ABOVE: Lion on the Clock Tower, St. Mark's Square.
By Durant Imboden
Lions are scattered about
Venice--if not in the flesh, then in countless paintings and sculptures. Mind you, there
was a time when the cats of Venice weren't limited to tabbies, as Jan Morris tells us in
A Venetian Bestiary:
"From the common cat (felis catus), the Venetians, their
horizons enlarged by their imperial and commercial adventures, turned to the lion (leo
leo), and were eventually besotted by him. Leo leo turned their heads! They
built him onto their corbels, they slipped him into their allegories, they stuck him on
gateposts, they made him the corner-stones of bridges. Citizens kept live lions in their
gardens, and for a time a State Lion lived in a golden cage in the Piazza; he died, it is
said, because licking the bars gave him gilt poisoning, and thereafter captive lions were
forbidden for several centuries. When one turned up, though, at the Venetian Carnival of
1762, Pietro Longhi showed him grandly on display, with a little dog on his back, dancing
dogs all around him, a monkey on a beam above, a fiddler fiddling, and the strolling
Venetians engrossed as ever by his presence."
Why a lion, and not a seagull?
So why does
a maritime city like Venice have a lion as its mascot? Wouldn't a seagull, a fish, or a
duck from the marshy Venetian Lagoon be a more appropriate symbol?
The answer to that question lies in the Ninth Century, when--according to legend--two
or three ambitious Chamber of Commerce types from Venice stole the remains of St. Mark the
Apostle from his tomb in Alexandria, Egypt. William Lithgow tells the story in his
"Comments on Italy" from The Rare Adventures and Painfull Peregrinations,
published in 1614 and quoted in Ian Littlewood's Venice: A Literary Companion:
"They placed the corpse in a large basket covered with herbs and swine's
flesh which the Musselmans [Muslims] hold in horror, and the bearers were directed to cry Khwazir
(pork), to all who should ask questions or approach to search. In this manner they reached
the vessel. The body was enveloped in the sails, and suspended to the mainmast till the
moment of departure, for it was necessary to conceal this precious booty from those who
might come to clear the vessel in the roads. At last the Venetians quitted the shore full
of joy. They were hardly in the open sea when a great storm arose. We are assured that S.
Mark then appeared to the captain and warned him to strike all his sails immediately, lest
the ship, driven before the wind, should be wrecked upon hidden rocks. They owned their
safety to this miracle."
After crossing the Mediterranean and cruising up the Adriatic, the graverobbers reached
Venice and handed their cargo over to the Doge. The local religious and civic authorities
quickly elected St. Mark as Venice's patron saint, and the apostle's traditional symbol--a
winged lion--became the logo of the Venetian Republic.