Wednesday, April 26, 2023


Lions of Venice

James Morris, Venice (London: Faber and Faber, 1974), pp. 180-182:
I cannot help thinking that the old Venetians went a little queer about lions, for the profusion of stone specimens in Venice is almost unbelievable. The city crawls with lions, winged lions and ordinary lions, great lions and petty lions, lions on doorways, lions supporting windows, lions on corbels, self-satisfied lions in gardens, lions rampant, lions soporific, amiable lions, ferocious lions, rickety lions, vivacious lions, dead lions, rotting lions, lions on chimneys, on flower-pots, on garden gates, on crests, on medallions, lurking among foliage, blatant on pillars, lions on flags, lions on tombs, lions in pictures, lions at the feet of statues, lions realistic, lions symbolic, lions heraldic, lions archaic, mutilated lions, chimerical lions, semi-lions, super-lions, lions with elongated tails, feathered lions, lions with jewelled eyes, marble lions, porphyry lions, and one real lion, drawn from the life, as the artist proudly says, by the indefatigable Longhi, and hung among the rest of his genre pictures in the Querini-Stampalia gallery. There are Greek lions, Gothic lions, Byzantine lions, even Hittite lions. There are seventy-five lions on the Porta della Carta, the main entrance to the Doge's Palace. There is a winged lion on every iron insurance plate. There is even a sorrowing lion at the foot of the Cross itself, in a picture in the Scuola di San Marco.

The most imperial lion in Venice is the winged beast painted by Carpaccio in the Doge's Palace, with a moon-lily beside his front paw, and a tail four or five feet long. The ugliest pair of lions lie at the feet of a French Ambassador's tomb in the church of San Giobbe, and were carved, with crowns on their heads and tongues slightly protruding, by the French sculptor Perreau. The silliest lion stands in the Public Gardens, removed there from the façade of the Accademia: Minerva is riding this footling beast side-saddle, and on her helmet is perched another anatomical curiosity — an owl with knees. The eeriest lion is the so-called crab-lion, which you may find in a dark archway near the church of Sant' Aponal, and which looks less like a crab than a kind of feathered ghoul. The most unassuming stands on a pillar outside San Nicolo dei Mendicoli; he holds the book of St. Mark in his paws, but has never presumed to apply for the wings. The most froward stands on a bridge near Santa Chiara, behind the car park, where a flight of steps runs fustily down to the canal like a Dickensian staircase in the shadows of London Bridge, and this unlikeable beast glowers at you like Mrs. Grundy.

The most pathetic lion is an elderly animal that stands on the palisade of the Palazzo Franchetti, beside the Accademia bridge, bearing listlessly in his mouth a label inscribed Labore. The most undernourished is a long lion on the south façade of the Basilica, three or four of whose ribs protrude cruelly through his hide. The most glamorous is the winged lion on his column in the Piazzetta, whose eyes are made of agate, whose legs were damaged when Napoleon removed him to Paris, and whose Holy Book was inserted neatly under his paws when he was first brought to Venice from the pagan East, converted from a savage basilisk to a saint's companion.

The most indecisive lion is the creature at the foot of the Manin statue, in the Campo Manin, whose creator was evidently uncertain whether such carnivores had hair under their wings, or feathers (as Ruskin said of another pug-like example, which has fur wings, 'in several other points the manner of his sculpture is not uninteresting'). The most senile lions are the ones on the Dogana, which are losing their teeth pitifully, and look badly in need of a pension. The most long-suffering are the porphyry lions in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini, north of the Basilica, which have been used by generations of little Venetians as substitutes for rocking horses. The frankest lions, the ones most likely to succeed, are the pair that crouch, one dauntless but in chains, the other free and awfully noble, beneath the fine equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel on the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The most enigmatical is the floridly maned lion, outside the gates of the Arsenal, whose rump is carved with nordic runes. The most confident is the new lion that stands outside the naval school at Sant' Elena, forbidding entry to all without special permission from the commandant. The most athletic looks sinuously past the Doge Foscari on the Porta della Carta. The most threatening crouches on the façade of the Scuola di San Marco, his paws protruding, ready to leap through the surrounding marble. The most reproachful looks down from the Clock Tower in the Piazza, more in sorrow than in anger, as though he has just seen you do something not altogether creditable beneath the arcade. The jolliest — but there, none of the lions of Venice are really very unpleasant, and comparisons are invidious.

They provide an essential element in the Venetian atmosphere, an element of cracked but affectionate obsession. It is no accident that in the very centre of Tintoretto's vast Paradise, in the Doge's Palace, the lion of St. Mark sits in unobtrusive comfort, nestling beside his master amid the surrounding frenzy, and disputing with that saintly scribe, so Mark Twain thought, the correct spelling of an adjective.
Entrance to the Arsenal, Venice
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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