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About The Book

Garry Wills's Venice: Lion City is a tour de force -- a rich, colorful, and provocative history of the world's most fascinating city in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when it was at the peak of its glory. This was not the city of decadence, carnival, and nostalgia familiar to us from later centuries. It was a ruthless imperial city, with a shrewd commercial base, like ancient Athens, which it resembled in its combination of art and sea empire.

Venice: Lion City presents a new way of relating the history of the city through its art and, in turn, illuminates the art through the city's history. It is illustrated with more than 130 works of art, 30 in full color. Garry Wills gives us a unique view of Venice's rulers, merchants, clerics, laborers, its Jews, and its women as they created a city that is the greatest art museum in the world, a city whose allure remains undiminished after centuries.

Like Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches, on the Dutch culture in the Golden Age, Venice: Lion City will take its place as a classic work of history and criticism.


Chapter One: Contract with Mark

Wherever you turn, in Venice, lions strut or lurk, colossal or miniature, placid or menacing. Entering the city from the Basin (Bacino) as diplomats did in the Renaissance, you pass between two high columns on the Piazzetta by the Doge's Palace. One is topped, mysteriously, by a man standing on a crocodile that has a dog's head. The other has the city's famous emblem, a bronze lion with its wings spread for takeoff, its paws already dancing on the ground. It may not look so large, up there on its pillar, but it measures fifteen feet from the tip of its muzzle to the end of its tail and five feet from its perch to the small of its back. Viewed from the balcony of the Doge's Palace, or from the ground with opera glasses, it reveals its natty mustache over a leering grin, its opaque white eyes, its intricately curled mane -- not a lion one wants to be on the wrong side of. It has an exotic history. Restorers decided in the 1980s that the bulk of its body is roughly 2,300 years old. The city it guards is a newcomer to this veteran, who has seen empires rise and fall, but has spent his last 850 years at this sentinel post (with only a brief time of Napoleonic captivity in France).

Proceeding deeper into the Piazzetta, one sees more accommodating lions, carved in relief on the façade of the Doge's Palace -- two of them, facing in opposite directions, align their backs as a throne for a personified Venice as Justice, who holds in her hands a sword and the scales of judgment. The same configuration can be seen high up on the campanile at the left end of the Piazzetta. And across from it, on the right side of the Piazzetta, a winged lion stands in majestic profile over the formal entry to the Doge's Palace. This is a religious lion -- it props up an open book with its right front paw, displaying the words, "Rest here, Mark, my evangelist." So this lion evangelizes. It is a preaching lion. All around this great portal (the Gate of Documents) are little ornamental lion heads projecting from the carved surface. There are also lion heads between the arches all down the long colonnade of the Doge's Palace, as well as over the arches of the Library facing the palace.

Leaving the Piazzetta, one does not leave the lions behind. Go to the Arsenal, where Venice built its famous ships, and you find exotic lions on its front lawn -- captured animals brought from Greece, kenneled here. Other lions project from the Arsenal's gates or decorate its flag-pole base. Go to St. Mark's Distinguished Brotherhood (Scuola Grande di San Marco), now a hospital, where lions carved in low relief by the Lombardo family guard the door. Cross to the nearby island of Murano, you will find a casually sprawling lion carved in relief on a little bridge. In the Church of St. Francis at the Vineyard, a very philosophical lion, painted by Tiepolo, peers down at you from the roof of a chapel. Out on the walkway near the Danieli Hotel there are monstrous lions, ten times life size, cast in bronze. One is gnawing at chains that have bound it for a time. (A cat sunning itself on the lion's glistening back does not notice the discomfort of its oversize relative). Above almost every altar in the city there is a lion in one of the quadrants of the vault.


The churchy lion is the father of all the other felines in Venice. Its pedigree is even longer than that of the lion on the Piazzetta's pillar. That creature dates from Cilicia in the third or fourth century before the common era (B.C.E.). The lion of the altar vaults dates back to Babylonia of the sixth century B.C.E., where Ezekiel saw a vision of God's chariot-throne, guarded by four creatures. Each of the creatures had four faces, directed toward the symbolic four directions -- faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle (Ezekiel 1.10). This vision was adapted and simplified in the book of Revelation, where the four creatures are, respectively, a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle (Rev 4.7). They became symbols of the apocalyptic end of the world (like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Rev 6.1-17) and then of the entire body of revelation leading up to that ultimate fulfillment.

