“Dragon Bones” of Santa Maria e San Donato
We are in Venice, one of the most visited Italian cities by thousands of tourists from all over the world. On our site you can see this magnificent city covered by snow, or with high water. In any way we see it, Venice is always among the most fascinating cities in the world.
However, not many know the ravines and “less touristy” destinations of the city.
The Basilica of Santa Maria e San Donato, located on the venetian island of Murano, dates to the seventh century, back when the islands comprising the Venetian archipelago were a loose association communities seeing refugee from Germanic invasions.
The ribs dangling within this medieval church are no ordinary bones: according to the legend, they once belonged to a fierce dragon who was killed by a saint.
The church’s original dedication was only to Santa Maria. ”e San Donato” (“and St. Donatus”) was added in 1125 after the remains of the saint and the dragon he killed were stolen from Cephalonia by Venetian Doge Domenico Michiel.
The provenance of the beastly bones prior to the 12th century is lost to history: what is known starts in the 1120s, when Doge Michiel sailed out on a crusade to the Holy Land to assist the beleaguered King of Jerusalem, Baldwin II. Venice’s main objective was to smash the Fatimid Egyptian blockade of the eastern Mediterranean, but seeing that the Byzantines had recently gotten on Venice’s nerves by canceling a valuable trade agreement, Doge Michiel took his time looting Byzantine Greece on his way to meet Baldwin.
Among the resulting looting were the remains of St. Donatus, along with the bones of the dragon!
Even if St. Donatus may have really existed, his story are totally legendary: it seems that he was a childhood friend of Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor. As the story goes, Julian is eventually responsible for the execution of St. Donatus. But before his death, Donatus is said to was author of many miracles. According to the legend, he raised a woman from the dead, exorcized a demon from a young boy, restored sight to a blind woman, and finally slew the dragon, after it had allegedly poisoned a well in Epirus.
These dragon bones, which are probably the bones of a large mammal, now hang behind the altar, accessible but mostly out of sight to anyone who’s not looking for them. In fact, none of the informational markers in the church mention the bones!
Instead there are marked the church’s other treasures, like its two-story brick Byzantine exterior, the 11th-century gold mosaic of the Virgin Mary in the apse, and the vibrant animal floor mosaics (notably one showing two chickens carrying a tied fox) dating to the following century, in image below.