St Mark's Lion Brought down to Earth

PUBLIC BRONZES are intensely political objects, as Philip Ward Jackson's article on Marochetti's Wellington Monument (p.851) reminds us. For three months this winter (to 13thJanuary) the entrance hall of the British Museum is dominated by a political animal brought to London for political reasons - the recently cleaned bronze lion of St Mark from the Piazzetta in Venice, which has been put on show to coincide with the President of
Italy's state visit in October. Much as one may disapprove in principle of shunting objects of great antiquity around the world for diplomatic ends, the showing of the lion amid the British Museum's collections provides a valuable opportunity to rethink its origins.

There can be few artefacts of this size and importance that have remained quite so baffling. This apparently alien creature of forbidding aspect has been dated anywhere between the eighth century B.C. and the Duecento; it has been identified as romanesque,gothic, Assyrian, Etruscan, Sassanian, Chinese, and as a product of the ancient near east in the seventh, sixth, fourth or third centuries. For most of the present century it has been assumed that the lion, like the bronze horses of San Marco, was brought to Venice from some eastern shore, and transformed into an image of the evangelist in the twelfth or early thirteenth century.
The only hard fact of any kind we have about the lion between the time of its manufacture and the Napoleonic wars is that in 1293 the Venetian Great Council ordered that 'the lion which is on top of the column should be repaired (or adapted – aptari) from the revenue of the wine and wood taxes'. For the next six hundred years it was regarded not as a work of art, but as a politico religious symbol, 'St Mark in the form of a lion', the protector and patron of Venice. Spared the wholesale lion-slaughter that followed the fall of the republic in
1797, it was taken as booty to Paris and erected in front of the Invalides. When the Venetians demanded it back in 1815, only Austrian workmen could be found to bring it down, reported Countess Potocka, for no Frenchman would agree to 'despoil France'! It fell and broke in many pieces, elicting cries of joy from the crowd. 'Le lion de Saint-Marc ne sera plus pourpersonne', the Countess lamented prematurely. Bolted together, patched, and given Neo-classical wings, the lion re-ascended its granite column. Since then it has been brought down only three times: in 1891 for a superb restoration on Ruskinian/Morrisian principles laid down by the heroic Giacomo Boni; at the end of the Second World War in 1945; and, most recently, in 1985. On the first two occasions it aroused brief interest, reverting each time to art-historical oblivion.

It is perhaps not surprising that the first person to give serious thought to the lion as a work of art was Ruskin, who described it as 'that noble winged lion, one of the grandest things  produced by mediaeval art, which all men admire and none can draw'. Although he had not
seen it from close quarters ('I have not been up to the lion, and cannot answer for it'), he thought initially (Stones of Venice) that it was thirteenth century, revising this by the
time of St Mark's Rest to a date in the eleventh or twelfth centuries. In assigning it to a medieval Venetian craftsman, Ruskin was followed by the faithful Boni.

By the 1890s, however, a contrary view that the lion was an ancient oriental chimera had become well established. Layard was cited to support the view that it was Assyrian; Venturi believed it to be Sassanian; and these assertions were repeated in the guidebooks. In 1945, Ward Perkins, struck by its archaic vitality, assigned it hesitantly to eastern Anatolia or northern Syria in the seventh or sixth centuries B.C. During the recent campaign it was decided initially that the statue 'could not possibly be a product of medieval Venetian art', and so responsibility for it was given to the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici. Having succeeded in distinguishing four stages of restoration before that of 1815 (only the head, neck and breast, and parts of the legs are original), and analysing the differences in the composition of the various bronze alloys, Bianca Maria Scarfi in the catalogue of the BM
exhibition has arrived at the conclusion that the 'lion' is a Hellenistic interpretation of the
Mesopotamian/Persian lion-headed griffin, made in the fourth or third centuries B.C., going so far as to suggest that it may originally have seen ridden by a figure of Sandon brandishing an axe.

Looking at the lion in the British Museum, which offers such a profusion of comparanda  from the ancient world east and west, one's faith in its oriental qualities begins to wobble, like Marcel's in front of the church at Balbec. Does the lion's small head with its humanoid ears and wavy, flame-like mane make it more like the frieze of Miletus or acroteria near
Ephesus than it is to the myriad stone lions supporting romanesque cathedral porches up
and down the Italian peninsula? One thing is sure: very few centres in the world could
equal the resources offered by the British Museum to answer such questions. At the
symposium held on 16th November to discuss the lion, it was the mediaevalists who seemed most anxious to claim it, after it had been successively disowned by the Greek and Roman and western Asiatic departments.

The bronze group at Cliveden discussed by Antonia Bostrbm on p.829 hardly presents a problem of such epoch-spanning proportions as the lion of St Mark. But here too the starting point was the object itself and a single fact. From these unpromising beginnings she has succeeded in restoring to the Pluto and Proserpina its sculptor, patron, subsequent history and place in renaissance art. The article has been judged the 1990 winner of the Elfrida Manning prize for the study of sculpture. Submissions are invited for the 1991 contest, to be received by 3lst June.