And no two are alike
The Venetians were hardly the only people in the world to adopt the lion as their sign, although theirs is a winged lion with a book. This of course symbolizes St Mark, but no one really knows why. Some say Mark ‘roared like a lion’ when he preached, or that lion cubs open their eyes after three days, the same period as the Resurrection, or that the Christians endowed each of the four Evangelists with a key astronomical constellation.
The inscription in the lion’s book, Pax tibi, Marce, Evangelista meus (Peace upon thee, Mark, my Evangelist) are the words the angel used to greet Mark in his Venetian dream. (Legend of St. Mark)
But it’s the sheer number of lions that makes Venice really stand apart: there are at least a couple of thousand in the city itself and perhaps twice as many in the lands once ruled by the Republic.
The bookish lion is first believed to have made its appearance on the standard of Doge Pietro Orseolo II, when he conquered Dalmatia in the year 1000. The oldest lion to survive dates from the 13th or early 14th century. It was embedded in the base of the campanile of Sant’Aponal (now removed to the Museo Correr store rooms), a disembodied owl-like creature, with staring eyes, pin curls and a kind of pie pan about his head, claws digging into a closed iron-bound book.
But Venice, unlike other states, had no interest in standardizing their symbol, although there were two favoured poses: the standing lion (en passant), or the upper torso (sejent erect), usually emerging from the sea like Venice itself, known in Venetian dialect as the leone in molea, ‘lion in a soft shell’ (because its wings are folded back like a pair of crab pincers). Then there were the infamous bocche dei leoni, the 'lions' mouths' letter boxes, most of which didn't even bother looking like lions at all.
Each new member of the Venetian pride had to depend on the talent or attitude of the artist, and some, especially in the provinces, are among the funniest things in Italy: Chioggia still smarts over its puny ‘Cat of St Mark’.
Venetian lions reached their peak in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when they were as proud and brave as the Venetians themselves (see the regal Foscari lion on the Palazzo Ducale’s Porta della Carta). In the Republic’s death throes, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the lions responded by becoming twisted, clumsy and grotesque, reaching an incomparable nadir in the ghastly caricature of an animal in S. Giobbe.
By the end of the Republic, a general lion revulsion set in, encouraged by Napoleon, who changed the inscription in the lion’s book from ‘Pax tibi, Marce’ to ‘The Rights and Dignity of Man’. ‘At last, he’s turned the page,’ quipped a gondolier. A general lion massacre took over a thousand victims in Venice itself; many lions you see today are reproductions from the 19th century.
Smaller felines have generally fared better, ever since Petrarch spent time in Venice in the company of a stuffed cat called the Laura II: there are moves afoot to declare the city officially ‘the stray cat capital of the world’.