23 August, 2006

90. A most enduring symbol

This is the same lion we met yesterday, and he has sat on his tall granite perch for about 800 years – apart from a quick trip to the British Museum for some restoration work in 1990.

In that time he has watched Venice emerge from under Byzantium's long shadow to become in her turn the most powerful maritime nation in the world; he has watched fleets of warships setting their ambitious sails as they row out of the lagoon towards Venice's enemies and former friends; watched kings and emperors and popes arrive and leave at the quayside below; observed Venetian society wax and grow rich, then wane and degenerate; he saw her conquered by Napoleon and eventually absorbed into the nation of Italy; he has seen candlelight replaced by gaslight replaced by electric lighting; seen most of the gondolas replaced by vaporetti; and now he patiently poses for the millions of gawking tourist cameras that flow through this city like a tidal wave every year.

He is synonymous with the city. The winged lion of St. Mark in all its forms IS Venice. He represents the power and confidence and protection given to all Venetians by the relics of their patron saint, the human remains of St. Mark the Evangelist himself, that supposedly rest in the centre of the nearby great basilica, from where this picture was taken.

Symbols are powerful things, they can unite and focus a people, they can inspire awe or fear, loyalty or rebellion. After the American tanks first rolled into Baghdad during the most recent of Iraq wars, people immediately gathered round the largest statue of Saddam Hussein and tore it down, destroying the symbol of their former oppression.

Was there ever political disagreement in Venice? Public dissent? Even treasonous acts against the state? Of course, such things are unavoidable in any authoritarian regime. But it is a wonderful tribute to the wisdom of the checks and balances built into the Venetian system of government, and to its essential humanity, that at no time in the city's long and chequered history was this most visible of symbols ever threatened by an angry mob. Not only was it never toppled, it was never even seriously attacked.

This symbol of the state has sat on his column for 800 years because the citizens of Venice allowed him to remain there.


Post a Comment

<< Home