Saint Peter Orseolo
Admiral. Revolutionary. Penitent.
Join me today to meet a warrior saint who had to make a crucial choice for himself and his people - and got it wrong.
Name: Pietro or Peter Orseolo
Life: 928 - 987 AD
Feast: January 10
In the first days of September, 978 AD, the citizens of Venice woke up to a shock.
The Doge was gone.
The Doge was the ruler of the Republic of Venice. Perhaps ‘Doge’ was a somewhat odd name for the ruler, but then Venice was a strange sort of place. The city itself had been built on stilts, out in a lagoon off the Northeast coast of Italy. Because it was a maritime city, it had at first fallen into the shadow of Byzantium, and the ruler of Venice had been just another Byzantine duke. By the 10th century, Byzantium was weakening and Venice was largely independent. But the city had kept the title of Duke, though the Italian dialect had turned it into ‘Doge’. Now the Doge was elected by his fellow aristocrats.
Two years before the morning of the missing Doge, the aristocrat and war hero Peter Orseolo had been elected to the position, and he had thrown himself into bringing Venice back from the terrible fire and the civic unrest that had brought the city to her knees.
Now, Doge Peter Orseolo was nowhere to be found.
The only person who did not seem surprised was Peter Orseolo’s wife, Felicie. But then, she had been there as the story unfolded, a tale of adventure, heroism, impossible choices, terrible mistakes, and men named ‘Peter’. Also, she was in on the secret.
32 years earlier, Peter Orseolo and Felicie had been married. They married young, when Peter was only 18 years old. But aristocrats had roles to play and duties to fulfill, so they were married, in the Venetian way, in a huge group wedding along with all the other eligible sons and daughters of the Venetian aristocracy.
That was the way things worked in Venice. Doing things together helped to keep rivalries down and made the city function better - well, mostly. There had been that one disastrous year when pirates snuck into Venice and kidnapped all of Venice’s noble newlyweds at once. Fortunately, the Doge had been able to send out a detachment from the Venetian navy in time to save the newlyweds.
In Peter’s year, the group wedding went off without difficulty. Elements of the navy were probably present anyway, because Peter was one of the most accomplished young sailors in the city. In Venice, every young man learned to sail and fight on a ship. But Peter Orseolo was something else. In just two years, when he was 20 years old, he would be entrusted with command of the entire navy.
The truth was that Venice was growing desperate. As Peter Orseolo was growing up, the Venetian navy had suffered setback after setback. Their great enemies were the Narentines, a Slavic people who had settled along the coast of the Adriatic in what is today the Southern part of Croatia. Where Venice had grown rich from trade, the Narentine people had turned to piracy. They preyed on Venetian ships and had defeated the Venetian navy on a number of occasions in a war that had gone on for more than a hundred years. Venice was losing, and badly. The Narentines weren’t raiding inside the Venetian lagoon, yet, but everyone thought it was only a matter of time.
When Peter Orseolo told the Doge of Venice that he had a plan to save the city and defeat the Narentines, the old Doge Peter III Candiano was willing to try. He gave the young officer free reign to rebuild the navy as he saw fit.
Peter Orseolo probably got his idea from the Byzantine fleet. Orseolo was going to build a kind of ship that the Byzantines and the Muslims used, a heavier warship. When it came to shipbuilding, it was all about tradeoffs. Heavier meant slower in the water. But it also meant more sturdy and packed with more marines. Peter thought that with such ships, he could win. And so he spent days and weeks and months supervising construction, until Venice had a fleet of 33 heavy warships. Doge Peter III Candiano put Peter Orseolo and another nobleman in command of the fleet, and Venice’s last hope sailed out of the lagoon to meet the pirate menace.
The change in tactics caught the Narentines completely by surprise. The first expedition knocked them back into their part of the Adriatic. Peter Orseolo sailed home and regrouped, and then immediately set sail again, attacking the Narentines near home until they sued for peace.
Peter Orseolo returned to the city as a hero. But things were not well in Venice. The Doge, Peter III Candiano had a son - also called Peter. As Doge Candiano aged, he tried to lean on his son, to get his help in administering the city. But the Doge’s son was ambitious. He wanted it all, pushing for more and more control. And when his father, the Doge, finally tried to draw a line, Peter Candiano junior recruited a bunch of mercenaries and staged a coup.
Doge Candiano was popular, and the coup didn’t get far. Candiano junior’s mercenaries were neutralized and he was soon captured by an angry crowd of Venetians. They were going to execute the traitor, when Doge Candiano came out to beg for his son’s life. With tears streaming down his face, he told the Venetians that for all his son’s crimes, he couldn’t watch him die. Instead, Peter Candiano junior was sent into permanent exile in Italy.
