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Venice is a magical city, with its lagoon, canals and bridges. I realized a lifelong dream when I visited in 2017 with my grandson and daughter. One of the things I noticed as I wandered around the city was the abundance of lions. The more I looked, the more of the majestic beasts I saw. In fact, the lions of Venice are everywhere, carved in stone, gracing archways and serving as knockers on doors.
The lion symbolizes courage, power and strength, all important attributes for the Venentians. The winged lion, so predominant in Venice, also represents the city’s patron saint, Mark.
Check out some of the stories around the Lions of Venice, in this Tales from Italy post, and a few of my photos capturing them throughout the city.
The Lion of St Mark
According to early traditions, each of the evangelists who authored a gospel in the Bible is represented by a winged creature. The winged lion represents Mark. Many of the Venetian lions scattered throughout the city, therefore, display wings and hold an open book beneath a paw. Sometimes the head is wreathed in a halo.
The ancient winged sculpture, atop one of two tall pillars in Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square), in Venice, has come to symbolize the city as well.
A long history accompanies that bronze statue. Originally created in 300 BC, the winged lion came to Venice in the 12th century. Over the centuries, many repairs occurred around the sculpture’s core. The lion even left Venice for a time, during Napoleon’s conquest of the Venetian Republic in 1797. Badly damaged, it returned after Napoleon’s downfall.
Today the lion presides over the square, and the city, a symbol of strength. The flag of Venice carries the image and a golden lion is given as the prize at the yearly Venice International Film Festival.
Near the Arsenal, stone lions stand guard. As part of their plunder, the seated lion arrived in Venice in 1687, after the Venetians battled the Ottomans. Runes decorate the lion’s marble flanks causing the locals to believe that the lion possessed magical powers.
According to the story, in November 1719, after a mighty storm, the torn bodies of two sailors showed up near the lions. A short time later, after another storm, a third body appeared, bearing wounds created by wild animals.
During the next storm, officials hid nearby and watched as a merchant with the reputation of a sorcerer laid his hands on the runes and brought the stone lions to life. He sent the beasts after another victim, however when an official stabbed the merchant with a sword, the lions turned back into statues.
One of the statues continued to roar however. An official cut off the head, to silence it. And indeed, one of the statues obviously wears a head not original to the sculpture. Beware these statues, during stormy nights in November!
The Lions of Saint Mark’s Square
Although lions adorn buildings, arches and towers all over Venice, one of the best places to spot them is in the city’s huge piazza. Considered one of the finest squares in the world, Saint Mark’s is surrounded on three sides by public buildings. The fourth side is occupied by Saint Mark’s Basilica, the magnificent former chapel of the Doges and the equally impressive palace. Both feature lions, outside and inside.
The brick bell tower for the basilica, called the campanile, is so tall that ships used it to guide them home. Look up high for the lion. This one wears a golden halo.
And the impressive clock tower, built between 1496 and 1499, features a mosaic of gold stars glittering against a blue background. The Lion of Saint Mark was added in 1755. Two bronze Moors strike the bell to mark the hours. I caught the Moors in action. See the video at the end of the post.
And, don’t leave the piazza without getting a selfie with the red lions. Located next to Saint Mark’s Basilica is a little square called Piazzetta dei Leoncini. It is home to two lions sculpted in the eighteenth century from Verona marble. These sturdy lions practically beg for children and the young at heart to climb astride. My grandson and I settled for standing beside one.
Lions, Lions Everywhere
Truly, lions lurk everywhere in Venice. Our hotel, a 13th century former palace located next to Saint Mark’s Square, boasted a lion door knocker and doorbell. A carved lion face peered out from the building adjacent to our hotel.
In fact, carved lion faces abound in Venice. Some of them resemble mailboxes with open mouths . In the past, a citizen could secretly accuse someone of a crime by writing his name on a slip of paper and placing it in the lion’s mouth. Special magistrates collected the accusations and acted on them.
A stern lion’s face even peers down from the sadly beautiful Bridge of Sighs.
Lions of Venice
The lions on display in Venice contribute to its magical atmosphere. It’s fun to look for them and see the variety of sculptures, carvings and paintings. Searching for lions makes a great scavenger hunt for kids and adults. Many of them have ancient stories associated with them.
Have you been to this beautiful city? Did you notice the lions of Venice?
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