Shakespeare’s Othello begins in the streets of Venice. The Moor general has quietly married the fairest of all Venetian heiresses, Desdemona. The renowned cosmopolitanism of Venetian society strains to the breaking point at this. A black man has presumed to marry into a senatorial family.
But the Venetian senate has more pressing matters at hand. The Turks threaten their dominion over the fair sea. Othello will lead them in battle…
…Gore Vidal wrote a little history of Venice, complete with pictures. He insists that Venice has become a lovable cliché. When I arrive at Piazza San Marco, after visiting Trent, Verona, and Milan, I anticipate having to navigate many choking crowds of gawking cruise ship off-loads.
I intend, nonetheless–in spite of the “tourist-trap” aspect of the scene–to visit the relics of my baptismal patron at the Duomo. And to see the fair city. Without a single cliché.
I will focus instead on the legacy of Fra Paolo Sarpi and the Venetian Interdict of 1606.
When you look carefully at the facade of the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter, you see the name of the pope who completed the building, Paul V (Camillo Borghese). New popes present themselves to the world immediately below those chiseled words.
Well, Pope Paul V also cancelled all Masses and sacraments (except last rites), for the entire Republic of Venice, for a year. At least he tried to.
Anthony Trollope wrote the chronicles of Barset. His brother Thomas Adolphus lived most of his life in Italy. Thomas Adolphus Trollope concerned himself with all things Italian, especially the Risorgimento. He wrote an utterly gripping, if wrong-headed, account of the Venetian Interdict of 1606, called Paul the Pope and Paul the Friar.
What happened? The Venetians held two criminal priests in custody, intending to judge and sentence them according to their laws. Pope Paul objected, insisting that he alone had jurisdiction.
What followed involved… 1. The enunciation of many of the principles of the U.S. Constitution, well over a century before Thomas Jefferson’s birth. 2. A crisis of Catholic identity not unlike the one we face right now, subsequent to the sexual abuse scandal. 3. A ‘test’ of the effects of the Council of Trent.
Now, please don’t think my interest in a four-century-old controversy between Rome and Venice amounts to mere antiquarianism. Let’s remember this also:
The Holy and Apostolic See of Rome certainly predates the Patriarchate of Venice. On the day St. Peter died at the foot of Vatican hill, the city of Venice didn’t even yet exist as a small island village. The pope created a diocese of Venice in 774 AD.
But the current length of residence in their sees is about the same, for the two lines of bishops. The popes left Rome in the fourteenth century; didn’t return until 1377. And even after that, the city of Rome experienced lengthy hiatuses of papal residence. We remember Pope Martin V as the hero who truly brought the papacy back to Rome for good–in 1420.
So the popes rightly developed an enormously high esteem for the Patriarchate of Venice, the inheritor of the genuinely ancient patriarchate of Grado (which managed to preserve itself for generations as simultaneously Roman and Byzantine).
In recent centuries, the pope customarily created a newly appointed bishop of Venice a cardinal at the subsequent consistory. Remember, two pope-saints of recent memory, John XXIII and Pius X, both entered their respective conclaves as Cardinal Patriarchs of Venice. (So did Pope John Paul I).
The Patriarch of Venice became such an “automatic” cardinal, in fact, that he acquired the unique privilege of wearing scarlet immediately upon his appointment as Patriarch–even before any consistory. That is: before the pope actually creates him a cardinal, the Patriarch of Venice nonetheless dresses as one. Since he certainly will become one, in a matter of weeks.
Except when he doesn’t. The current incumbent Patriarch of Venice, in office now for nearly eight years, remains an Archbishop. He enjoys no right to enter the Sistine Chapel at the next papal interregnum. He sits neglected by the pope, clothed in what by now seems like “borrowed” scarlet. Francesco Moraglia’s scarlet robe, in fact, has become something like Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.
Not an interdict, to be sure. But this inexplicable situation plagues Venetian Catholics like an open wound…
…I will endeavor to unfold these matters for you, dear reader, as the good Lord allows me the time and energy to do so.
In the meantime, I ask for your prayers, that heavenly graces will accompany me on my little journey.
Ciao for now.