Monday, October 24, 2011

The Queen of the Adriatic - Part 1

The Piazzetta San Marco, Venice

Few cities on Earth rival the sheer splendour, history or mystery of Venice. It's piecemeal development has been shaped by numerous owners, and influenced by it's major role in the history of Europe over the last thousand years, from it's origins as a supposed fishing colony on swampy marshland, to a town built up by fleeing Romans, it has been slowly and at times turbulently transformed into one of the most beautiful cities ever built.

Though the city itself could be considered a relic and piece of art, within its labyrinthine twists and turns lie a number of artifacts the city has collected from both Italy and abroad, two of the most famous including the beautiful Horses of St. Marks, and the striking bronze statues of St. Theodore and the winged-lion (and symbol of Venice) sitting atop their columns. Today I wish to start this series by talking about one of these two columns.

In particular the lion of St. Mark may have more of a story behind it than initially strikes the visiting traveler. Very little in Venice originated in the city itself, the origins of its treasures as varied as the city's various historical custodians and this statue has lived a life in line with that past.

It is comprised of various different bronze pieces held together by metal braces. The wings, added by restorers, which were originally created to look like individual feathers (1) were later modified to become solid blocks. The body itself is argued to have come from Constantinople as a spoil of war and was originally a chimera, not a lion, which then had the wings added to fit the character of Venice's patron saint St. Mark. Preceding its life in Constantinople, the lion (or chimera) has a possible origin in Persia and it thought to have been created somewhere around 300BC (2). That's an old statue.

The tail is debatably the original, but if the chimera assumption is correct it has been modified heavily or replaced, the original would have been in the form of a snake (traditionally chimeras have the body of a lion, the tail is a snake, and to make things more uncomfortable and just generally perplexing also have a goat's head emerging from their back).

Looking closely at the face of the statue one can imagine that its original form was different, the face doesn't quite match like what any modern observer would call a lion though by historical accounts, lion's faces were rarely rendered very accurately in art (understandable as … well have you ever tried to sketch a lion's face up close?), but does have unforgiving traits for ancient depictions of the chimera. The 'Chimera of Arrezzo' is an Etruscan bronze sculpture currently housed in the Archaeological Museum in Florence which carries remarkable familiarities to the St. Marks lion sculpture, especially the shape of the ears and face.

The Lion of St. Mark atop its column in the Piazzetta

Under its front paws, the statue stands proudly on a book, which in other depictions of the lion of St. Mark can be seen front on and contains the text 'Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus'. This Latin phrase, translated to 'Peace be upon you Mark, my evangelist' is the line supposedly delivered to Mark by an angel (legend tells that St. Mark visited Venice before he died, and was told that the city would be his final resting place). The book cannot be seen when viewing the sculpture from below, but from the Doge's Palace alongside, or even St. Marks Basilica in the nearby Piazza it is clear.

The final piece of this puzzle of a grab-bag relic is the very pillar upon which it sits. Like the matching column a few meters away carrying St. Theodore, this granite monolith is supposedly another spoil of Venetian plundering. In any case it certainly wasn't made in Venice nor for the purpose it's now used for, and its origins extend from the island of Chios in Greece (which early on was one of the most prosperous of the Greek islands) to Alexandria.

The Alexandrian theory is generally favoured, as the style and material supposedly matches that used in royal and administrative structures in the ancient Egyptian city. How the pillars were taken is unknown, but the old Venetians had an eye for such things and when Alexandria was in social and financial decay due to the silting of the Nile and the Arab invasion they went in for the valuables. It was not a unique case, half of Venice could be built on stone columns from distant cities thanks to the city's bold sea-faring and militarised past.

The columns were of course transported by sea and found their way into the Piazzetta where they remain to this day. Originally they would have welcomed visitors who arrived by water, but with today's train station depositing entering tourists the city at the opposite end, their effect is somewhat diminished. Nonetheless, the statues and their platforms are still a beautiful sight to anyone lucky enough to see them.


1. Ackroyd, Peter. Venice Pure City p. 255/256
2. Freeman, Charles. The Horses of St. Marks p. 87/88


  1. Possibly some of the longest sentences in Blog history. Congratulations sir!

  2. Still looking forward to part 2! (Also, can I put in a request for something on that Pearl of Adriatic - Dubrovnik / Ragusa?)

  3. Sevy: I try. ;)
    Mos: Thanks! And certainly, having not been there I'm going to have to do a bit of research but I'll have a think about it. :)
    Thanks for reading!