The history of Venice and its Republic can’t be understood without discussing the figure of the doge, its most important public figure.
The doge was strictly chosen among the members of the noble class, and elected by the Maggior Consiglio or Major Council through a complicate political rite designed in order to reduce the risks of bribery and corruption. From the election of Paoluccio Anafesto in 697 to the resignation of Daniele Manin in 1797 – that basically makes 1100 years – a sequence of 120 doges were elected to rule, direct and represent the city and its empire.
There are many stories about the doges of Venice, some are real facts, some are just legends.
I would like to tell you the true story of the only doge who had the privilege of a burial inside Saint Mark’s Basilica.
The above portrait was painted around 1635, probably a few years after Francesco Erizzo was elected doge, the first and only member of his family to get the title.
Francesco wasn’t particularly well endowed, rather, he had to take care of all the debts accumulated by his brother.
He was not even married; one can say that his life was mainly devoted to serving the Serenissima, shifting from political and military charges, according to the State needs.
Francesco was chosen to be the new doge on April, 10th 1631. His election was extremely swift and almost unanimous, not only due to his clear political resume, but especially because Venice was in the middle of a tragedy and in need of a strong guide.
Starting in June 1630 Venice had been attacked by one of its worst historic enemies: the plague. By the end of the year more than 20.000 people died of the disease and the last source of salvation left was… faith! The construction of a grandiose church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was stated, in order to achieve a divine intervention of protection and cure.
So Francesco’s life as a doge began in the middle of a period of sorrow without a proper public celebration: the fear of infection was too big. Anyhow he was the first doge to celebrate the Feast of Santa Maria della Salute, on November, 28th 1631 . This annual pilgrimage to the church remembering the end of the past plague is still celebrated nowadays.
After the plague, the city was ready to become one of the main entertainment centers in Europe: in 1637 Venice is the first European city to host a public opera theater with paid admission; in 1638 the opening of the first public gambling house (Ridotto in Venetian) is officially authorized.
Things turned dark again when, in June 1645, the Ottoman fleet reached the island of Crete, the most important Venetian port still surviving in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Senate of the Republic delivered the high command of all operations to Francesco, who promptly accepted the charge. But the task was too heavy for a 80-year-old, in fact he died less than a month after, on January 3rd 1646.
Francesco Erizzo was buried inside the Church of San Martino, the closest to his family’s palazzo.
His burial can be found in the middle of the hall; a simple black stone with the words “Bones of Prince Erizzo” carved in gold.
His funerary monument stands above the lintel of the right entrance; although richer than the burial, its elegance reflects the modesty of the doge.
Anyway, Francesco had a very special request for his burial: that his heart was buried inside St. Mark’s basilica; he was giving it to the State, which he had always faithfully served.
Although five other doges are buried in the basilica, their tombs are in the narthex or in the baptistry, not in the main hall. There are no private altars or chapels in Saint Mark’s church, because it was considered the church of the State.
Francesco Erizzo, instead, had his heart placed next to the very tomb of Saint Mark: a privilege granted to him thanks to his loyalty and humility.
One can find the spot among the precious mosaics of the floor in the presbytery of the church: a large red heart under a stylized hedgehog – the animal symbol of the Erizzo crest – and a doge’s hat.
Make sure you don’t miss it when you visit Saint Mark’s basilica!