Since the four Gospels -- of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John -- were considered the greatest revelation of God's purpose in the world, their authors, the four evangelists, became associated with the four creatures of Revelation. Theologians found ways to show that the four symbols were appropriate for the beginnings of each gospel. Matthew was linked with the man for his supposed interest in human history, Mark with the lion for his opening desert scene, Luke with the ox for his implied reference to Isaiah's ox at the manger, and John with the eagle for his soaring hymn to the Logos of God. These are the symbols painted in the quadrants over each altar, as witnesses to the mystery they wrote about. They stand, as well, at key places like the mosaic in the dome of St. Mark's basilica that is nearest the altar -- where Mark-as-lion is saturnine and vaguely anthropomorphic.

So the lion is in Venice because of Mark. But why is Mark there? Venice did not exist during the time of Jesus, when Mark wrote his gospel. Several cities that did exist then had a better claim to connection with Mark, who was supposed to have spread the faith in them -- Rome first, where legend had him writing his gospel; then Aquileia, on the Venetian lagoon's terraferma, where Mark was supposed to have ordained the first patriarch (Saint Hermagoras); then Alexandria, where he founded a church and was martyred. Even Grado, near Aquileia, had a claim prior to Venice's, since that is where the patriarchate of Aquileia was transferred in the sixth century. All Venice could boast was that, as part of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Aquiliea/Grado, it had a proximity to a Marcan realm.

The only way Venice could move up to closer association with Mark was to take advantage of a long squabble between the terraferma cities. When the patriarch fled from Aquileia to escape Langobard raiders in 568, he went to Grado, which was safer -- it stood nearer the lagoon. When the danger had passed, Grado would not give back to Aquileia the patriarchy's religious relics and other symbols of authority. The two cities maintained their dispute for centuries; but the feud came to a head in the ninth century, when Frankish rulers, now in charge of Aquileia, appealed to the Pope for a ruling. This was delivered at the Council of Mantua in 827, restoring Aquileia to full authority. Venice, which preferred Grado in the dispute, was unhappy with the council's result -- so it managed what Otto Demus calls a "coup d'état," wrenching from Aquileia the original basis of its authority, the connection with Mark.


This was accomplished by Venetian merchants, who stole the body of Mark from its Alexandrian shrine in 828 and delivered it to the doge in Venice for safekeeping (it was alleged that Muslims were about to desecrate the relic). Venice's right to the body was confirmed by a new myth -- it was said that while Mark was setting out into the Adriatic after consecrating Hermagoras in Aquileia, a storm held his boat overnight in the lagoon, at just the spot where the doge's basilica would later be built, and an angel appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Be at rest here." Literally, the words were "Peace to you, Mark, my evangelist" (Pax tibi Marce evangelista meus), which had a first meaning, "Be not afraid of the storm," but also a deeper meaning (in Venetian eyes), "Rest here" -- at Venice -- as his final resting place. This is the motto the heraldic lion of Venice props up under its paw. Venice, not Alexandria, was Mark's destined place of final rest. Once he reached it, he would protect the place forever.

This was what Anthony Hecht calls "the major heist of Christendom." Patrick Geary, in his book on the politics of relics, writes: "Every aspect of the translation of Saint Mark has been studied with greater attention than has any other relic theft because of its acknowledged pivotal importance in the history of Venice." The move was so brilliant that it became the basis, over time, for omnidirectional declarations of independence on the part of Venice. It undercut, for a start, both Aquileia and Grado as the true seat of Mark's religious authority. In doing so, it pushed away as well the state sponsors of the competing towns -- the Franks ruling Aquileia and the Byzantine rulers who challenged them by backing Grado. All ecclesiastical authority, whether from Rome or Byzantium, was also set at a distance, since the merchants had not delivered Mark's body to an ecclesiastical authority in Venice -- it went to the secular head of state, the doge, who kept it in San Marco, his own private chapel-basilica.

