The Lost Lions of Venice

Defaced leone marciano, Campo SM Mater Domini, Venice
On May 29th, 1797, only seventeen days after a young whipper-snapper by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte had brought to an end the venerable 1,000 year old Venetian Republic, six local stone masons were given a rather curious task. 

On the orders of the new authorities, the men were instructed to remove from public places 'all lions which may be considered devices or arms symbolic of the former government be removed..'
The winged lion of Saint Mark (Leone Marciano), Venice
This was a clear reference to the winged lion (il leone marciano), the sacred symbol of Saint Mark, the most prominent of Venice's patron saints. The leone marciano took one of two forms: 'andante' and 'in moleca' (or 'in moeca'). He is 'andante' when depicted standing, wings stretched, with one paw resting on an open book. He is 'in molecca' when depicted full-faced, paw on book, wings framing his head. 

From May until October, the six stone-masons chiselled away, destroying all traces of (by their own estimate) the 1,000 book-toting beasts which fell within their remit. 


Well-heads were particularly badly hit. This is what the well-head in Campo San Toma looks like today.
Well-head (vera da pozzo) minus its leone marciana, Campo S. Toma, Venice
And this is what it originally looked like in an engraving by Luca Carlevarjs (1703).
Campo S. Toma in an engraving by Luca Carlevarjs

The only public well-head to survive with its leone marciano intact can be found in the secluded Campiello de Ca'Bernardo. 

The fabric of Venice bears numerous scars of its long-lost lions.
However, occasionally the missing lion was replaced, as we can see here on another of the walls of the Arsenale. The plaque makes reference to that fateful year, 1797.

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