Venice, ano domini 1099
Marco Dandolo stood by the bishop in front of the newly completed church of San Nicolo in Venice. “Che bella, bishop.”
“Yes, it is beautiful, my nephew. May it please the Lord.” The bishop sighed. “If only…”
“If only what, signore?”
“Well, my nephew, it is a silly wish. But if only we had the very relics of the holy saint here, then would this monument truly glorify His Holy Name. But the relics are far away on the island of Rhodes.”
“In the hands of the Greeks? That is not a problem, signore. For the glory of God, Venice, and the Dandolo family, I will retrieve them.”
“My blessing on you! But these Rhodians are very greedy for saints. They have San Teodoro, San Polycarpo, and San Evlogio as well as San Nicolo.”
“Why so many?”
“Something about their having died on Rhodes. It’s an unhealthy place for holy men. But that’s not the point. The Rhodians will never give you the relics, Greeks are too greedy.”
Marco straightened his doublet and adjusted his sword belt. “Signore, I am a Venetian. I know how to bargain. I’ll make the Greeks an offer they can’t refuse.”
Three weeks later, the war galley of Marco Dandolo swept ashore near the Aghios Nikolaos church on the coast of Rhodes. The Venetian sailors swarmed ashore brandishing swords and battle-axes. They ran to the church doors and smashed them in. A priest emerged from the sacristy, shouting angrily.
“Hey! This is a church not a barn!” Then he saw the Venetians brandishing their weapons. “I mean how can I help you gentlemen?”
Marco held out his blade, “We’ve come for the saint. Hand him over and no funny business!”
“Which one?” The priest shrugged. “We’ve got so many.”
“San Nicolo. Now make with the saint, pronto!”
“Oriste! You are too late, honored sir. Some Genoese fellows landed and took Aghios Nikolaos a few months ago. A real pity, he was the best.” The priest shrugged. “We still have Aghios Polykarpos, though…”
“The Genoese!” Marco snarled. “Those pirates! Well, that being the case, you won’t mind if we have a look around then.” He signaled to his men and they began to ransack the church.
“Hey Marco! Here’s Teodoro!”
A shake of the head.
“No!” Marco snapped. “I think this Greek is lying. If the Genoese had been here we’d have heard of it all over Italy by now. No, there’s an odor of sanctity here and I mean to find out where it comes from!”
There was a shout. A Venetian sailor was pointing at the wizened form of an old man, lying in a curtained alcove. “Look, he’s incorruptible!”
The priest ran forward. “No, no, no! That’s just old Kostas. He comes to mass every day. He likes to take a nap after the communion wine.”
The old man opened a rheumy eye. “Opa. How about a little krasi kokkinos, eh papas?” He sat up and reached for a brick in the wall. “I keep a little stash behind this loose brick.”
The priest waved his arms at Kostas, but to no avail. The old fellow pulled down the brick revealing a hollow with a jug of wine.
Marco came close and studied the hole. There was a much larger space inside the wall. He called for a candle and peered into the hollow.
Soon the wall was pulled down to reveal the remains of San Nicolo. The triumphant Venetians carried him to their war-galley and loaded him aboard. Singing a hymn in time to the stroke of the oars, they made for the Adriatic and home.
By Christmastide San Nicolo was safely ensconced in the church that bore his name. The people of Venice celebrated mass in his honor and rung the bells until the sluggish waters of the lagoon stirred with the reverberations. But Marco Dandolo did not share in the general rejoicing. He stood glowering in the piazza where his old friend Pietro found him.
“What ails you friend Marco? You look like a man who just found out he’d just paid gold ducats for a load of Genoese chicken turds. It’s Christmas, you should be rejoicing. Now is the season for giving.” Pietro held up a neatly wrapped bundle he was carrying.
Marco spat. “Ah, here I am, the man who brought home San Nicolo and what thanks do I get? You know after we left Rhodes my ship had to run the gauntlet of Genoese mercenaries. Then we had to fight the Barbary Corsairs. Finally the Dalmatian pirates attacked us. That was a struggle! They paint their sails all white with black dots so they blend in with the coastline.
“I make my way past these dangers all the way to Venice. The saint is in the church and now people treat me like I was a blacksmith or I ran the furnace at the public baths!” He shook his head at the ingratitude of mankind.
“Well, friend Marco, I have something to cheer you up.” Pietro held out his bundle. “This is my gift to you. Thanks for your service to Venice and Merry Christmas.”
Marco smiled and unwrapped the bundle. Then his expression turned to anger. “So, you’re in on the joke too? You thought this was funny? Well, you and everybody else who has given me these ‘presents’ today can take them and go to…”
“Easy my friend. What’s wrong with my gift? I bought you some top-quality scent, straight off my latest merchant vessel from Alexandria.”
“You did, eh? Then what is this?” Marco held out the bundle, which contained not rich, Alexandrine incense, but dull-black lumps of coal.