My Camino Way Series Article #10

THE WINGED LION OF VENICE

 

     PART II of THE EUROPEAN PLAZA: BUILDING PEACE COMMUNITIES in the 21st CENTURY

Photo Credit: Carlo Naya, 1816-1882; Winged Lion, Piazza San Marco, Venice; Public Domain, Wikipedia

 

At the gate of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, beside the lagoon, are two columns. On the top of one is the Winged Lion. His great paws are resting atop a bronze book. The lion must be weary for he has been on a long journey that stretches back to 300 B.C.

 

The Winged Lion has travelled from Greece to Rome and has been broken and put back together more times than he cares to count, at least as many as he’s been forced to change loyalties.

At one time, Napoleon took him by force and had him shipped back to France – all 3000 kilograms of him – as a trophy of his conquest over Venice. That is when he lost his wings, his paws and the Bible he had guarded for centuries.  As soon as he landed on French soil, a sculptor remodelled his tail so that it tucked between his legs – a symbolic statement intended to shame the enemy.

For a time a real-life State lion lived in the Piazza, in a golden cage. He died there also because his constant licking of the cage bars gave him gilt poisoning.  After that, for several centuries, captive lions were forbidden there. During the Venetian Carnival of 1762, a lion was put on display, “with a little dog on his back, dancing dogs all around him, a monkey on a beam above, a fiddler fiddling, and the strolling Venetians engrossed as ever by his presence.”

Now the lion sits atop the gate again, his former dignity restored. As an emblem of the saint that presides over the piazza and bears its name – Saint Mark – he signifies the greatness of the city he guards, and the fierceness with which it is guarded. And that is what makes him so vulnerable, and so coveted.

           

Such is the discourse of war.           

Photo Credit:  Time Square, Reuters, 2006.                        

"New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly.” 

- Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985, Princeton University Press, 2013 

Horns are blowing; lights are blinking and garish billboards scream in multi-colored voices: “Buy Me! Buy ME! Come Inside! Spend More Money!”

 

NASDAQ.  TOSHIBA.  COCA-COLA.

I am in Time Square – “the crossroads of the world” – and I am cross-eyed with all the silent yelling.

Here, the human voice is drowned out by the noise of traffic and other non-human sounds while the senses are simultaneously overwhelmed by a cacophony of visual and auditory babble.

Consequently, the voice of the square dominates, rendering its citizens, for a spell, mute and dumb – the antithesis of a democratic harmonious community.

In a very real way, there’s a war going on here also – one where, to quote Leonard Cohen “the poor stay poor and the rich get rich.” 

That’s how it goes. This slice of the The Big Apple is owned by the one per cent who conquers the city.

Money talks incessantly in Time Square – ad nauseam. And the NASDAQ billboard – possibly the most expensive advertising space on the planet – talks the loudest of all.

(Interestingly enough, the word “noise” derives from the Latin, “nausea,” and, in Old French, is associated with disputes and quarreling). 

I don’t mean to pick on New York’s crown jewel. It’s not all bad. In fact, it has some marvelous stories to tell.  It’s no wonder that some of the world’s greatest writers have found inspiration in the city that doesn’t sleep. But it is so often just that - the extremes of New York which capture the artist’s and the addict’s imagination alike.  

If Time Square is one thing, it is an adrenaline rush for the junkie in us all.

When I consider the most famous “square” in North America, I am struck by the difference between it and many of the European plazas I’ve lingered in while on El  Camino de Santiago  in the fall of 2012.

The one is dominated by gigantic billboards that lord over the streets and flash advertisements of the latest Hollywood flicks and theater shows, the golden arches of the world’s biggest fast-food chain invariably announcing itself on every other block. 

It is consumer-driven, and it is inevitably focused on instant gratification.  

As Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road Again: “Suddenly I found myself on Times Square ...and right in the middle of rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream .. .”

