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Counting the Lions of Venice

Amuse the kids and teach a little history while looking for Venice's many stone lions.

 

The lion of St. Mark is everywhere in Venice. Its stone face glares, scowls or gazes benignly from public buildings and monuments—even lamp posts—all over the city. In addition to stone and bronze lions, its image is reproduced in silver, gold, glass and wood, printed on fine silk scarves and tooled into leather. Rings in brass lion noses serve as doorknockers; corbels in the shape of lion heads look out from under roofs.

Kids can be kept endlessly amused and occupied by spotting these lions, collecting them in a notebook or taking their pictures. And not only is the lion fun to spot, it has some history to teach, too.

The Winged Lion 

St. Mark’s symbol, the winged lion, became Venice’s symbol at the same time that Mark became its patron saint. This was in 828 A.D., when the saint’s relics were abducted from Alexandria by two Venetians. (This is a story Venetians love to tell—how the bones were smuggled out in a barrel covered by pork meat, which the Muslim guards’ religion forbade them from touching.)

About a century later, the Venetian Republic—La Serenissima—was born. From the 1200s through the 1600s, the seemingly invincible Republic ruled much of what is now northern Italy, as well as strategic ports throughout the Adriatic and eastern Mediterranean. Wherever Venice went, the winged lion went, too, reminding the world who was boss. When the republic fell in 1797, many of the lions were destroyed, but not all, and even today you can find them throughout this former empire, including Croatia.

On the Hunt

One secret the lions tell is whether Venice was at war or peace when the lion was put there. If the book in his paw is open, Venice was at peace. When the book is closed, Venice was at war. Finding closed books in the city of Venice gets extra points.

Collecting lions can be a contest, but our kids favor a group effort. In little notebooks they bought in the paper store opposite the Tourist Office at the end of Piazza San Marco, they diligently list the lions as they discover them. Sometimes it is a game of I Spy, with everyone else looking to find the lion that the first one has spotted upon stepping into a piazza.

Where the Lions Are

The best place to begin is in St. Mark’s Square, where sharp-eyed kids can fill pages in their notebooks. How many can they spot just standing in one place? Around the piazza are lions: on the clock tower, the basilica, the Doge’s Palace and atop a pillar. Moving closer to buildings reveals more felines in stone. One is over the main door of the Doge’s Palace, the Porta della Carta, but when your kids get there they will see more and more lions—maybe the largest collection in any one place.

Little kids can begin their game by having their pictures taken astride the 18th-century red marble lions beside the Basilica in the Piazzetta dei Leoncini—but they may have to stand in line. Like these, many of Venice’s lions are wingless, so are not St. Mark’s lions. Some were brought as war trophies from far off conquests, others are simply ornamental. But all are fair game for collecting.

Another good hunting ground is the Arsenale, where the republic’s great fleet of ships was built in the world’s first assembly line production. Over its gate, standing guard in front of its walls, and carved in relief as a medallion, the Arsenale was well guarded.

The Venetians have a name for lion heads shown facing forward, as they often are in medallions like the one at Arsenale, with their wings showing behind them. They think the spread wings at either side look like crab legs, so they call this pose "in moleca"—in the form of a crab.

Of Paintings and Pillars 

Not all lions are carved in stone. One painting by Carpaccio in the Grimani room of the Doge’s Palace shows the winged lion with its front paws on land and rear paws in the water, symbolizing the republic’s mastery of land and sea. Our kids started a separate list of the ways they see lions used in souvenirs and other things in shop windows. It gets longer with every trip. (They have yet to find any cell phones with lions on them.)

Look for lions, too, in small towns and cities near Venice—on the city gates of Treviso, and atop pillars in Verona and Vicenza, to learn where Venetians once ruled. Many of these lions are gone, some deliberately defaced or removed when the Venetians left town. Others have fallen victim to war, neglect or development. But this non-violent lion hunt will turn them up, even in such unexpected places as carved on a pulpit.


Destinations: Venice, Italy

Themes: Family Travel


User Comments

Hanging in almost every corner of Venice, the beautiful sculptures of the winged lion represent the symbol of this city and of the land conquered during its vast dominium and ancient Republic. Other than decorating the city or showcasing the conquered places, some lions such as the lions’ mouth of truth had curious and less ornamental purposes. Still visible in Venice and crafted as white marble bas-reliefs, these mouths of truth were depicting the head of a lion or sometimes, an elaborate facial expression. In place of the mouth, there was a hole to insert the sheets of paper with the secret complaints of the Venetians. The complaints could relate to several types of crimes including blasphemy and tax evasion. Due to their huge popularity, the Lions’ mouths of truth were located near the hospitals, on the facades of churches, near the houses of judges but also in St. Marks’ square, Palazzo Ducale. The charges could not be anonymous and had to cite at least two witnesses, otherwise the accusers were burned by the judges. The most dangerous secret complaints were those that were made on charges of treason and conspiracy against the State. It seems that the first Lions’ mouths of truth were introduced after the attempted coup of Baiamonte Tiepolo in 1310. In this case, even without supporting witnesses, complaints were forwarded to the dreaded Council of Ten, who immediately investigated the suspects. Thus began the shadowing and often preventative imprisonment of the accused. The suspect could remain for weeks or months in chains, awaiting trial. Through the years, Venetians have been replicating sculptures of lions and there are still a few companies in Venice, such as Ithaca Art who continues to replicate by carefully following the ancient techniques. If you want to know more about Venetian Lions or add a Venetian touch to your home and garden then you can buy a bas-relief wall art sculpture replica from Ithaca Art at Want to know more about Venetian lions? Visit ABOUT ITHACA ART: Ithaca Art is one the leading sources of museum-quality reproductions. With a new website launched last month, Ithaca Art’s artists are trained in art history and classic craftsmanship. Each piece of art is handmade using the same ancient techniques and materials as the originals. Ithaca’s wall art sculptures include bas-reliefs, plaques, fragments, masks and oil lamps. Museum gift shops throughout Europe fill their shelves with the quality works of Ithaca. You will also find the Ithaca brand in stores in Venice, Paris, Rome, London and now online.

Great article! Check this on on Venetian lions:

More like this? I love this idea! Do you have such family activities in other European cities? My husband and I visited Venice before our daughter was born. We are planning on taking her next year when she's five. Between keeping her focused and engaged and my love of history and architecture - this is perfect! (Also good for short-attention span grown-ups like me.) I'd love to similar games for Rome, Paris, etc.

Great Post! Venice is a breath-taking spot. I agree that it is a great trip and educational for everyone involved – especially the children. Great post! I’ll pass this on to our readers.

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