While I was in Venice the Venetians were celebrating Carnevale di Venezia. There were rather a lot of people.
This photo was taken from the balcony of the great Basilica in Piazza San Marco, one of the most most open and beautiful public spaces in the world. Parts of the Piazza date all the way back to the 9th Century, when Venice was still under Byzantine rule. Carnevale itself dates to the 12th Century, when the Venetians celebrated a victory over Aquileia. In fact the Venetians had been in battle with Aquileia for various reasons since the Council of Mantua in 827, which allowed the city to wrest the body of Mark from the city, thus establishing Venice’s great patron Saint.
Inside the Basilica, which I was not allowed to photograph, are exquisite golden mosaics covering all three of the enormous domes of the structure; many of the images laid within the mosaics are stories of St. Mark, as well as the life of Christ and, because this is Venice, depictions of lions.
Venice is a city of lions. They are everywhere, beginning of course with the enormous, fifteen foot long bronze lion perched atop one of two columns at the entrance to the Piazza, next to the Doge’s red and gold palace.
Incredibly, this lion, with his enormous wings and elegantly long tail, has a body that is over 2,300 years old. One wonders what civilizations and cities he used to guard, and if Venice is his favorite, or if he’s just waiting for a new vista? The Doge’s palace also has lions, as well as beautiful geometric patterns that look so perfect as to be almost dizzying to the eye.
The grand beauty of the Piazza is utterly overwhelming, so much so that no matter how often it’s viewed one hardly knows where first to look. After spending some amount of time there, however, watching the masked and drunken revelers of Carnevale (and listening, unfortunately, to the astoundingly wretched music the Italians had for some unknown reason chosen to blare from outsized speakers in the middle of the square), I became hugely enamored with the famous four horses, called the Triumphal Quadriga, who now live just inside the Basilica. They used to be outside on the loggia, until pollution caused the city to create replicas.
The awe inspiring originals were created in the 4th Century BC, and used to inhabit Constantinople, until the Venetians stole them away in 1204. A rather macabre detail to this story is that the poor creatures’ heads had to be severed in order to transport them to their current home. I wonder what they looked like, with their huge bodies revealing empty bronze and copper caverns within, like some inverse tale of the headless horseman.
Horribly the beautiful statues were stolen by Napoleon in the late 18th Century, but not for long. They were restored within a couple of decades, and upon seeing them one certainly receives the impression they belong in some intrinsic, almost metaphysical manner to the Basilica, and to the great watery city. The details of the animals are astounding, much like the mysterious intricacies of the city’s architecture and history itself. Grand, yet somehow delicate, endlessly fascinating; ancient, and filled with a history of dark violence and power.
When looking at and exploring the origins of Venice’s lions and horses, it is easy to see how the city’s people came to be the sort who wore masks, stole the bodies of saints, and celebrated not only mercantile and military power, but the mystery that comes with both.