Most cities had as their main church the cathedral, the seat of the local bishop, who had authority over local clergy by virtue of his place in the ecclesiastical chain of command. But the center of religious life in Venice was a political cult site, where the doge had power to appoint his own chaplains for his own church. The bishop of Venice was shoved to the periphery of its social life, both symbolically and physically -- on the island of Castello, where the old cathedral of Saint Peter was located. This expressed an attitude toward Peter's successor in Rome that would be a continuing feature of Venetian life. The living religious leadership was exercised from Mark's shrine. As Muir puts it:

He [the doge] alone selected the chaplains and nominated the vicar (primacerio) for Senate approval, and there remained a closed circle of administrative ties between the doge in his palace and the clerics in their basilica that no outside ecclesiastical or lay power could break...Claims that Venice had a special mandate from God, that it was protected by the saints, that it was independent of the Papacy and the Empire, and that all of this was amply proved by history, depended on the ability of the republic to assume the attributes of the doge.

The doge's very office now depended on his relation to the relic of Mark. He assumed his responsibility by signing a Pledge (Promissione) that was, in effect, a contract with Mark. Speaking for the whole Venetian people, he bound himself to defend Mark's relic in return for Mark's protection of the city. This contract brought Venice many advantages. By welcoming a Western saint, Venice not only edged itself away from Byzantium but from the parts of its own past that had been formed in the Byzantine ethos -- a cultural dependence expressed by its prior choice of an official patron, the Eastern martyr Saint Theodore, whose relics had been kept in the doge's chapel before it became Mark's resting place. Theodore was "elbowed out," as Demus puts it, to make room for Mark. The demotion of Theodore (who was retained as a subsidiary figure -- he is the saint standing on a crocodile in the Piazzetta) went with a reordering of the pecking order among Venetian protectors. Other patrons -- Saint George, whose monastery on his own island was an important spiritual center, or Saint Sebastian, whose cult was also Byzantine (based in Ravenna), or Saint Nicholas, who guarded the Lido -- had to step down a notch when Mark moved in at the top. Such shifts in importance were reflected in the processions that articulated so much of Venice's understanding of itself. These protocols of saintly status resemble the reshufflings of position in the Kremlin reviewing stand at May Day parades in the old Soviet Union. Western scholars used to study the platform order to see who was up, who down, who was in, who out. That is the kind of adjustment that had to occur when Mark assumed his commanding role in Venice.


The doge's chapel was rebuilt, expanded, sheathed in the precious spoils from imperial campaigns fought in Mark's name, under Mark's flag. The doge was assisted in his guardianship of the basilica and its surroundings by Venice's "Caretakers" (Procuratori), who thus became very high officials. In and around and throughout the doge's basilica, Mark's story is told and retold and referred to in painted and jeweled and sculpted artifacts. San Marco is, in effect, one large reliquary, a huge casket to hold the treasure of Mark's body. It has already been mentioned that the doge himself could not be represented in his own church except in his role as keeper of Mark's body.

That is expressed in the thirteenth-century mosaic over the north door of the entrance (the last surviving one from a set of four) telling the story of Mark's transfer to Venice. In this mosaic, two bishops are carrying the saint's body into the church on which this mosaic is placed. The doge, in his ceremonial ermine collar, stands to the right of the entry, deferred to by his son with a yielding gesture. The doge's wife (dogaressa) is on the other side of the entry with her retinue of noblewomen. There are fifty figures in the mosaic, and all but the two bishops carrying the body are laymen, the doge's secular companions. The doge holds a scroll in his hand, the Pledge to defend the body now arriving.

Demus's realization that the scroll was the doge's Pledge made it possible for him to solve the principal mystery of the mosaic -- the fact that the saint is going into the church's central portal, but the others are coming out of its four side doors. The doge who had this mosaic created, Lorenzo Tiepolo (1268-1275), is commemorating the Pledge he ceremonially accepted inside the church, which reenacts, as it were, the placing of Mark under his custody. This thirteenth-century figure is symbolically reenacting the ninth-century event that placed the body in his care. He has come out to testify to the people that his oath is now sworn. The relic is in safe hands.

