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Looking for the Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of Venice | Print |

St. Mark, the Winged Lion, the symbol of the Evangelist that Venice chose to represent its political and military might. Finding some lions scattered around the city.

On the Grand Canal, in St. Mark’s Square, in the Doges’ Palace, at the gates of the Navy Dockyard as far as Via Garibaldi.

The Lion of St. Mark is the symbol of the City of Venice. The winged lion is a metaphorical representation of Mark the Evangelist, protector of Venice, a symbol that is typical of the type of Christian iconography that is derived from the prophetic visions of the Apocalypse, written on the island of Patmos by the Apostle John.
The winged lion appears with an open book in its hand, bearing the Latin words PAX TIBI MARCE EVANGELISTA MEUS (“Peace to you, Mark my Evangelist), which popular tradition says are the words spoken by an angel to Mark, who had got lost after being shipwrecked in the Lagoon and then found a resting place and veneration here. Naturally the image of the lion, the king of beasts, also represents strength, pride, might and the capacity to administer peace and justice, all the qualities and characteristics that Venetian power saw in itself. 
Of course the Lion of St. Mark is on the city’s flag, Venice’s banner. The flag first consisted of a gold cross on a blue field, the colours of the Byzantine Empire, of which the city used to be a part. When St. Mark’s body was adventurously transferred to Venice from Alexandria in Egypt and he was adopted as the city’s patron saint, the evangelist’s lion on a blue field was also adopted, with six decorations on a red band standing for the sestieri, namely the six districts into which Venice was divided, as it still is. Finally, a lion designed in gold on a garnet red field, a version taken from the flag of the Venetian war fleet from the 12th century onwards.


At this point it is interesting to hear about the legend of how St. Mark’s remains were purloined. Two merchants stole the evangelist’s body in Alexandria, where Mark had founded the first Christian church, intending to take it to Venice, where they could at last worship the remains without fear of persecution. After gaining possession of the body, Rustico da Torcello and Bon da Malamocco, for these were the names of the two, conceived an ingenious stratagem to evade the Arab police: they covered the remains with pork meat, which Muslims consider unclean, passed all the controls and set sail with their precious load. When they got to Venice - it was the year 828 - a huge crowd was awaiting them; as soon as they set their feet on shore, a powerful smell of roses spread all along the quayside.
It was decided to build a church by the Doges’ Palace for these remains, a building that was to be the Doge’s Chapel and the State Church, the present Basilica of St. Mark.


Of course the Venetians are very proud of their banner and fly it on all public occasions; it is often to be seen fluttering in the breeze as it adorns the façades of the palaces regardless of whether there is an official event or not. The Lion of St. Mark is not only to be found on the city’s banner; during the one thousand one hundred years of the history of the Republic no opportunity was lost to reproduce it on stone, in paintings and frescos and in all official documents.
On our journey, therefore, we shall be trying to discover some of these lions scattered about the city (and in fact there are very many of them). Our little cruise will go along the Grand Canal, Venice’s main, renowned watercourse, three kilometres long, and will last about half an hour. Palaces and churches rise in splendour on both sides of the canal, built to the design of the greatest architects and in all the styles of architecture that succeeded each other from the time the city was founded.
We find our first lion sculpted on stone and affixed to one of the sides of an imposing building with bare brick surfaces and windows protected by massive knotted iron bars on the right just past the San Marcuola stop and the Fontego dei Turchi, the former Turkish merchants’ depot. The lion is on the Magazzino del Megio, a grain depot run by the Serene Republic that was converted some time ago into a state primary school. This is a large-size winged lion sculpted in marble in the 15th century, very well drawn and luckily also very well preserved.


