Meet the Guardian Lions of Venice

Lions are the symbol of the city of Venice, of the wider Venetian Republic, and of St. Mark, the patron Saint of Venice. Lions adorn many public spaces around the world, but few places show as much devotion to these fierce felines as Venice.

You’ll find ferocious Venetian lions, winged lions, and even open-mouthed lion faces that served a sinister function in the time of the Doges. Meet the many lions of Venice on your next trip to the Serenissima Republic.

Why is the lion a symbol of Venice?

Although we may associate Venice with its captivating canals and gorgeous gondoliers, the city has a loyal and long-standing relationship with lions, which came to symbolize the region’s military and cultural importance.

Lions on Palazzo exterior wall, Rialto, Venice
Lions on Palazzo exterior wall, Rialto, Venice

The lion is of course a popular symbol in many cultures, and part of its popularity in other Mediterranean states led to its prevalence in Venice – military success abroad led to raids and sackings, and lion statues were often brought home as trophies of war.

The Winged Lion of St Mark

This tradition began with, without a doubt, the most famous and emblematic lion of Venice, the winged lion found in Piazza San Marco, Venice’s spectacular central square.

The Winged Lion of St. Mark, Venice, Italy
The Winged Lion of St. Mark, Venice, Italy

Standing atop a column with its legs and wings spread wide, the lion looks ready for battle, and indeed it represents Venice’s courage and strength as it fought for maritime dominance.

Venetians’ derring-do even extended to Saint Mark himself!

The Saint’s remains are found in the basilica in the square and were actually smuggled out of Egypt by two Venetian merchants, who hid his remains under layers of pork, which local Muslim officials didn’t care to rummage through.

Less historically certain, but definitely part of local legend, is that Saint Mark made a previous journey to Venice – while he was alive – in the 1st century AD.

The story goes that a storm broke out, putting San Marco in fear of his life before an angel came to visit him and said: “Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus”, which translates as: “Peace to you Mark, my evangelist”.

Close up of Winged Lion of Venice, Italy
Close-up of the Winged Lion of Venice, Italy

Lions in Venice are often depicted in books, and they are often inscribed with this same message.

The historical drama doesn’t end there. In 1797, the French invaded Venice and the lion was transported to Paris. The ransackers became the ransacked!

After Napoleon’s downfall in 1816, the lion was brought “home”, albeit in less-than-mint condition. Not only were some parts missing, it was broken into 20 pieces while being shipped back to Venice.

Making the most of the situation, the Venetians took the opportunity to reposition the lion’s tail.

Bocche de Leone, Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy
Bocche de Leone, Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

While it had previously been tucked between its legs, it was now set in the opposite direction, giving the lion a more imposing look, rather appropriately so after Venice’s victory.

Today, replicas of the winged lion can be found all over Venice, as well as on the flag of the Venetian Republic.

Piazza San Marco

Elsewhere in this show-stopping square, home to both the basilica and the Doge’s Palace, you will find a veritable pride of lions gracing the local architecture.

A Lion in St Mark's Square, Venice, Italy
A Lion in St Mark’s Square, Venice, Italy

On the top of the column to the side of the Doge’s Palace is a particularly eye-catching Venetian lion.

Made of bronze and originally gilded in gold, this statue is believed to date back to the 4th century B.C.

It would have arrived from perhaps Constantinople or another Middle Eastern metropolis and has had pride of place in Piazza San Marco since the 12th century.

One of the city’s more iconic lions, this actually inspired the shape and name of the Golden Lion Prize at the film festival.

The Lions of Piraeus

The Lions of Piraeus tell another story of foreign exploits, as they were brought back from Piraeus, Athens’ ancient port, as spoils of war.

The Piraeus Lion, Venice Arsenal, Italy
The Piraeus Lion, Venice Arsenal, Italy

Today, these nine-foot marble statues stand guard at the Venice Arsenal, offering visitors a reminder of the Republic’s huge status in centuries past.

