Patriarchal postscript


Zwingle’s Eighth Law states “The bigger your memorial, the less people remember who you were.”  A wander around Westminster Abbey shines a blinding light on that truth.  A black marble slab for Charles Dickens, a white marble meringue for James Cornewall.










In case anyone was wondering if there might be any memorials to the three patriarchs of Venice who became pope, the answer is yes.  But you might not notice them, and if you did, you might not quite grasp who they were. Especially if the inscription is in Latin (grrr).

Trivia alert: Venetians refer to popes, especially the three that touched Venice, by their civilian last names, not their formal papal names.  Also, the word for “pope” in Italian is papa (PAH-pah.) The nickname for your daddy is the same word, pronounced pah-PAH. If you mix them up, people will think the pope is your father.

Pope Pius X, “Papa Sarto,” was deeply moved on leaving Venice to go to Rome for the conclave of cardinals meeting to elect the successor to Pope Leo XIII. The throng which came to see him off at the station was exhibiting what we’d call intense separation anxiety.  He reassured them by promising that he would return, whether alive or dead. Yes, he said those words. He was elected pope, and though he lived another 11 years, he never made it back. He died in 1914.

In 1959, Pope John XXIII (just coming up in our chronicle) — who knew of this unfulfilled promise — arranged for Sarto’s casket to be disinterred, organized a special train which left, in those days, from a station within the Vatican, and sent him back to Venice.  The body lay in state in the basilica of San Marco for a month, then was returned by special train to the Vatican. Promise kept.

Footnote: Lino remembers the day the train arrived, not because he was present, but because all the employees of the Aeronavali, which maintained and repaired airplanes at Nicelli airport on the Lido, were taken in a bus to see where the new Marco Polo airport was going to be built on the mainland. The sacred and the profane just keep on running into each other.

Of the three papal memorials here, that of Saint Pius X is the most impressive by weight, but the least impressive by location: at the head of the Ponte della Liberta’ by Piazzale Roma, next to the Agip gas station.  Lino says it’s because he’s there to guard the gate to the city.  There may well be more to it than that, but I haven’t taken the time to root it out.  That could be a project for my old age.

This is a crucial node in your arrival by car. If you want to park, you're now looking for the garage. If you're taking a ship, or the ferry to the Lido, you'll be taking the off-ramp at the bottom of the picture. If you're at the gas station, you'll be staring at the price on the pump with something like terror. If it's night, the light over the monument will never stand out in the intermittent illumination from the street lamps. Speaking of illumination, sorry I took this in the morning -- I didn't realize I'd be facing due east.


The inscription reads: "He returned (reference to his vow) with the halo of the saints. Alleluia!" And beneath the bust, "O holy father, bless Venice." I'd like to know if anyone ever puts money in the slot. It may be the most challenging place for a hundred miles to make a contribution. More people stop at memorials on mountaintops than stop at this one. The dates flanking his head (April 2, 1959 - May 10, 1959) refer to the period of his return visit. He was canonized in 1954, so his sainthood was official.

Pope John XXIII, Papa Roncalli, or “The Good Pope,” was known as a saint by anyone who ever met him, at least here in Venice.  The beatification details that made it official were just extra.

Lino had two encounters with him.  One was by surprise, crossing the patriarch’s path as he left the basilica of the Salute.  Lino was strolling with his girlfriend, and Roncalli stopped to say hello.  “Are you two engaged?” he asked in a friendly, if generic, way.  “Yes, Your Eminence” — Lino repeats this in a tiny abashed voice.  “Love each other,” he said, patting each of them on the cheek. Evidently his charisma marked this little event in a powerful way, because on paper it looks like nothing.

The second encounter was at the airport, where Lino worked as an airplane mechanic.  Patriarch Roncalli came to celebrate mass there for the workers, and he was lacking an altarboy to assist him.  Lino volunteered.

My favorite bit of Roncalli lore is the nickname the gondoliers gave him: “Nane Schedina,”  or Jack the Lottery Ticket.  When he chose the name John XXIII, to the wags at the Molo stazio the Roman numerals looked like the pattern of the numbers on a lottery ticket.

If you needed any further evidence of his qualities as a patriarch/pope/human being, the nickname says it all.  Gondoliers bestow them spontaneously, and only when they really want to.  In fact, if there is any category which comes equipped with a built-in automatic crap detector, as Hemingway put it, it would be the gondoliers. The fact that Roncalli would sometimes walk over to the Molo to say hello, and even sometimes take them up on their offer of going to get a glass of wine at the nearby bar, obviously had something to do with their feeling for him.  He’d play cards with the staff in the evening, too.  Not with the majordomo, with the cook and the cleaning ladies.

He’s the only patriarch of the three that has two memorials.  That doesn’t earn him any bonus points, I merely mention it.

This bust of Pope John XXIII faces the side entrance to the basilica of San Marco. It looks well-lit from this angle, but if you see it straight on it's always in a sort of muddy little area of wall that makes it hard to distinguish. Not to mention makes it almost impossible to read the fulsome Latin inscription over it. I think that's pretty funny, considering how he moved the liturgy from Latin to the vernacular so it could be understood by everybody. I'd be willing to bet that this inscription really annoys him. If saints can get annoyed.


