Venice – The Lion of Venice

Here we are in front of the Piazzetta(Little Square), and before us is the noble column bearing up the symbol of the patron saint of the city. This magnificent shaft and its companion column bearing S. Theodore standing upon a crocodile, are so interwoven with the life and history of Venice that they are duplicated in almost every city over which the Republic ruled. St. Theodore wields a sword in his left hand and on his right arm he carries a shield, a symbol of the temper of the Republic, which was the strong arm for defense, her utmost strength being put forth in protecting herself and not in assailing others.

Now let us direct our attention to the column up-holding the Lion. Did you ever see a grander pillar? Certainly there are not many. It came from Syria, and there is a legend that it once stood in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The winged lion is of bronze, a work of the fifteenth century. Spread out before him is an open Bible on which was carved ” The Gospel according to St. Mark,” but the French erased the scriptural quotation and inserted ” Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen.” On being told of this change, a gondolier standing in his rocking boat, athwart which fell the shadow of the column, re-marked, that ” St. Mark, like all the rest of the world, had been compelled to turn over a new leaf.”

When Napoleon was here in 1805 he so admired this Lion that he took it with him to Paris and had it set up in the Hotel des Invalides, but it was subsequently returned.

When these columns were being landed from the vessel which brought them over the sea, one of them fell overboard and sank in the mud, and for a long time every effort to raise it proved unsuccessful. At last, the Doge Ziani offered the grant of any special privilege that might be requested by any one who succeeded in placing the column on shore ; upon which, a certain Lombard, named Niccolo il Barattiere, volunteered his services and succeeded in rescuing the column, choosing as his reward that he might set up a gambling table between the columns, a concession which resulted in disastrous consequences, for this was the heart of the city, and, although wealth poured into the coffers of the gambler, the business and social life of the Republic was fast becoming demoralized. But a concession once granted could not be repealed and, in order to keep the people from the place, it was enacted that all public executions should be inflicted between these columns and beside the gambling table; and so dreadful did the spot become in the minds of the populace that to step “between the columns” was thought to insure some terrible calamity.

To the right is seen the end of the Doge’s Palace with its beautiful double colonnade presenting a richly embellished appearance toward the sea and the Piazzetta. From our present standpoint we get a closer view of the ornamentation of the structure. Observe how much larger are the arches and how much shorter and thicker the columns of the lower colonnade than are those of the ones above and how delicate and harmonious is the design of the entire structure. The lower arcade consists of thirty-six columns and the upper of seventy-one. Notice also the artistic arrangement of the small slabs of colored marble which face the upper portion of the building. In this palace is Tintoretto’s Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world, measuring thirty by seventy-five feet. On a line extending parallel with the side of the Palace facing the Piazzetta, and between this palace and the Column of the Lion, you will see a row of ornamental bronze candelabra. The building seen between the candelabra and the Ducal Palace is a portion of the side wall of the Cathedral of St. Mark, in the minds of some eminent art critics the most beautiful building in the world. From our present point of view we have the opportunity of leisurely examining its stately pillars and arches and its graceful spires into whose niches are set splendid statuary.

Observe that spire rising between the summits of the two upper arches of San Marco. You notice in its niche a statue of one of Italy’s saints. The niche below this contains no statue, but under this again is a third niche containing a Byzantine Madonna (dimly seen), before which a lamp burns nightly to commemorate the remorse of the Council of Ten – generally supposed to be strangers to such a sentiment – for the unjust condemnation of Giovanni Grassi, executed in 1611, and pardoned ten years after his death !

Between the Pillar of the Lion of St. Mark and the front of the cathedral is seen the Clock Tower, which was erected in 1494. This dial is resplendent with azure and gold, the sun on the hands traveling round the zodiacal signs which decorate it, and marking the time of twice twelve hours. In the niche above this dial you perceive some pieces of statuary, gilt bronze figures representing the Virgin and Child. In the square above you may see a gigantic figure, a lion of S. Mark, upon an azure and stellated ground, while the whole structure is surmounted by two bronze Vulcans who strike the hours upon the bell. This Clock Tower was struck by lightning in 1750 and restored in 1755.

The buildings on either side of the Clock Tower were added at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Under the clock you may see a portion of the outlines of an arched doorway. It leads to the Merceria, the center of the commercial activity of the city, a district where there are many large shops and warehouses and where the paved streets are narrow and crooked. Formerly there used to stand in this Merceria a draped female figure arrayed in the latest Parisian style, and the ladies of Venice used to stroll here and inspect the costumes with the same eagerness that modern ladies consult the fashion plates.

Contrary to the general idea, one may go on foot to almost every section of Venice, and I have strolled through the city for an entire day ; for, in addition to old picturesque courts and the labyrinth of intricate lanes for the use of pedestrians, narrow walks occasionally separate the waters of the canals from the sides of the buildings.