This meant that Peter Candiano junior had a front row seat to the changes taking place on the mainland. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, the Great, was consolidating power in Italy, wielding the spear of his patron, Saint Maurice. For the first time in a long time, Venice faced the possibility of a threat from the land. Would Venice remain independent or get absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire?
Peter Candiano junior, making the best of his exile, began to worm his way into the good graces of the Imperial court. And when he was short on money, Peter Candiano put his Venetian knowledge of the sea to use and became a pirate, preying on the ships of his father’s city.
When the old Doge Peter III Candiano died in 959, there was an election among the great families of Venice. Peter Orseolo was one of the candidates. But then a rumour campaign started. Wouldn’t Venice be better off, people said, if they had a leader who really understood the threat posed by the Holy Roman Empire? Maybe a leader who had lived on the mainland? Someone not afraid to get his hands dirty… By the time aristocrats like Peter Orseolo figured out who was managing the rumour campaign, the seeds of doubt had already been planted. Even though he was in permanent exile, Peter IV Candiano won the election. The Venetians sent a delegation to Ravenna, where he was living, to bring him back to the city in great triumph as the new Doge.
Peter Orseolo understood the Christian teaching that we ought to obey those set in authority over us. He had his suspicions about what kind of ruler Peter Candiano was going to be, but the right thing to do was to give the man a chance. And besides, Peter Orseolo had something to distract him. After many years of trying and prayer, his wife Felicie had gotten pregnant. An angel had told her it was a boy. The angel could have told her more. He could have told her that the boy would lead a great Venetian expedition that would destroy the power of the Narentine pirates once and for all. That he would become one of the greatest Doges in the history of his city. But instead, the angel told her the most important thing. Felicie’s son would live his life in God’s love.
They named the boy - of course - Peter.
The boy’s father, Peter Orseolo, kept a watchful eye on the new Doge Peter IV Candiano. And for a few years, it seemed that exile might have made Peter Candiano a better man. Peter Orseolo worked with the government as they restricted slavery. And as time passed, and Venice decided to send an ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor, Peter Orseolo, now entering his 40s, was selected to go to Rome.
By the time Peter Orseolo got back from his mission as an ambassador, everyone could see that the Doge was still the bad man he had been when he tried to usurp his father. The mask of goodwill had been slipping for some time. Yes, the Doge did have mainland connections. But somehow they never seemed to work in Venice’s favour, and as public resentment grew, the Doge started going around with an army of foreign mercenaries for ‘security’. He pushed his family into church offices. In one case, there was already a candidate to be bishop. The Doge fabricated a charge against the man, found him guilty and had him blinded. More and more, Venetians started to understand that Doge Peter IV Candiano was making himself a king, if not a tyrant, and making Venice a vassal state. The Doge knew that he was hated, but he didn’t care. He was holed up on his private island elsewhere in the lagoon. When he came into the city, it was to the heavily fortified Ducal Palace.
And that’s where the Doge was when Venice finally exploded in revolution.
An angry mob showed up at the palace. The Doge’s foreign guards attacked the first people to arrive. But that only made the Venetians angrier, and as their anger grew, so did their numbers.
The leaders of the mob went looking for aristocrats who understood their frustration. And - in a move that he would regret for the rest of his life - Peter Orseolo joined their side. He knew that the Doge was bad, and he thought that change might be for the good. The question was how to get at the Doge. It was clear to the revolutionaries that the Doge didn’t have enough men to break out of the palace, while the revolutionaries knew they wouldn’t be able to storm it.
So they set it on fire.
The plan worked perfectly at first. The palace burned, and soon Doge Peter IV Candiano came stumbling out of the smoke, coughing. And that was where things started to go off course.
The Doge was carrying his young son. He promised Venetians that he could change. And when he saw that they didn’t believe him, he held up his young son and begged for mercy for the boy’s sake.
It didn’t work.
The crowd tore them apart, father and son, and threw their bodies into a slaughterhouse along with the carcasses of animals.
The fire that they had set in the palace kept burning. Room after room caught fire, as Venice’s history burned away. One reason that Peter Orseolo’s family is hard to track is that the records were likely destroyed on that day. The crowd struggled to put out the fire that they had started, but it was spreading. Soon the Church of Saint Mark, the patron of Venice, caught fire. Houses started to burn across the city. By the time the flames had burned themselves out, Venice was devastated.
