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Like an adventure story

· Melania Mazzucco talks about St Marina ·

In the galleries of the Accademia, Venice, an altarpiece is kept which Tintoretto painted for the church of the women’s Benedictine convent of Santi Cosma e Damiano on the Giudecca. In the foreground, kneeling and enrobed in their red physicians’ mantles are Cosmas and Damian, doctors, healers and patrons of doctors. They are offering to Our Lady – who appears to them in the sky with the Child Jesus in her arms amidst the jubilation of angels – the instruments of their profession: a small basin, a chamber pot and forceps. In fact the altarpiece was intended for the altar of the anargyroi – namely, doctor-saints who gave their services free of charge. However, the two saints are not alone in contemplating Our Lady. On the left St Cecilia hovers and on the right St Secondus, also a healer saint, patron of women in labour who facilitated the expulsion of the placenta. But who is the figure in the centre of the painting?

Jacopo Tintoretto “Madonna with the Child and Sts Cecilia, Marina, Secondo, Cosmas and Damian”

It seems to be a young monk with a shaven head, wrapped in a habit of rough material. Enveloped in golden splendour, he turns his eyes to heaven. He gently clasps a baby to him with a natural gesture, its head resting against his breast and shoulder. It is not any attribute but this tender gesture which reveals his identity to us: the enigmatic and androgynous figure is St Marina.

In Venice she could boast a church dedicated to her in the commercial district of the Rialto. Her relics were venerated there, since the time when a Venetian merchant, having stolen her body, presented it to the city of his birth. The Benedictine nuns who had commissioned the picture had a particular reason for having Marina portrayed in the privileged position between heaven and earth. Marina (Celsi) was in fact the name of the Abbess who had founded the convent in the 15 th century. But Tintoretto must have been glad to be able to give precisely Marina this prominent place.

Marina’s history is an absorbing romance of love and adventure, which in fact met with extraordinary success and was translated into many languages. Her holiness and the miracle are secondary ingredients of a popular tale which drew its plot, dynamics and characters from the novella and the fairy-tale. The story takes place in the 8th century, in the Middle East, the legendary land of ascetics, hermits, deserts and fasts. Marina’s family were fervent Christians in Bithynia. Having lost her mother, she grew up with her father who loved her deeply and whom she loved deeply. When her father entered a convent and became a friar in the same convent, they were both almost ill with sorrow. Thus, in order not to be separated, they devised a deception. Her father cut off her hair, Marina dressed herself as a boy and became a friar in the same convent with the name of Friar Marino. Marina/Marino prayed, fasted and begged for alms. Even after her father’s death, and for years, none of her confrères had the faintest suspicion of her identity. Until one day the daughter of an innkeeper, at whose inn Friar Marino and his companions had spent the night, became pregnant (by a soldier). Forced to confess her guilt, the girl accused Marino of being the father. To prove her innocence all Marina would have had to do would have been to reveal her nature. She did not do so. She saddled herself with a sin that she had not committed. She sacrificed herself out of love for God and for her neighbour. The liar became possessed by the devil, but Marina was expelled from the convent and obliged to go into hiding in a grotto and subsequently to care for the baby, Fortunatus, who had by then come into the world. She lived on alms, in wretchedness, the little one ever in her arms. After a while the friars, moved to compassion, took her back but Marina fell ill from her exertions and died shortly afterwards. Only when they undressed her corpse did the friars discover the truth. Their companion had been a woman. The possessed innkeeper’s daughter hastened to take leave of her victim and as soon as she approached the corpse was miraculously freed of her demons.

Tintoretto liked this story of paternal love, disguise and sacrifice. So, however, did the painter’s daughter, Marietta, his eldest, most beloved daughter whom he had had by his lover before contracting a respectable marriage with a friend’s daughter. Like Marina’s father, Tintoretto also brought up his daughter almost as if she were an orphan. Like Marina’s father too, just to keep her beside him he dressed her as a boy. He scandalized society but was thus able to teach her to paint and to frequent a world which otherwise, as a woman, she would have been barred from. Tintoretto’s story was less like romantic fiction than Marina’s. There were no mysterious pregnancies or ignominious accusations (only gossip). But there was similarly a sacrifice. If Marina gave her life out of love for her father and of God, Marietta did the same. She renounced her possible glory as a painter and in 1578 consented to a marriage that she did not want, enclosing herself within the walls of an ordinary house.

Tintoretto was commissioned to paint the altarpiece of Sts Cosmas and Damian towards the end of 1579, and it was delivered some time later (before 1583). Thus the tribute of the Benedictine monks to the foundress of their convent and to the saint whose name this aristocrat bore also became a poetic and private tribute of the father to his daughter.

And what of the child? We do not know what happened to Fortunatus who Marina had cared for as if he had truly been her son. We have no idea whether he remained for ever in the convent or whether he returned to the world to his natural mother, forgiven by the saint from the hereafter. The documents tell us however that towards the end of 1579 Marietta was pregnant. In the picture Marina offers the baby to Our Lady and to the Child Jesus. Did Tintoretto do the same with the daughter of his daughter? (In this period the painter sent his daughter Gerolama to a Benedictine convent and nourished the hope that all his four legitimate daughters would take the veil). Marina died when she was 25 years old; Marietta shortly after she was 30. Left an orphan, Marietta’s daughter sought her way in the world. We lose track of her in 17th-century Venice. By contrast St Marina is still there. The church called after her no longer exists but her relics are still preserved in a golden casket in the Church of Santa Maria Formosa.

Melania Mazzucco

A leading Roman writer, Melania Mazzucco, also works for the theatre, the cinema, radio and television. Since 2003, her novel Vita, [ Vita, a Novel] which won the Strega Prize, has also had great success abroad. In 2005 she published Un giorno perfetto [A Perfect Day] (Premio Ernest Hemingway Lignano Sabbiadoro and the Premio Roma), a multi-voiced novel in which she recounts 24 hours in the life of a dozen figures in contemporary Rome. In 2009 the book was made into a film. Two successive works are on Jacopo Tintoretto and on his daughter, Marietta. They were awarded the Premio Benedetto Croce and the Premio Comisso per la saggistica. Another two important recognitions followed in 2011, the Premio Viareggio-Tobino for her lifetime achievements and the Premio de Sica for literature. In 2012 she was awarded the Premio Elsa Morante for narrative for her novel Limbo.

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