Our boat goes on and now we look out for palaces flying banners. After passing under the Rialto Bridge, we usually see one on the balconies of Cà Farsetti and Cà Loredan, the main Venice City Council buildings, and another a little way further along on the right at the bend of the Canal, flying from Palazzo Balbi, the Veneto Regional Government headquarters.
We get off at the San Marco stop and St. Mark’s Square opens up before us after a short walk along the quayside. This is one of most wonderful sights on earth. We’re right below two cyclopean pink granite columns: on the summit of one there is a pedestal with the statue of Todaro, St. Theodore, the city’s first patron, in the act of killing a dragon, and on top of the other column is St. Mark in the form of a winged lion, a very old bronze sculpture, probably originally a fire-breathing Etruscan Chimera, with the addition of wings.
There is certainly no shortage of lions in St. Mark’s Square: they are spread about all over the place, with even a small square dedicated to them, Piazzetta dei Leoncini at the side of the Basilica. Our lion, however, is the one over the Porta della Carta (carta is Italian for paper and document), the monumental entrance to the Doges’ Palace. The Porta della Carta was the way into the centre of the political power of the Venetian Republic: its name is due to the habit of affixing new laws and decrees on it in the presence of public scribes and also to the fact that the archive of state documents was nearby. It was constructed in Decorated Gothic by the Venetian brothers Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon, very well-known sculptors and architects.
In the middle of the group of sculptures above the gate is a representation of Doge Francesco Foscari (political power and the City) kneeling before the Lion of St. Mark (the Church, theological power). The particular thing about this lion is that it is a nineteenth century reproduction by sculptor Luigi Ferrari in replacement of the original, which was destroyed by the French occupying forces when the Most Serene Republic came to an end in 1797, exactly one thousand one hundred years after it was founded.
Luckily for us, the French didn’t manage to destroy all the winged lion symbols of the Most Serene Republic in the city, perhaps also owing to their stinginess, as they only awarded the contract for this work to two stonemasons.
At this point we advise an hour or two spent in looking round the Doges’ Palace and the many wonderful things kept there. When we are inside, we can get on with our task, looking for another key work of art, an absolute compendium of the iconography of the Lion of St. Mark: this is the evangelist’s lion painted by the Venetian Vettor Carpaccio in 1516 to decorate one of the rooms in the Palace.


This animal is seen standing with his paws both on land and in the sea (representing the extent of the Republic’s dominions) while he holds the open book with the classic inscription; he is andante - on the move; in the background are the Doges’ Palace, the site of political power, and the Lagoon, a physical area protected by water and therefore considered inviolable.
After looking round the Doges’ Palace, which will take us about two hours, our suggestion is to go to the land entrance to the Arsenale, the former Venetian naval shipyard. A triumphal space created to commemorate the Christian fleet’s formidable naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto in 1571.
The Venetian Arsenale, which was already certainly making ships in the 12th century, is to be considered the first factory on an industrial scale in the world, both in terms of the extent of its manufacturing premises and the number of workers. In fact it covered 113 acres, corresponding to one-seventh of the area of the entire city; when it was producing at full rate, the average number of workers per day was 1,500 to 2,000, and it reached a peak number of 4,500 to 5,000 (almost 2% of the Venetian citizens of the time). Owing to its exceptionally good organisation, it could turn out armed ships for trade or war in an extremely short time.
A number of lions from various ages in front of the gate to the Arsenale, collected from all along the coasts of the Mediterranean, are on parade to commemorate the warlike deeds performed by the Venetians in these waters. Although each lion has its own fascinating story, perhaps the most important one is that from the sacred island of Delos, in the Greek Cyclades archipelago (the last but one on the right), dating back to the 6th century BC, recalling the capture of Corfu by the Venetians in 1716.
Our tour is about to end by taking another short walk, crossing the wooden bridge in front of the dockyard and going on to Via Garibaldi, where the last lion is awaiting us at No. 1594: this is really a lioness, in stone, one of the few examples of this curious type of lion in the city.
Now we make another little effort and walk a few steps to the public gardens, where we can settle down to allow ourselves a short, necessary and satisfying rest. Nearby is the Giardini waterbus stop, which will give us the opportunity of taking a longer return trip to our starting point. This is another boat journey with a view of St. Mark’s basin, either along the Grand Canal (services 1 and 2) or along the Giudecca Canal (41-42, 51-52 and 61-62).

Alessandro Rizzardini (riproduzione riservata ©)

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