Soaring high in the sky, these two lean and sinuous columns are decorated with the winged lion that symbolises the Serenissima and Saint Theodore as protection of the city.
They columns functioned as a gateway to the San Marco area for those who arrived by sea, as if they were two silent bodyguards who defended the most precious of jewels: St Mark’s Square.
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The columns of St Mark’s Square are tall and slender pillars in pink and gray marble and granite, positioned at the entrance to the Saint Mark’s area towards the waterfront and lagoon of San Marco; different crafts are carved at the base of the columns and the statues of the winged lion, symbol of the Republic and of Saint Theodore (Todaro in Venetian) stand on the typical Venetian-Byzantine style capitals. Saint Theodore was the first patron saint of the city (this current statue is actually a copy, the original can be found at the entrance to the Doge's Palace).
The winged lion standing on the column has also become a symbol for other modern organisations, bringing it international popularity. Among the most popular is the stylised logo of the Venice Biennale.
Their origins are debatable: Francesco Sansovino believed that they were brought from Constantinople in the second half of the 12th century and that there were originally three although one (while being unloaded) was lost, while others believe that they arrived in 1125 thanks to Doge Domenico Michiel in one of his expeditions to the Holy Land.
One thing is certain: they remained lying on the ground for many years and were only erected in 1172 by Nicolò Barattieri, who managed to find a way to stand them up; the Venetians were so overjoyed that they granted the right to hold exclusive gambling sessions at the foot of the two columns by way of thanks, something which led to him becoming rather rich.
It is known that capital executions took place in the area between the two columns in the past, so much so that even today Venetians superstitiously avoid passing through the middle of them and the saying: Te fasso véder mi, che ora che xe (translated: I’ll show you what time it is) is still in use, going back to the final moment of those condemned to death, who, with their back to the lagoon of San Marco, saw the Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) as their final image.