To the left in our field of vision are the walls of the old Campanile ; the windows by which they are pierced lighted the ascent to the summit of the tower. The massive arcade seen at the base of the Campanile, and between it and the column, is the Loggetta, or vestibule of the tower, to which we have already referred. It was erected after designs by Sansovino in 1540 and is ornamented with bronze statues of Pallas, Apollo, Mercury and Peace, and with beautiful bronze gates, all cast by the same artist. The structure has three arches divided by double columns. Within are statues in niches. At this end of the Ioggetta there is a single arch which rests upon two pillars on either side of which is a passageway. Part of this structure was destroyed by the falling of the Campanile, and afterwards restored.

Once a week this Loggetta used to be the center of a very animated and ofttimes excited scene, for the public lottery was drawn here on Saturday afternoons. The numbers were drawn from a revolving glass cylinder containing ninety identical tubes, in each of which was a single number from one to ninety. The numbers were drawn by a little boy, who was blindfolded, a different boy being employed each week. The little fellow received a suit of clothes and five dollars for his trouble, and hence the position was much sought for ; but here, as elsewhere, influence determined the choice.

The Italians hate work and dream of fabulous fortunes that may come with every turn of the wheel. There is a class of men who give “tips ” on the lottery, as they do here in America on the races, and probably with about the same results. In selecting their lottery numbers, they are influenced by the most trivial matters. An Italian met a priest and asked him to give him the numbers that would be drawn at the next lottery.

“How should I know?” protested the clerical, “and to think I do, does little credit to your brains.”

“No, no ! do not say so, Padre mio ! Give me a terno. Pray content me this once.”

” My son, I will give you a rule for always being contented. Avoid sin, think often of death and behave so as to merit Paradise.”

“Basta! basta ! Thanks, a thousand thanks ! God will re-ward you ! ” and off he runs and plays the numbers corresponding to sin, death and Paradise. Would you believe it? The three numbers are drawn and the fellow’s joy knew no bounds. The news spread all over the city, and the poor priest, who was utterly innocent of trying to suggest a number, was besieged by multitudes of people for numbers for the next lottery, and the more he protested the more they clamored, and every word he spoke was turned into a number and played at the next lottery.

You have doubtless wondered why so many gondolas are moored here in this spot, and the reason is that this is the landing of the ferry or tragetto.

Observe that the gondolas seen at the base of the column have a ” felze,” or covering overspread with black cloth, which forms a small cabin and affords protection from the rain and wind. There is a door in front and a small sliding window on each side. This canopy is generally removed in summer and an awning put in its place.

The gondoliers are usually strong, active, civil fellows, who boast the distinction of having in their Guild the oldest trades union in the world. They generally own their own gondolas, the cost of one of these we are looking at being about two hundred dollars. In the season for tourists they sometimes make two dollars a day, but the balance of the year their earnings are much less. The number of gondolas in the city is limited by the city authorities, as is also that assigned to each of the hotels.

Nearby, in the narrow street called the Calle delle Razzie, is a restaurant frequented by sailors and gondoliers, where characteristic food is displayed in the windows, all of which is cooked. Here are shown loaves of Indian meal bread three or four feet in diameter, and fried fish of different kinds. A very good dinner can be gotten for two or three cents. Alongside the restaurant is a wine shop, and above a pyramid of casks is a cluster of crimson lamps hanging before a flaring Madonna. Two of these lamps are lighted by day, but in the evening, when the gondoliers crowd the shop to drink the money they have earned, she will have a whole chandelier ablaze in her honor.

That curious object perched on the post in front of us, and looking somewhat like a bird-cage with a pyramidal top, is the gondolier’s shrine of the Virgin; and every night, in summer and winter, through storm and calm, for all the years, it is lighted. The fact that it lights the way to the landing steps, thus mingling the utilitarian with the devotional element, does not, in the minds of these swarthy boatmen, detract in any wise from the latter.

The Piazzetta which opens up so magnificently be-fore us is called by the Venetians the Bocca di Piazzi (the Mouth of the Square). This is a spot from whence the fleets of Venice sailed and to which they returned laden with the spoil of empires ; where emperors, kings and popes have landed in state, being met by the brilliant pomp of Venetian hospitality. We will advance along the smooth, spacious pavement of the Mouth of the Square, and, as we do so, there will open up to us such a wonderful vision of architectural grandeur and loveliness as can be seen no-where else in all the world.

Passing through this stately doorway into the glories of Venice our eyes are dazzled and our enthusiasm is aroused by the sight of the famous Cathedral. The map shows our two positions and their relation to each other.