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Winged Lion of St. Mark

Torre dell'Orologio Winged Lion of St. Mark Venice

ABOVE: Lion on the Clock Tower, St. Mark's Square.

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.

Here a lion, there a lion, everywhere a lion lyin'.

Venice Italy travelOne of the most famous winged lions in Venice is on the Torre dell'Orologio, the clock tower on the Piazza San Marco. Another stands atop a column in the Piazzetta, next to the Doge's Palace. The latter statue was hauled away to Paris by occupying Napoleonic troops in 1797, but it was returned to Venice in 1815.

If you visit the Doge's Palace, be sure to see Capaccio's painting of 1516 that shows a winged lion with a curiously humanoid face. The lion smiles at the observer while standing half on the mainland, half on the lagoon with the Doge's Palace and a fleet of sailing ships in the background.

Winged Lion of St. Mark Venice ItalyThere are plenty of other lions for leo leo lovers to enjoy. To quote A Venetian Bestiary again, "there are lions in the middle of dreadful meals, lions having their jaws wrenched open, lions with crowns on their heads, lions confronted by dragons, the lion that carries Minerva side-saddle in the public gardens, the eighteenth-century red marble lions of the Piazzetta dei Leoncini which seem specifically designed to let children ride them, the benignly simpering Byzantine lions that sustain the Tree of Life in the cathedral screen at Torcello."

Best of all, Venice's lions aren't real--so you can enjoy them without feeling guilty over the fact that the object of your attentions would be happier gnawing on a zebra in the African veldt.

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About the author:

Durant Imboden photo.Durant Imboden has written about Venice, Italy since 1996. He covered Venice and European travel at for 4-1/2 years before launching Europe for Visitors (including Venice for Visitors) with Cheryl Imboden in 2001.

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