days after the translation of the Nicopeia to its new altar (out of the sactisty and into the north transept) Doge Dona reorientated Saturday evening litanies towards it. Indeed, he made sure a special litany was used – importantly unique to Venice – based on the ancient rite of Aquileia. Finally, it wasn’t until the Ottomans declared war against Venice in order to wrest Crete from their control in April, 1645, that the icon finally took the name we now know it by (“Nicopeia”). Coined by Carlo Quirini who published a (dubious) history of the icon, the Theotokos quickly became the city’s most potent symbol of its claim to be the successor of the Roman Emperors; a thin veil of legitimacy that attempted to mask the whiff of 1204’s treachery. In a rather odd postscript, when the icon was restored in 1969 it was funded by both Latins and Franks who appear to have confused it with the Hodegetria – a completely different icon, indeed Constantinople’s palladium par excellence, which was smashed to smithereens by Turks in 1453. Furthermore, the Nicopeia was said to have been housed “in the Monastery of St John the Theologian” when it was in fact located in the Hodegon, a monastery built or rebuilt by Michael III in the ninth-century not far from the Great Palace. Showing – if little else – that Byzantium continues to be appropriated and, more to the point, appropriated badly by doltish Latins.

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