This mosaic on the façade of the church, which replicates that façade in its narrative, has two companion mosaics inside the church which represent the inside of the church -- they tell how Venetians came into San Marco to pray for the rediscovery of Mark's body (lost in a remodeling of the church) and how his body miraculously appeared from inside a pillar. These thirteenth-century mosaics also show, anachronistically, the doge who commissioned the mosaic. He too is reenacting a remembered miracle, in this case one from the eleventh century. Doge Ranieri Zen (1253-1268) leads the people in prayer for the body's recovery. He stands just behind the priest at the altar -- the church's actual altar, visible across the transept, with its canopy (baldacchino). We also see (in this scene) the tiered pulpit to the left of the choir screen, and (in the next scene, of rediscovery) the flat-box pulpit on the right side. We would have seen more of the church presented in the mosaic, but the ends of the two scenes, which originally curled around the corners of the wall that holds them, were destroyed when other scenes were put on those surfaces. We would have seen the church's apse, not only its domes and balcony network (matroneum), as at present.r

In the scene of prayer for the body to appear, we are shown the whole of Venetian society. Behind the doge stand other officers of the state. Below them are priests, choirboys, and monks bending low in supplication. To the left are male citizens -- females would have been included if the part around this left corner had not been lopped off. In the scene where the pillar reveals its contents, the doge again stands with male members of his family (one of whom wears the ermine lining to his cloak permitted to immediate relatives of the doge). A group of officials is on the other side of the flat pulpit. After them the dogaressa leads a contingent of patrician ladies. The little girl who holds the dogaressa's girdle is her daughter; but the boy holding another woman's finger cannot be her son -- not merely because Ranieri Zen had no son, but because the boy wears a crown, and only two people could do that in Venice, the doge and his wife. Demus makes a convincing case that the boy is Philip of Courtenay, only son and heir of the Latin emperor of Constantinople, sent as a child to Venice as security for a great loan given to the East in Zen's time by Venetian merchants. The lady he attends church with is presumably a matron from the Ferro family's palace (Ca' Ferro), where Philip was lodged during his stay in Venice.

These scenes, like the one on the exterior of the church, show how Mark's body ordered the whole of society around itself. Elsewhere in the basilica, the story of Mark's life, martyrdom, and transport to Venice is repeated in every medium. He is present even where he did not ordinarily belong. Statues of the apostles, sculpted by the Dalle Masegne family in the fourteenth century, line the top of the choir screen before the altar -- but there are thirteen of them, not the scriptural Twelve. Mark, an evangelist but not an apostle, is an honorary apostle in his own church. He also shows up with apostles in the central dome mosaic of Christ's ascension to heaven. In the east dome, the first one a visitor passes under, he is seated with the apostles as the fires of Pentecost descend on them.

Of course Mark is also present wherever the evangelists are shown, either accompanied by his lion or represented by the lion alone. In fact, the primacy of the lion symbol means that Mark is implicitly present even where modern viewers do not normally recognize the fact. In the atrium mosaics of the creation of the world, for instance, the lions come first in the pairs of animals made on the fifth day. And when Adam is naming the animals, he begins with the lions, placing his hand on the male one, Mark's emblem -- we know it is the male of the pair because it stands on the right, the place of honor. In the Noah mosaics, when the pairs of animals are taken aboard the ark, the lions come first again, and are helped aboard by Noah's two hands. When the animals come out after the flood, the male lion bounds free at once, while Noah is still guiding the female down the plank. The dignity of Mark's lion is emphasized from the beginning of the cosmos -- and Mark is there at the end of time as well, in the apocalyptic scheme of the basilica's façade.


