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  • Asirini Parakramawansha

Flying Lions and Floating cities

Today the swirling hues of the kaleidoscope lead to a city that's just as whimsical and colourful as our portal. But this time, walking around Venice feels different. That's when you hear it. A thundering, rumbling growl explodes from the rooftops. It seems that we might not be alone among the gondolas anymore...

St. Mark's lion statue
Hopefully this Leo Leo doesn't eat kaleidoscopic travellers

A lion with wings? What sort of miracle (or perhaps curse) is this? One theory could be that this species is indigenous to Venice's marshy swamps. It would make sense that they evolved to have wings so that they could navigate the many isles of Venice and munch on unsuspecting tourists. I can almost imagine a tragic accident or an annoyed wizard turning these magnificent beasts to stone. Or maybe they could be spirit animals like the Mexican alebrijes? Perhaps this strange breed of felines could have a darker history... what if this was the result of an experiment gone wrong? If we're going to get to the bottom of this meowing mystery, I think that we'll have to dig a bit deeper into Venice's history with the creatures- quick, before one of them decides to take a bite out of us!

illustration of a winged lion and his cub in the marshes of venice
Monarch of the Marshes- A glimpse of my view through the Kaleidoscope whilst I was in Venice (as illustrated by yours truly)

Grave-digging for flying felines


Lions didn't always soar over these canals. When this magnificent floating metropolis was but a village on submerged logs, its patron was St. Theodore and it's lions were non-existent. This saint was humble like the people he protected and was known by very few as the second holy man to slay a dragon. But soon Venice grew, and grew and then grew tired of its small-town saint. That was when the Doge (the ruler of the floating state) came up with an ingenious plan. He looked over his glorious kingdom from his palace balcony and decided that Venice was just as beautiful as the city of Alexandria- if not more. So then it occurred to him that they should have a patron just as great as the one in Alexandria. But it would be so much work to find such a saint. Unless they stole one from Alexandria!

The funny thing is, modern historians are beginning to doubt that the body stolen was in fact that of a saint, and actually the body of Alexander the Great!

This eureka moment led to a daring band of thieves from Venice rushing to Alexandria, promptly breaking St. Mark's tomb and ferrying it back to Venice. These grave diggers were professional and calculated. To stop the local Jewish and Muslim community from retaking their saint, the robbers stored it in a crate of pork and once they got onto their ship, they hid it in their sails. Soon St. Mark of Alexandria was St. Mark the Evangelist of Venice. The saint whose holy animal was in fact the flying lion.



King of the Jungle, Darling of Venice


Lions were soon all the roar in Venice. The Doge, and his wealthy citizens, kept them in their gardens as pets and the city even had a State Lion that was kept in St. Mark's square in a gorgeous gilded cage. You can almost see the sparkling mark of the golden prison in the piazza as you walk among the many winged lions and tourists. Unfortunately, the State Lion liked the golden cage a bit too much and died from gilt poisoning after licking his glittering bars. The citizens were so appalled by the death of their holy animal that the Doge banned keeping lions captive in Venice.


But the lions never truly left. Instead, they were petrified into door knockers, china plates, masks, statues and even became the symbol and flag of the Venetian State! But that's not the most bizarre use of these lions. If you look a little closer at the streets and alleys of Venice, you might spot some growling leo leo heads embedded into the walls. What could these possibly be here for? Maybe they are lurking in the shadows for an easy snack? Perhaps they're bored of spending centuries flying around and have settled to listen in on the daily gossip? Perhaps they are waiting with their mouths open for the local dentist? Turns out that these lions are here on very serious business. If anyone asks, I wasn't the one who told you, that these felines are actually part of a secret service!


Shh... The Doge had these lions stationed so that if any citizens had any concerns about their neighbours, they could anonymously put their names in the lions' mouths and the accused would be taken to court by the feared Venetian Council of Ten. Punishment back in the day was harsh and merciless just like these menacing animals. But today, they supposedly don't work for the police anymore. Or at least that's what the sneaky beasts want us to think!


Backstreet myths and magic


So where did the wings come from? Thee most popular theory is that this big cats look like big birds to emphasise their holiness. But that seems a bit too obvious a solution for creatures with grave-digging origins and secret police occupations. Venice is known for its magical atmosphere, but in the medieval ages it was a hub for real life magic. People would sell and buy all manner of potions and charms in Venice's backstreets and alchemy was the order of the day. Of course, this all happened outside of the view of the Venetian authority and its lion sentinels as there were severe punishments for warlocks and witches back then. One magical practitioner called Cristoforo di Parigi was even exiled from Venice in Medieval times for conducting alchemical experiments.


So, if all this magic was present in ancient Venice, could it be that far fetched to believe that its pet lions were once hexed with the power of flight? If Venetian society was powerful enough to cover up the thievery of an entire holy body then surely it could hide its new magical protectors? Maybe the mythical creatures were brought over from Alexandria where (according to myth) they had all manner of monsters? Although that still leaves the question of what could have turned them to stone. My personal theory is that the Doge eventually got fed up of his citizens being eaten by sky beasts and had them petrified by some white-hat alchemists. Leave your guesses in the comments and we'll see whether we can puzzle out this age-old mystery!


Growls from bell tower caves and terracotta forests


statue of winged lion from St. Mark's square
Quick! Get to the gondolas! He looks hungry!

Although I have been informed that these magnificent beasts are purely symbolic, I'm starting to question the tales of the Venetians. With their ancient alchemy, secret organisations and international treasure pinching tendencies, it's only safe to read between the lines. As we head back to our world, keep your eyes peeled for the swish of a rooftop tail or the rumble of a stony growl. And make sure not to get on the wrong side of the pad-footed police. After all, you never know what secrets you can uncover when you soar between worlds through a kaleidoscope.

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