19 December 2007

Hunting lions

Mark the Evangelist has been La Serenissima’s patron saint since early in the ninth century when local merchants spirited his body away from its tomb in Alexandria (hidden under a pile of pickled pork to thwart the Muslim guards!) and brought it to Venice, the very spot on the Adriatic Sea where, Venetian legend has it, an angel from God once said to the saint, Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus. Hic requiescet corpus tuum. (Peace be to you, Mark, my evangelist. Here shall your body rest.)

Since that heroic theft, his body has been said to rest in Basilica San Marco (although most likely it burned in a fire in 976). But his Biblical symbol, the lion, is absolutely everywhere one looks in the city. Sometimes the glorious beast has vast wings and a terrifying snarl, and sometimes an open book bearing the Latin motto mentioned above. When this feline symbol represents Venice at war, he bears a great sword, and his other paw rests on the closed book – he puts aside his own peace during wartime.

In her wonderful book The World of Venice, Jan Morris lists Venice’s superlative lion in every possible category: the fiercest, the eeriest, the saddest, the silliest, and so on. (I have visited almost every lion she names. I will show some of them to you as time passes.) Even so, there are hundreds more to seek. Nearly everyday I find one that I have never seen before. Here a majestic doorknocker, there a bas relief, and just beyond, a pride of balustrade ornaments…

And so I hunt lions. And I shoot them with my camera. I especially enjoy the safari late at night when the streets are empty, but I am probably a more successful photographer in daylight. Either way, I am always delighted to come upon a new cat in his native habitat, to add him to my trophies.

Here you see a pair of La Serenissima's lions (Morris calls them “the frankest”). They live at the foot of a monument to Vittore Emanuelle on Riva degli Schiavoni. Each is slightly larger than life and sports powerful wings. One is dauntless even as he is momentarily occupied in biting at his shackles - he's my favorite in all of Venice. His brother lion is unencumbered, roaring fiercely, wings widely spread in threat.

Are they not beautiful manifestations of Venice’s once fierce and noble power?