Lions in Venice

Clocktower in Saint Mark's Square

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The Saint Mark's lion holding an open book in his paw

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Have you ever tried to count lions in Venice? (Challenge accepted?)

They come in different sizes, materials and shapes: Some are in stone, others are made ofbronze or of mosaic stones, …

It is actually not a coincidence that there is a high presence of lions in the city: The lion symbolizes Venice patron saint, Saint Mark. He gives the name to the Basilica and to the main square.

Now the question is: Who is Saint Mark?

He is one of the four evangelists that can be represented by different animalsoriginating in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Mark is symbolized by a lion, Luke by an ox, Matthew by an angel and John by an eagle.

According to tradition, Mark was born in Cyrene and became later an assistant to the apostle Peter. When Mark turned back by boat from Aquileia to Rome, crossing through the lagoon, a storm came up obliging him to take shelter on an island.

There Mark had the vision of an angel prophesying him that a marvelous city would be built to receive his remains. “Pax Tibi Marce Evangelista Meus” (Peace onto you,Mark, my evangelist) were the words of the angel. And voilà, the angel was right: Saint Mark is today buried in the beautiful Saint Mark’s Basilica.

Hundreds ofyears passed after the death of Mark, when, one day, his remains were brought to Venice in a rocambolesque theft from Alexandria: It was the year 828 when Rustico da Torcello and Buono from Malamocco presented Saint Mark to the Doge and he thus became the new patron saint of Venice.

The lion enters politics

The lion is thus a religious symbol, but when did it become a political one?
The first evidence dates back to 1261 in a sigil of the Doge Ranieri Zeno where a tiny lion is represented in “moeca”. “In moeca” means frontally, looking like a “moeca” crab.
The first representation of the lion as a political symbol in mosaic stones though can befound in Saint Mark’s Basilica itself, in the Chapel of Sant’Isidoro. (Have you already spotted it?)

Real lions in Venice

Being the official symbol of Venice, the lion always fascinated the Venetian citizens and thus lions could actually be found in the gardens of nobles or in public palaces: On St Mark’s Square, for example, a golden cage with a lion was set up and paid for by the Republic of Venice. (In the end he died unfortunately because of an intoxication due to the golden bars.)

During Carnival in 1762 a lion was exhibited to astonished visitors and immortalized by Pietro Longhi in his painting „Il Casotto del Leone“.

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