The Lion of St Mark is ubiquitous; a proud, winged beast with one paw raised to rest upon a copy of the patron saint’s gospel. It is the trademark of the city and emblazons buildings, monuments, flag poles, the flags they bear, and of course all manner of tourist paraphernalia. So you might think that the city had enough lions, but it seems that they don’t.
Standing guard outside the gates of Arsenale is an array of four beasts that form a rather strange collection. They don’t match in style or size, they have no gospel to mark them as Venetian, to be honest some of them aren’t even that leonine, so what’s the story?
They are all booty, looted from other ports and cities around the Mediterranean during the height of the Venetian Republic’s power. Two in particular are noteworthy; one is far more slender and appears more likely to be a lioness from the lack of mane. The beast’s expression is rather amusing too. This is the oldest of the group, stolen from Delos, and believed to have been carved in the 6th Century BC.
Three of the felines stand together at one side of the entrance gate, but the sole guardian of the right side is large and impressive enough to hold his own. He sits tall, and once guarded Piraeus, the port of Ancient Athens. That in itself would make him interesting, but it is the unlikely inscriptions on his flanks that remained a mystery until a visiting Swedish diplomat recognised them as runes in the late 18th Century. It seems that the Viking Guards hired to protect the Byzantine Emperor in the 11th Century had a little too much time on their hands!