Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo
This is not only one of the most famous early Renaissance paintings, but one of the most significant in understanding the history of swimming. The scene depicts an event believed to have taken place in Venice between 1370 and 1382. During a procession, a Holy relic made from a remnant of the True Cross of Christ was being carried to the church of San Lorenzo. The bearer was jostled by the crowd causing the relic to fall into the canal, where it was “miraculously” rescued by Andrea Vendramin, the relic’s Guardian. The artist, Gentile Bellini, has transported the scene to 1500, and many people from his time are clearly identifiable, including his patrons and himself shown kneeling at the lower right. Above these figures is a Black man, crouched and ready to dive into the canal. Who is he? Why is he in the painting? Records show that there was an African in Venice at the time, identified as being a “master swim instructor.” Possibly he was brought to Venice by Cadomosto or an other Venetian captain who explored the west African coast, and was brought to Venice as either a free man or slave to teach nobles and courtiers how to swim. A courtier had to be of noble birth and be well accomplished in martial skills, including riding, fencing, running and swimming. It was exposure to the swimming abilities of the Africans that lead to this renewed interest in swimming – which had been discouraged and even regarded as sinful by the church after the fall of Rome.
Note: Photographic reproduction on canvas of the original that is on display in the Accademia Galleries, in Venice.