The Lions of the Arsenal

The Piraeus Lions are actually part of a litter of standing winged lion statues in the Venice Arsenal area.

Arsenal and Naval Museum entrance, Venice, Italy
Arsenal and Naval Museum entrance, Venice, Italy

They are joined by the two lions of the Arsenal, which stand at the entrance of this complex of old shipyards and armories. (The Arsenal is a 12th-century institution).

These lions were actually not spoils of war, but were rather commissioned by Venice’s government in the 18th century to replace – you’ve guessed it! – older lion statues that had worn with time.

Monument to Daniele Manin

Daniele Manin played a particularly important role in a turbulent time in Venice’s history.

Bronze Lion, Daniele Manin Monument, Venice, Italy
Bronze Lion, Daniele Manin Monument, Venice, Italy

He was around at the time of the Risorgimento, a movement that saw the unification of Italy as key to the region’s resurgence.

He had a moment of glory as he led Venetians to victory against the invading Austrians in 1848.

However, when the Austrians returned a year later, he was driven into exile in Paris, where he died in 1857.

Venice was liberated in 1866, and Manin’s body was brought home. This imposing statue, with a cuddlier version of a lion at its base, is just made for a group photo.

Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II

Talking of Italian unification, we can find a tribute to Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy on the Riva degli Schiavoni.

Bronze Lion, Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, Riva Degli Schiavon, Venice, Italy
Bronze Lion, Vittorio Emanuele II Monument, Riva Degli Schiavon, Venice

Vittorio sits upon a rearing horse, his sword drawn as though urging his troops on to battle.

At the foot of the statue, both behind and in front of him, equally war-like women sit with roaring winged lions at their feet.

Vittorio’s relationship with Venice goes deep, underlined by the fact that the huge monument dedicated to him in Rome is actually found in Piazza Venezia – Venice Square.

The King’s Royal Barge

In the Venice Naval Historial Museum (Il Museo Storico Navale), you will find one of the city’s most ornate lions.

The Golden Lion of the Royal Barge, Naval Museum, Venice, Italy
The Golden Lion of the Royal Barge, Naval Museum, Venice, Italy

Housed in the Padiglione delle Navi (the Pavilion of Ships), the King’s Royal Barge, known as the Scalea Reale, has a golden lion as its figurehead.

The Paper Gate (Porta della Carta)

If you like your statues laden with meaning, the winged lion at the Porta della Carta might be the moggy for you.

The  Paper Gate, Venice, Italy
The Paper Gate, Venice, Italy

This gate connects the Basilica di San Marco with the Palazzo Ducale, and so is the physical representation of the union between Venice’s church and state.

To underline that union, the lion here is shown holding an open book, which represents the sovereignty of the Venetian Republic. Doge Francesco Foscari is kneeling before it, demonstrating his position of servitude and duty to the Venetian state and church.

Bocche de Leone (Complaint Boxes)

Finally, lions also served a less monumental purpose in Venice! Bocche de leone (lions’ mouths) is the name given to boxes dotted throughout the city, where citizens could post complaints in the mouth of the carved face of a lion.

The logic here, from Renaissance-era Venice, was that this system of anonymous griping acted as a pressure valve, and allowed locals to vent their spleen without resorting to protests or riots.

Bocche de Leone, Doge's Palace, Venice, Italy
Bocche de Leone, Doge’s Palace, Venice, Italy

The Republic wasn’t called Serenissima for nothing!

The oldest Bocca de Leone still standing today is at the Doge’s Palace, and dates back to 1618.

Fascinatingly, locals would have to go to different boxes for different issues. If they had a tax gripe, they posted it in the lion’s mouth six blocks that way.

If an argument had broken out over a transaction in the market, their lion’s mouth might be a quick boat trip away!

One other intact box can be found in the Santa Maria della Visitazione church in Dorsoduro. This was where Venetians came to complain about garbage in the canals – a lion-sized task that Venice still struggles with today!

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