Un Leone Vichingo (Venezia 269)

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!




Back so soon Persephone?

After the thick mists which regularly obscured Watership Down at dawn last week, it felt as if, following an unusually warm summer, we were in for a more Keatsian autumn.  The trees and bushes are bent under the weight of abundant fruit, the leaves redden, and days grow shorter.

The ancient Greeks (and several other early civilisations) tell the story of how the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, sees her daughter Persephone abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld.  In her grief, she forsakes her agrarian duties, causing the onset of winter and the accompanying withering and death of vegetation.  The resultant disruption led to some tricky negotiations within the pantheon and bout of underhanded trickery involving pomegranate seeds, but eventually a compromise solution was reached whereby Persephone would spend half the year above ground with her mother and half with Hades, her new husband.  The daughter’s return heralded the return of warmer weather as her mother’s joy was restored, usually coinciding with spring.

I was in North Yorkshire this afternoon so picked up a sweater and light jacket before leaving with my camera, first for the beautiful village of Osmotherley, and then to the former Carthusian monastery of Mount Grace Priory.  It wasn’t cold as I left Durham, but over the 45 minutes of my journey the temperature rose by about three degrees and I arrived to find myself bathed in sunshine.  The Three Tuns, a noted pub in the village was empty; not because they had no customers, but because every one of them was taking the opportunity to sit outside.  It’s very nearly October; these were the last weather conditions I, and clearly many others, were expecting.

And so I have two galleries of images here; the autumnal fruits that are the last efforts of Demeter before she neglects the world, and the bright, golden hues of an unexpected burst of summer.  Persephone had clearly forgotten to pack something.

By Carol Ann Duffy

Where I lived—winter and hard earth.
I sat in my cold stone room
choosing tough words, granite, flint,

to break the ice. My broken heart—
I tried that, but it skimmed,
flat, over the frozen lake.

She came from a long, long way,
but I saw her at last, walking,
my daughter, my girl, across the fields,

in bare feet, bringing all spring’s flowers
to her mother’s house. I swear
the air softened and warmed as she moved,

the blue sky smiling, none too soon,
with the small shy mouth of a new moon.