Coming down the steps beside her into the darkening Piazzetta he said, 'Look, another example of our looting,' pointing to the two high columns. 'St Theodore with his crocodile was once our patron saint. But in fact this is not St Theodore at all -- it is a Hellenistic statue which we have taken for our own. And opposite, you see, the Lion of St. Mark is not a lion at all -- a Chimera from the Levant we stuck wings on. All stolen, the columns too...'
-Miss Garnet's Angel, Sally Vickers
Arriving in Venice by vaporetto, water taxi or-- god forbid-- cruise ship, you would find yourself just glimpsing two freestanding columns with creatures atop them as you pass the grand Doge's Palace and The Basilica of St. Mark. it will be just a glimpse, but you'll register and recognise them, having seen them in pictures and videos from other tourists, travel shows or interviews with filmmakers. Later, on your own, or with your companion or your gaggle of guided group you will also just glimpse it while being overwhelmed by other wonders of the Piazza San Marco such as the arched-rimmed plaza itself, with Caffè Florian's orchestra serenading patrons and passersby, and the metal figures banging a bell above an astrological clock. Your guide, or guidebook, or your google search will tell you to not pass between the columns, as it's bad luck to, but fail to tell you why. You'll crane your head until your neck cricks and then take a selfie, trying to angle your phone so the crocodile's dragonhead is in frame or get the lion's bearded goofy face into--- wait, what?
With almost every bridge, square, canal, church or palace of Venice, there are stories, and there are stolen stories from other histories (which could also be stolen, or just fabricated), and there is mystery and legend and what you will invent for yourself to make it true.
Here is the story of the columns. Here is what's true.
Returning in May 1172 from a disastrous battle campaign against the then Byzantine Empire of the East, the 35th Venician Doge, Vitale Michiel, brought with him the plague and three granite columns looted from Syria. Transferring the Columns to the square, one was dropped into the canal, where it still lies. The other two would lie on the edge of the square behind fortifications while the city recovered from its battle loss and the Plague, and to choose a new Doge. Michiel, fleeing a meeting of disgruntled noblemen in his palace to the refuge of a convent, was ambushed by a hidden mob as he dashed down nearby Calle Della Rasse (on which you would now find Venice's Christmas Shop and the Murano Glass Factory), and stabbed to death. (of possible interest: only one of his assassins was tried, and punished not only by death, but his home, on the corner of Calle Della Rasse, demolished with the proviso that no stone building ever be built on it. None was, until the decree was lifted after the second world war. Ironically, the extension to the Danieli Royal Excelsior Hotel that was built there in 1948 was done in the International Modern style at the time and is quite unflattering to the Doge's Palace next to it.)
What of those columns, lying at rest as unwarranted pillage, twins that were once triplets? Various attempts had been made to raise them, until after eight or so years an engineer offered to do for free, if he was allowed the right to hold card playing tables beneath them. Nicolò Staratonio was from Lombard and better known as Barattieri, (from Barrato or 'Barter' and made as a masculine nickname means cardsharp or swindler), Nicolò had just completed the Rialto Bridge (not the current version, but a floating pontoon bridge), and eagerly took on the challenge as the current walls of the Plaza were taken down, the square enlarged and the Basilica receiving a new glossy gold front. All this meaning a bigger space with more clientele to reap gambling profits from. Soon, the canal behind the columns was where all new visitors to Venice arrived.
Getting fleeced by card sharks may be where the bad luck tradition comes from, or from the original Doge's fate, or from executions, flogging, burnings and defenestrations that took place here. Looking just to the east of the columns as you face them you'll notice two red marble columns along the upper arches of the Doge's Palace: Death sentences were announced from here as well as the hanging of disgraced noblemen and beheadings of wayward leaders.
Here is the story of the Winged lion and the crocodile. Here is what's true.
Everything in Venice is a plundered façade: the islands themselves are resting on thin air, on mass forests packed together and sinking under slabs of mountains with frontages of sculpted and embossed embellishments. Stick a three ton bronze statue of a chimera picked up from China via somewhere in Persia on top of a column and call it a lion. Then go back and add wings and a book and gold plating and now it's a St. Marks Lion.
Symbols and myths, parables and attributions.
St. Mark is the saint of Venice because Venetians went and stole his entombed body because they believed that's what he wanted because someone said Mark said he dreamed an Angel told him when he was spending the night hiding amid the wee weedy islands of the lagoon that he would be at rest there. (whether that meant the angel was saying he would get enough rest to carry on with God's work, or that his spirit wouldn't be at rest until his body was returned there is a matter of interpretation). A lion is his symbol because St. Mark described John the Baptist's preaching like the 'roar of a lion'. That's probably stretching it. But a winged lion? Of the four beasts around Jesus in Revelation 4 that represent four evangelists, the lion (with not one pair but six wings) is thought to be Mark. Also something something Ezekiel prophesy.
The book is under the lion, closed. Elsewhere you mostly see the winged lion holding an open book, with the Latin words (or quite oddly abbreviated to fit) 'Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus.': 'Peace be unto you, my evangelist Mark', the greeting from the dreamy angel. Some will tell you a closed book means peacetime, or gaffle about sovereignty. In this case it's most likely because they couldn't fit an open book with the statue's pose.
Atop the other column is meant to be St. Theodore the Martyr, who is said to have pried open the jaws of a dragon to release it's grip on his mother. As it maybe was a crocodile and not a dragon, to play it safe, he's often depicted with a crocodile. He's also several different Theodores, who also got martyred and probably had nothing to do with crocodiles. The Venetians also stole his body or at least one of the Theodores who've been martyred and he was the city's patron saint until The Big Mark Score a few decades later. Denoted down to 'tutelary guardian' of Venice, he has a spear because one of the theodores who could also be the same Theodore was a roman general, so somehow a spear fits. Just as the legends of Theodore were mismatched, so too was the statue atop the column, with his head a bust of Mithridates VI of Pontus (who was actually an enemy of the Western Empire), and body a Hadrian era Roman soldier. Even the crocodile is sculpted with its head more serpentine to match some possible dragon, making saint and beast as much of a chimera St Marks Lion is.
Even further to this is that although the columns remain intact, their stylites occupants are reconstructions. Looted by Napoleon in 1797 when the Venice Republic was erased, the lion went its merry way to sit above a fountain until Napoleon got trumped. Aiming to return the statue to Venice, the statue was totally busted on its removal and book stolen. Reconstructed with its tail waving out instead of tucked between its legs, it was returned in 1814. The martyr and 'dragon' are a copy made during restoration a couple of decades ago, with the well-restored original still standing within the nearby Doge's Palace.
The guide finishes their recital and, closed umbrella aloft, leads your group off to another site. A boy with a selfie stick whizzes by on a dragon, er, hoverboard. Or your companion finishes reading from the guidebook. Time to go inside the Basilica. Look, those horses, also looted. Also replicas. You give another look back at the lion and retell your favourite joke: Two lions were walking around Piazza San Marco. One of them says, 'Quiet around here.'
This story had assassins, gamblers, body-snatchers, monsters fashioned into a Saint's familiar, statues shattered yet fully reformed and all of it is true.
lion tail | crocodragon tail