Venetians were left in a ruined city without a leader. Peter Orseolo had been involved in the revolution, and so they elected Peter Orseolo as Doge.
Our sources handle Peter Orseolo’s role in two different ways. Some sources are sympathetic, and suggest he wasn’t really involved in the plot. Other sources, such as Saint Peter Damian, accuse him of taking out his predecessor. Historians often pick one story or the other, but I think the most interesting possibility is that they are both true at once. I suspect that Peter Orseolo had no involvement in the plot until it started. I suspect he got involved late after the riot was already taking place. Peter Orseolo is manly because he had to make a terrible choice about how to square his duty to the Doge with his responsibility to the people. He made a hard choice, and it was the wrong choice. And so in the morning after the riot, he looked over the desecrated bodies of his enemies and the ruins of his city, and realized that he had blood on his hands.
Peter Orseolo is a manly saint, as we shall see, because of what happened next. I have to imagine that Peter Orseolo thought of the dead Doge and remembered the story of Caesar. The plotters who had killed Caesar were trying to save a republic too. But Caesar’s death didn’t lead to peace, it led to civil war. I think that as the reality of what he had done set in, Peter Orseolo felt a terrible duty not to repeat history. And so he set out to rebuild.
After the murders, the Candiano family expected the new Doge to take vengeance on them. But instead, Peter Orseolo came to them offering peace. He had the body of Peter IV Candiano and his young son given a proper burial. The old Doge’s wife had fled back to mainland Italy, and Peter made sure she was treated with dignity, and received back the dowry she had brought to the union. Peter made the Candiano’s his partners in the great project of rebuilding the city of Venice. And as for the Holy Roman Empire, Doge Orseolo carefully, diplomatically, steered Venice back towards independence.
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Venice was a burned husk, and Doge Peter Orseolo threw himself into the rebuilding process. He would make Venice more than it had been, building new monasteries and hostels for pilgrims. There was never enough money, so Peter Orseolo used his family fortune to help with the rebuilding. He restored the Ducal Palace and the Church of Saint Mark. He is often credited with the magnificent altarpiece, the Pala D’oro or Gold Cloth, a massive enamel and jewel backdrop for the altar in the Church of Saint Mark.
After two years of work, Venice was starting to bloom again. It seemed to Peter Orseolo that he had made some restitution for what he had done. But he still felt the blood on his hands. And he was considering what he might do about it when seemingly by chance a few monks arrived in a boat, and changed the direction of history.
The monks had come from the monastery of Saint Michel de Cuxa, today on the coast of Southern France. One of the monks was another future saint, Saint Romuald. He was younger than Peter Orseolo, but the two men had a lot in common. Both were nobles. Both had done something of which they were ashamed. In Romuald’s case, it had to do with the killing of a fellow noble. Romuald’s response had been to give up the world and take up a monastic vocation. The more the two talked, the more Peter Orseolo began to feel called to do the same.
Quietly, with very few people even noticing, Peter Orseolo began to nudge things into position and put the right people into power so that things would fall into place without him. He told a few close friends - some of whom decided to come with him. And of course Peter Orseolo obtained the agreement of his wife, who understood and approved. He made sure that his son would be able to take charge of the family. And then, without fanfare, without even an official announcement, he got into a boat with a few friends, with Romuald and the other monks, and they sailed West. When they arrived at the monastery, someone offered the Doge a horse to ride the rest of the way. But that part of his life was over. Peter Orseolo laid aside his rich clothes, took off his shoes, and walked to the monastery to enter as a humble novice.
When Venice finally figured out the story, the city was shocked. Christendom was shocked. At first it seemed that Doge Orseolo’s plans had failed, as another Candiano was elected. But gradually the plan became clear. The new Doge was no tyrant. He was a good man. Within 14 months, he had followed Peter Orseolo’s example and gone to become a monk as well.
Meanwhile at Saint Michel de Cuxa, Brother Peter Orseolo was deepening his walk with God. After a year as a novice he became a monk, eventually moving out to live in solitude outside the monastery. And as he gave up everything in his old life, he began to develop a new one. Brother Peter Orseolo began to experience visions. He experienced demonic temptations.
Now and then he had visitors, great men who wanted to seek his advice. Brother Peter Orseolo gave it, but he was always happy when it was time to return to prayer.
Like many saints, Peter Orseolo was aware of the approach of death. His last words were a quote from Psalm 31, and also from the night-liturgy of Compline.
Into thy hand I commit my spirit
And those who wondered whether Peter Orseolo had found the redemption he had been looking for only had to remember the rest of the verse to get their answer.
thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
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