Dear Readers, when my 89 and a half year-old friend M and I were in Venice a few weeks ago, it was impossible not to notice that the Venetians appear to have a thing about lions, particularly winged ones.
The winged lion is the symbol of Venice, and is associated with St Mark. The story goes that when Venice was first founded, it was felt that it needed a saintly relic to consolidate its position as a new power. The body of St Mark was stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and was smuggled out under some pickled pork so that the Muslim guards could not find it. This was something of a coup for Venice – other cities might have a saint’s finger, or a piece of the Holy Cross, but Venice was the only place with a whole saint. The symbol of the lion may be a reference to a legend that the saint was thrown to the lions, who refused to eat him. In many images and statues in Venice, the lion is holding a book with the words ‘Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus’ said to be the words of an angel heralding St Mark, which means ‘Peace to thee, Mark, my Evangelist’. The rest of the quotation, so well-known to Venetians that it is rarely shown is ‘Hic requiescet corpus tuum’, meaning ‘ here your body will rest’, which is rather handy under the circumstance. Where the lion is shown with his wings around his head, as in the image below, it is said to be ‘ in moleca’, or in the form of a crab, especially appropriate for the symbol of such a watery place.
When I first came to Venice, there were lots of little live lions around, in the form of stray cats. In 2009, we came across a positive ‘cat city’ in front of a church, lovingly built from wooden boxes so that the cats could have shelter in the cold weather, and with dozens of saucers of cat food and water left out.
Since then, there has been an attempt to control the numbers of cats by neutering them, and the cats that I saw this time were pampered animals with collars. One ginger cat ran happily along the path in front of us, over two bridges and finally in through a cat flap on an august Venetian front door. On one of the smaller canals to the north, we found a little blind cat sitting behind the window grilles, soaking up the sun in complete safety. But of the scrawny, sad, runny-eyed creatures of sixteen years ago, we saw not a single one.
There are also a surprising number of dogs in Venice. This year, there seem to be inordinate numbers of French Bulldogs, including one adorable chubby puppy waiting for the vaporetto on Murano. Dachshunds abound, as do all kinds of indeterminate mongrels. On the Cannaregio canal, where we were staying, a dog seemed to be as essential as a wheeled shopping basket, and you could guarantee to see the same dogs and owners going for a morning constitutional at the same time if you happened to look out of the window. The lack of earth and green spaces seem to deter these water-dogs not a whit as they happily trot on and off of vaporettos and in and out of water taxis. Their owners are, largely, good about collecting and disposing of the inevitable consequences of owning a live animal, and I would say that these Venetian hounds have an interesting life, with lots of opportunities to bark at seagulls and sniff the behinds of their neighbours.
There is one kind of dog, however, which seems unchanged since the days of the artist Carpaccio, back in the sixteenth century. Carpaccio is my favourite Venetian artist, because he packs so many details of ordinary Venetian life into his paintings, and because, of all the Venetian artists, he seems the most humorous and ebullient.
This is a little scruffy white dog, that the artist depicts in several of his paintings, and which you can see jauntily inspecting the fondamenta on any morning. In fact, one of these dogs is shown in a painting that I always visit when I go to Venice, as if it were an old friend. It is at what I always call the School of the Dalmatians (more properly the Schuola di San Georgio degli Schiavoni), which features many of Carpaccio’s greatest works.
There is a ‘Saint George and the Dragon’, which includes bits of dead bodies and frogs and toads and lizards.
There is a painting of St Tryphon exorcising a demon from a young woman – the demon is a very small dragon/donkey cross, who looks rather disgruntled at being exposed.
There is the painting of St Jerome bringing the lion that he has befriended in the wilderness back to the monastery, and all the monks fleeing in terror like so many winged creatures.
But as much as I love all of these works of art, and look forward to visiting them, only one painting in this room moves me to tears, every time. A monk is in his study, writing a letter, when he looks up as if suddenly realising something. Experts now think that the monk is St Augustine, and that he has been granted a vision that the friend that he is writing to, St Jerome (the man with the lion in the previous picture) has died. But what makes the picture for me is the small, scruffy white dog sitting on the floor, looking at his master with puzzlement. Across all those years, it speaks to me more eloquently than any of the works of the othergreat artists because who doesn’t recognise the scene – the moment of dawning truth, the dog who knows something is wrong, but has no way of understanding what is happening, or what he can do to comfort his master. The painting speaks to me of love, and loss, and of the way that animals are so often silent witness to our most private moments.
Carpaccio Paintings in public domain. All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer. Free to use and share non-commercially but please link back to the blog, thank you!