I was thinking of getting a translation of the encomium above him, but I resisted, on principle. Anyway, the inscription doesn't add anything you can't get just by looking at his face.

Pope John Paul I, “Papa Luciani,” was smaller and, it turns out, more frail than his two patriarchal predecessors.  But Venetians loved him, and not just because he came from the mountains just up the road.  In his mere 33 days on the throne of St. Peter he earned the sobriquet “The Smiling Pope.” Venetians already knew that.

So far, no bust of him has been made, or if so, placed anywhere a human can see it.  But he is remains an extremely tough act to follow, as his successors have amply demonstrated.

The patriarch's palace faces the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, joined to the basilica of San Marco. The two memorial plaques are between the two windows on the right and left of the entrance.


"In this patriarchal seat Cardinal Albino Luciani lived at the head of his flock in goodness and hard-working humility from 1970 to 1978 when elected Pope John Paul I for thirty-three days as father and universal master opened the way to a new hope."


"In this patriarchal seat in the spirit of the mission of Venice illustrated by Saints Lorenzo Giustiniani and Pius X Cardinal Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli shepherd and beloved father from 1953 to 1958 in fruitful thoughtfulness prepared the ecumenical vastness and innovatory ferment of his glorious pontificate."


Mons. Francesco Moraglia's coat of arms, now in place over the entrance to the patriarch's palace. Its symbolism, from top to bottom, is: The patriarchal hat, the lion of San Marco, a star representing the Virgin Mary, its eight points denoting the eight Beatitudes, a battlement (a pun on his name -- "muraglia" means wall), and the sea with an anchor, freely borrowed/interpreted from the crest of Pius X. The motto reads "With Mary mother of Jesus," a phrase which among other things, was used by Pope John XXIII on presenting to the Curia the Apostolic Constitution. Tempting fate?


To descend, as I enjoy doing, from the sublime to the quotidian, on Tuesday morning a barge was called to the service entrance of the basilica to take away a rack of vestments. I don't know if they were used at the big investiture ceremony two days earlier, or are being sent to the drycleaner to be ready for Palm Sunday and/or Easter. But off they go.

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Categories : Venetian Events


  1. Bravo…bravo what a wonderful story….amazing details. It must have taken you days to get all these photos. You even risked traffic!
    Thanks so much!
    The photos of the vestments on the boat, would make the start of a good short story…..ahhh the mystery!!

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I appreciate your compliments but it only took a few hours to get the pictures. If I’d spent more time, they’d have been better. As for the vestments, I was just sorry I didn’t happen to pass by there sooner. It’s the constant refrain: “You should have been here yesterday…..”

  2. Yvonne says:

    James who????

    Another splendid post, thank you. I remember fondly Pope John XXIII, not through personal encounters like Lino, but because I was an impressionable (Catholic) teenager, and thought he was totally cool. (Mind you, we didn’t really know about cool in those days.)

    Please, what are the green tassel-ly things on either side of the new Patriarch’s coat of arms, the ones hanging down from his hat.
    Yvonne recently posted..Parco Groggia, Cannaregio

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I’ve often meant to investigate those things and you have pushed me into looking further. As usual, every bit of information leads me to scores of other little questions and curiosities, but the short version is that they’re variously called “nappe,” “ghiande” or “fiocchi.” (pompons, acorns, or tassels/flakes). They are part of the ecclesiastical hat called a galero, a variation on the saturno, or Roman hat, and isn’t worn in real life anymore. The number of nappe and their color varies according to the person’s rank. Hence the coat of arms of a cardinal has the same design: hat and 15 nappe on each side but it is red instead of green. Green is the color assigned to bishops, which is what the patriarch is. Loads more information here:

  3. Harriett says:

    Do you think many people who come across special memorials take any time to do a little research on who they were for afterwards? Unfortunately, I think the vast majority of the time they get forgotten about within a minute. It’s shame, but I think it’s true.
    Harriett recently posted..When is drug testing at work legal?

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Relying on mere memory is always risky. If they really care, they probably write the name down somewhere and check it out later. If they don’t care, I guess it doesn’t matter one way or the other. On the other hand, if we keep on going the way we’re going with smartphones and tablet computers, we’ll be able to zap the answer to ourselves on the spot.

  4. Dolores says:

    Is it true Pope John XXIII returned to Venice as pope and rode the Grand Canal in a motor boat to greet crowds of well-wishers? Is it a true story? (How soon after he was made pope?)

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      No, Pope John XXIII never returned to Venice after his election as pope in 1958. You may be thinking of his authorizing the (brief) return to Venice of the remains of Pope Pius X in 1959. When the then patriarch of Venice, Giuseppe Sarto, left Venice in 1903 to go to Rome for the conclave which would turn out to elect him pope, he promised the Venetians that he would return, “alive or dead.” Pope John, who had also been patriarch of Venice, honored his vow by sending the casket to Venice. It was placed on a motor boat, though I can’t tell you precisely what type it was, and passed along the entire Grand Canal escorted by Venetians in their boats, as well as the few rowing clubs — in that period virtually all rowed in the Venetian manner. Here is a link to a post I wrote concerning this event. Hope this helps.