The Serenissima has always had a very close relationship, despite herself, with death.
Over the centuries the Republic of Venice has faced 4 plague epidemics: the first in 1348 which saw the loss of about 40 thousand citizens, the second in 1423 where it is estimated that about 50 people died a day, then the one that devastated the city between 1575 and 1577 during which about 50 thousand inhabitants lost their lives, and finally that of 1630 which also saw the disappearance of 50 thousand Venetians.
All dead that were added to those occurred for natural causes or diseases until now known.
But it is possible to read the relationship that the Serenissima had with the death also of the numerous executions that took place between the Column of San Marco and San Teodoro: the Venetian government was very ruthless and the respect of justice was very serious. It was not enough for an evildoer to lose his life with a public pillory in the shadow of the Doge's Palace, in front of the amazing scenery of St. Mark's Basin.
The dead were buried at first under the churchyards, the illustrious ones inside the monumental sacred buildings of the city, until the establishment of a real cemetery on the island of San Michele at the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte.
But what was the way of the Venetians to greet the dearly departed?
Well, the Serenissima has always been the home of opulence and therefore even funerals became lavish ceremonies, but they also managed to give benefits to the poorest people.
The funeral rites of the Venetians
A fundamental requirement for Venetian funerals was spectacularity!
The Venetian funeral rites were not always sumptuous, but this way of doing it spread from the Renaissance onwards. Certainly it was not a form of exaltation of death, but rather a way of paying homage to those who in life had spent themselves for the common good and therefore worthy of a final greeting involving a large part of the city. In fact, this type of rites were usually celebrated for nobles or wealthy people who belonged to one of the Schole della Venezia della Serenissima, and therefore in life had distinguished themselves for gifts and works of good. But the donations were protagonists also in the day of the funeral, when it was usual to prepare, in the kitchens of the Schola to which the dear departed belonged, dishes that then were offered to the poorest population. Usually large quantities of broad beans were prepared, which were thought to be linked to the afterlife world: that's why on November 2nd, when the dead are commemorated, in Venice they prepare the beans of the dead, tasty sweets and dyes that come from an ancient tradition.
Funeral services usually took place at night: it was in the darkness of the night that the deceased, dressed in the sumptuous clothes of the Schola, left his earthly home to the church where the religious rite would be celebrated the following morning, and where he would most likely be buried.
A crowd of relatives, friends, acquaintances, representatives of the Republic and representatives of the Schola formed the large procession that, in the light of the light they held, accompanied the deceased on his last journey.
This procession, long and subdued that moved sinuously and silently in the calli of a nocturnal Venice, exposed the body of the dear departed to the prying and curious eyes of the whole population, and not everyone had benevolent considerations, because you can also do good in life but you will always have some enemy. The deceased, therefore, was not placed in a closed box but on an open catalyst and therefore completely exposed to public view in all his sumptuous clothing appropriate to his social position. The funeral thus became a sort of public commitment for the deceased from whom he could not escape even when he was dead.
Once arrived at its destination the body was placed on a catafalque often surmounted by a canopy decorated in a richly decorated church: fresh and alive flowers that contrasted with the black drapes placed everywhere. To these were added rather macabre images that wanted to symbolize the transience of life and its inexorable flow, such as skulls, scythes and clocks that ruthlessly beat time.
These grandiose honours were as lavish as the rank of the deceased required: some procurators of San Marco for example could receive funeral rites very similar to those reserved for the Doges.
But in reality such opulent funerals were not the exclusive prerogative of nobles and members of the good class of society, but it was enough to be money: a good bank account was enough to receive an extreme greeting worthy of a doge, but it was important to leave precise written instructions, otherwise there was a risk that the family heirs would prefer to keep for them the amount of money needed for the function. But in reality it was necessary to leave provisions even if you preferred to leave this world in a sober way.
In short, it was always better to decide in life what you wanted in death.
The Doge's funeral
One Doge dies and another one does!