On that façade, the four classical bronze horses captured from Constantinople pace forward over the triumphal arch of the central portal. The horses were originally part of a quadriga, a four-horse chariot with its driver. There were many such quadrigae in the classical world, above ceremonial arches, at hippodromes, or as votary offerings for victory in the games. All the other horses were melted down for their bronze, and this set alone survives, protected by its religious use. But what is that use? Why are they on Mark's basilica front? To understand that, we must look at the context of the west end of medieval churches. They usually contained a Last Judgment, on the outer wall, or the inner one, or (as at San Marco) on both. This was a penitential barrier before the inner mysteries, forcing one to confess the sins that will be judged at the return of Christ. (The east end, by contrast -- with the choir and apse spaces -- usually had a message of comfort, delivered by the Savior or his Mother or a protecting saint above the altar.)

The façade of San Marco has a Last Judgment in the recess under the central arch (the present one is a second replacement for the original mosaic shown in Gentile Bellini's fifteenth-century painting of the cathedral front). To go with this End Time scene below the horses' pacing, there was originally a relief carving above the horses' heads, of Christ the Cosmic Ruler (Pantocrator), who will come again in judgment. The relief was moved to the north (landward) side of the basilica when a window was opened above the horses to let more light into the interior.

Like the Four Horses of the Apocalypse, then, these horses signal the end of the world, the time of judgment, the arrival of Christ's reign. But they are not individual carriers of doom. Rather, as a processional chariot team they draw back the Lord in his apocalyptic Quadriga Domini, with the Pantocrator as charioteer. That quadriga was often thought of in terms of the four apocalyptic animals, the symbols of the evangelists taken from Ezekiel. In fact, Titian did a famous woodcut of the procession of the Lord, called The Triumph of Faith, in which the evangelical symbols are hitched to Christ's chariot as a team. Titian lines them up, for visibility, in terms of their rising height, so the eagle is closest to us viewers, the lion behind it, the ox after that, and the standing man is last.

The connection of these symbols with the Quadriga Domini was made clear, in the façade, before the present window replaced the Pantocrator -- for that figure was flanked by carved reliefs of the four evangelists, seen writing their Gospels but without the animals that normally accompanied them. They would have been associated, instead, with the horses just below them. According to Jacoff's reconstruction, Mark's symbol would have been the second horse from the left. Everything in Mark's church bears his mark.

And so did everything in Venice. He was the guarantor of the city's separate religious calling. The republic would be true to him even when it puzzled other nations by its defiance of popes, Christian crusaders, Protestant reformers, and many different forms of religiosity. So identified was the city with its patron and his symbol that people spoke of fearing the lion, or surrendering to the lion, when they were in conflict with Venice. They spoke of giving allegiance to Saint Mark if they formed a treaty with his city. The image of his lion was carved on the gates and in the courtyards of subject cities, and razed at times when Venice lost control of them. But the lion's realm was not itself violated until the nineteenth century, when Napoleon became the first to enter it as a conqueror. He took the Piazzetta lion down from its pillar and shipped it, along with the four horses of the Lord, back to Paris. Then newspaper cartoons showed the lion trammeled in a net, or rolled over on its back, or being toyed with by children. Enemies rejoiced in this downfall of a republic that had been so proud of its lion ways. To defeat Venice was to beard with impunity Mark's lion, to dethrone Mark himself. Do not rest here, my evangelist.

Copyright © 2001 by Literary Research, Inc.

About The Author

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Garry Wills is the author of 21 books, including the bestseller Lincoln at Gettysburg (winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award), John Wayne's America, Certain Trumpets, Under God, and Necessary Evil. A frequent contributor to many national publications, including the New York Times Magazine and the New York Review of Books, he is also an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University and lives in Evanston, Illinois.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Washington Square Press (May 28, 2013)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439122129

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The New York Times Book Review Excellent...ingenious...the best popular guide in years.

Los Angeles Times Book Review A book to read and reread and treasure.

Harpers Professor Wills's Venice is indescribably rich, coming as it does under the French ideal of total history -- politics, religion, daily life, art, architecture, wars, and men and women who seem to have walked out of Shakespeare.

The Washington Post Profoundly impressive...Nobody interested in Venice could fail to be excited by reading Wills's book.

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