                                                                                 

In contrast to this scene is its European counterpart: the Piazza San Marco in Venice, “the drawing room of the world” where Galileo once stood in the Bell-Clock Tower that overlooks the piazza, to demonstrate to the Doge of Venice his latest version of the telescope, which would have a profound impact on society and would forever change the way we viewed the stars and understood the universe.

The Bell Tower (campanila) was originally built in the 12th century, but like the great Winged Lion it has gone through numerous restorations.

In July of 1902, the 98-meter high tower suddenly collapsed into a prophetic heap of dust, as if foreshadowing the war that was just around the corner.

It did not come without warning.

A crack had been noticed in the tower some months before. As city officials watched the crack widen, plans were put in motion to repair it. Then on a Monday morning, the day before they were scheduled to begin the work, pieces of stone began falling from the tower, setting off alarm bells.

Shopkeepers, tourists and the workers in the buildings rushed out to the streets, as the papers reported, frantically crying out “The Campanila is falling!”   

As they stood outside of the piazza, they watched with horror their beloved tower crumble before their eyes. The wing of an angel from the top of the tower was thrown down to the floor of the cathedral, smashing one of its columns, until gradually the entire medieval structure was in a rubble, creating a “thick red dust that spread like a hanging cloud over the city.”

Photo Credit: Ruins of Bell Tower; Piazza San Marco, Venice; Author Unknown, Shchusev Museum of Architecture; Public Domain, Wikipedia​

Miraculously, no one was hurt in the tragedy.

During the clean-up, another miracle emerged from the ruins: a statue depicting Mercury almost completely intact but for a broken arm and some missing fingers.  

At the turn of the century, when the engines of the Second Industrial Revolution were roaring full speed ahead, Mercury (god of abundance) would have stood as a shining beacon of commerce.

The Goddess of wisdom, Pallos, and the allegorical Peace didn’t make it out of the wreckage alive; nor did Apollo, the great god of music, poetry, healing and justice.

Mercury was the sole survivor.

Almost ten years later, the restored tower was completed – April 24, 1912 – and it was business as usual ... until the war broke out.

Then, exactly three years and one month later, in the dawn of May 24, 1915, Italy fired its first shells at the enemy. Venice was turned into a major naval base practically overnight. In the Piazza San Marco – the “most beautiful square in the world” – the doors of the basilica were boarded up and surrounded by sandbags. Many soldiers fell during the First World War but, after it was over, the tower was still standing tall.

It seems, in hindsight, to have particular symbolic significance that, of the bevy of gods and goddesses who graced the tower, Mercury, the “money god” was the only one to survive.

Peace and justice were left, literally, in the dust.

Barely a decade after the first war ended, the New York stock exchange collapsed, like the Bell Tower, sending shock waves through the world and Europe into the Great Depression.

 

John Donne’s famous line had not yet been resurrected in America. For Whom the Bell Tolls would come later. Hemingway was busy with another book  and a different war.

                

On Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the brass bell of the Stock Exchange could not be heard above the cries of “Sell, Sell, Sell!!” And then, it fell silent.

A Farewell to Arms had just been released and as Londoners rushed to buy it, hungry for stories of by-gone wars they’d won, America called in all its foreign loans.

Poto Credit: Wall Street after The Crash, 1929: Public Domain, Wikipedia

The image of Mercury’s arm, once raised high as if signalling to the heavens, is especially poignant in the context of the fascist dictators that would rule Italy and Germany with an iron fist, terrorizing the world. 

Wealthy businessmen, frightened they would lose their money, backed up Hitler’s campaign, and the middle class, believing democracy was dead, followed suit.

 

By 1932, the Nazi party had won 230 seats in the Reichstag. Before the crash they had but twelve. 

  

Mercury would have a job of it now to bring abundance to the common people without peace or justice by his side.         

 ***************

PART II is continued in the next instalment.​ So stay tuned for more El Camino stories. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me if you’re considering El Camino as a relationship sabbatical or simply for your own spiritual growth. There’s plenty of information on El Camino and many ways to walk it. So, if anything has resonated with you while reading this, it may be a special sign, divinely arranged just for you.  

Buen Camino, Pilgrim​​

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