Yes, because a Doge didn't have time to pass on to his successor.
The death of the Doge was announced by the Cavalier del Dose who with the words
"Most Serene Prince, the Most Serene of immortal memory has passed from this to better life, mourned by all orders for his rare and singular virtues. I present to Your Lordship the royal seal of the Treasury by command of the Most Excellent family members and by the duty of my most humble minister".
To these words the most senior Councillor who took the role of Vicedoge replied in this way:
"With great sorrow we understood the death of the Most Serene Prince of such piety and goodness, but we shall make another one. "
The loss of the Most Serene Head of State inaugurated a period of interregnum that had to follow precise rituals that passed through the funeral rites until the eve of a new election.
The place of the Doge in this period of vacant seat was taken by the Lordship. This, once settled, hurried, according to secular rites, to destroy what were the seals and symbols of the deceased Doge: it broke the ducal ring of the Treasury and the seals of lead that bore the stemmo dogale.
This destruction of the symbols of power had a double symbolic meaning: on the one hand it was to emphasize the separation between the doge considered eternal and the earthly and ephemeral man who had been its owner and representative for a period; on the other hand it was a way to avoid that some family members could advance ambitions of succession, not allowed by the law of the Republic.
After this rite, the Doge's body was freed of all internal organs, washed and prepared for the embalming that would ensure the corpse to eternity.
He was then sumptuously dressed in gold cloth: dress, cloak and dogal horn to cover his head. He was then placed on a small cataletto, also covered by a golden sheet, next to the military attributes arranged in reverse, however: the spurs worn upside down, the handle of the sword facing down and the shield with the effigy of the Lion of St. Mark turned inward. This was a way to emphasize that with death, any dogal authority had disappeared.
Thus, when the Doge's body was placed, a large number of carefully chosen arsenals transported it to the Room of Piovego with a long procession of priests, servants, sailors, squires and patricians. The family members who had to hurry to leave the rooms of the Doge's Palace were excluded. Only after the Doge had reached this room it was possible to announce his death to the city: the bells of San Marco were rung twice for 9 times, as many as the ecclesial congregations.
From that moment a period of 3 days started in which the body was watched over by a group of 22 patricians chosen by the Signoria. This chosen group bore no signs of mourning but wore a long scarlet red robe. This choice was very important in symbolic terms because it was the testimony that even if "the Dose did not die, the Lordship did not die", and therefore the State of the Serenissima would go on without any hindrance: a clear message that life went on, that of individuals like the Republic.
After 3 days it was the moment of the Christian funeral rite. The Doge left the Ducal Palace to the church he had chosen, and all the bells of the city in unison sang the sound of death. It was the moment when all Venice stopped, all activities were suspended, stores and workshops closed.
The procession was full-bodied and sumptuous and followed very precise rules for its composition. The standard bearers with banners were in the lead, followed by the representatives of the small Schole of the six large Schole. Then followed the nine religious congregations, the commanders in white dress, the squires in black, the College of San Marco and the patriarchal one who sang the Miserere. Then there were the representatives of the Schola to which the Doge belonged, the servants and the sailors.
Then followed the coffin covered by a large canopy and supported by the arsenal, followed by the 22 patricians of the Signoria, the Patriarch and the ambassadors. The crowd closed the procession, the people who accompanied his Doge on his last voyage.
This long short one went around the square and in front of the Basilica it stopped and the coffin was raised 9 times, as many as there were religious congregations: it was a way to underline the Doge's authority on the Venetian Church and to invoke in his memory the divine mercy. From there he went to the church.
Once in the church, lavishly decorated, after the Patriarch had officiated at the service where the qualities of the deceased were repeatedly emphasized, the body was placed in the burial urn, a true work of marble art: This is why in almost every church in Venice there is the body of a Doge.
After the rite, when the crowds had scattered, the marangona of St. Mark's Bell Tower could be heard: the bell announcing the meeting of the Great Council.
When a Doge died, it was necessary to elect a new one. Immediately!