What is the special meaning ascribed to La Festa di San Marco, the Feast of Saint Mark, celebrated on 25 April? Saint Mark has been the Patron Saint of the city and the former Republic of Venice since the year 828 AD. But then, he was a special Patron Saint, having arrived in the Lagoon from the Levant during his lifetime and then a second time, when he was brought here from Alexandria (Egypt) to be buried in the Basilica di San Marco.
In Venice, we still celebrate this day in a grand manner. Venetians are very aware of how the Feast conjures up ancient memories reaching far beyond legends. So there’s more than celebrating the day with spring dishes like the famous risi e bisi (garden pea risotto) dish and recalling the legend of the boccolò red rose. These traditions are just the peak of an iceberg. The meaning of La Festa di San Marco goes much deeper, so let’s explore what we really celebrate on 25 April in Venice.
25 April, La Festa di San Marco is about the very reason Venice exists. San Marco is a symbol and strong protector, having arrived in the city from the Levant, where Venetian creativity and commerce originated in the first place. Sourcing ingredients in the Levant, creating own goods from them and selling these goods all over Europe enabled the Venetians to create and build a sumptuous city like Venice spreading across 118 islands.
I think the notion “Piazza di Rialto” covers it all. Rialto is an umbrella term for all trading and business done during 1,300 years of history that ended on 12 May 1797. And Piazza I use its literal meaning of stock exchange. In reality, this wasn’t the fish and fruit market but the core of a vibrant trading nation, predecessor of financial centers in our times. Under the arcades and in the buildings surrounding the Rialto, all parts of the value chain of multiple business ventures were steered from. Banco Giro. Tutte le cose passano per Rialto. All things pass through Rialto. It’s here where goods were unloaded. Sorted. Mixed. Packaged. Loaded on Ships. Financed. Fortunes Won. Lost. New Strategies Made.
Exotic merchandise arrived here on boats at Riva del Vin or farther ahead along the Grand Canal. During the times of the Serenissima, the Grand Canal was lined with (smaller) merchant vessels having arrived from the Punta Dogana further up the Grand Canal (Punta della Dogana = customs point).
On 25 April, we’re celebrating the Venetians, and in particular, the Merchants of Venice who created the life essence of Venice. I mestieri di Venezia – the tradespeople of Venice that today produce on a much smaller scale what during more than 1300 was amongst the most desired luxury goods in Europe. You can see some of these artists in one of my favorite videos on Venice, produced on behalf of Rene Caovilla (Thanks to Dream of Venice for sharing it with us!).
This is the video I suggest you watch if you want to celebrate with Venice, for it captures the essence of our city and what is left in our times (still a lot!!).
What we have forgotten is the thousand experiences for life and business we could learn from Venice, her commercial background which once opened the doors to Venetian merchants in the Levant, Asia and Africa. Venetians excelled in diplomacy and creativity. It was the Merchants of Venice that imported goods to Europe and the New World that we take granted for today. It’s a wide collection, ranging from sugar to spices, pharmacies, essential oils, perfumes, tableware, carpets, mirrors and lamps.
In particular, Venetians were pioneers in food and cooking and in creating small wonders with herbs and spices. In addition to importing spices, they were collecting and raising botanical treasures from the Far East, creating a fragrant pharmacy and public health initiatives still practiced today (for example, you’ll guess the meaning of lazareto and quarantena, Venetian words we still use today in many other languages). The money these Merchants received from exchanging and selling their goods went into building the sumptuous facades you can admire today in Venice.
At the Rialto, merchandise was unloaded, sorted, packaged, shipped and traded. Expeditions were negotiated to explore new far-away places where to source more legendary goods for their clients all over Europe. Venetian merchants not only imported spices but created their own mixtures, which they sold all over Europe, accompanied by “marketing folders” and recipe booklets. In short, the Merchants made most of their money with the spice trade accounting for more than 70% of income in town. Thus, the facades in Venice, the architecture everyone marvels at were usually financed by income from the spice trade.
Usually, the Merchants brought plants and their seeds, if available, with them back to Venice. Some plants were handed over to state-financed experimental gardens, in particular to the Giardino Botanico – National Botanical Garden in Padua, created in 1545, while others were cultivated in the gardens of Venice. Below you can see what remains of one of these lush gardens today – read more in my post When Spices Were Growing in Venice.
Now that we are at the topic, we should recall a few more facts of this special culinary heritage. Venetian spice merchants, on their voyages to the Near and Far East, came across Ayurvedic recipes for health and traditional Chinese medicine in the 10th century. Marco Polo wasn’t even first to travel along the silk road to China. Second, it certainly helped that Venice, in the beginning, was a province of Byzantium, so her cooking style and choice of ingredients were influenced by ancient Greek dishes.
It’s these forgotten flavors that captured the world for 1,300 years, built a special reputation and made Venice the town you can see today and marvel at. We will share more stories on ancient Venetian life + flavors in our upcoming book – Roses and Spices, click here to find out more.
This post was updated in April 2018.5