The monumental complex between the Doge’s Palace and the Marciana Library features two marble and granite pillars overlooking the lagoon and surmounted by statues of the city’s two patrons: the winged lion, symbol of St. Mark the Evangelist and St. Tòdaro, the Byzantine St. Theodore of Amasea, the city’s first protector. These are the Columns of San Marco and San Todaro.
Mystery still shrouds their arrival in Venice. It is said that they were brought from the East as spoils of war and erected for the first time in 1127 by Nicholas Barattieri, who was rewarded for this titanic undertaking by the Government of the Republic with the granting of exclusive rights to set up a gambling table between the two columns, an activity strictly prohibited in the territory of the Republic. This right expired with Barattieri’s death.
It appears that there were originally three columns, transported on three separate boats. However, once of them capsized while landing and the third column sunk into the muddy bottom of the lagoon. Legend has it that it remained there because no one wanted to accept the difficult task of recovering it, due to its huge size and enormous weight.
Having lost its status as a free zone for gambling, in around the 18th century the practice became established of conducting public executions on the site, with the condemned made to stand facing the centre of the square with their backs to the lagoon.
For this reason, Venetians still avoid passing between the two columns, out of superstition.
The Clock Tower
The last thing a condemned person would see before dying was clock tower of the Moors, directly opposite the two columns. This is the reason behind the famous popular expression: “Te fasso véder mi, che ora che xe” (I’ll show you what time it is).
Both columns were placed on octagonal bases adorned with sculptures depicting the Schools of Arts and Crafts, probably in honour of those who helped Barattieri in his strenuous task, now unfortunately greatly deteriorated.
Each of the columns feature different arts and crafts, just as the summits of the two monoliths are also different: one bearing the bronze lion of St. Mark, and the other a statue of San Todaro.
The winged lion of St. Mark
St. Mark’s column, located behind the Doge’s Palace, seat of the government of the Most Serene Republic, is displays the statue of the winged lion at the top of the monolith, symbol of St. Mark, the city’s patron saint since 862 AD. On the base of the column, which is mostly ruined, only the trade of the greengrocers can be identified, depicted displaying their wares in a basket.
The bronze statue, characterised by a mixture of different styles, depicts a winged lion with a powerful curly mane opening wide its jaws. The lion was displayed by Napoleon as spoils of war in the Place des Invalides in Paris, before being returned to the lagunar city in 1815.The work was removed during World War II and replaced on 25 April 1991, the feast day of St. Mark.
The statue of St. Todaro
The Column of San Todaro, located beside the Marciana Library, is surmounted by the statue of the first protector of Venice, St. Theodore, of Byzantine origin, who later became known as Todaro to Venetians. He is reputed to have been martyred for refusing to offer sacrifice to the gods and for setting fire to the temple of Cybele, an ancient deity worshiped in Anatolia, and is thus depicted in the act of killing a dragon.
The statue of St. Todaro, the original of which is preserved in the nearby Doge’s Palace, is formed from the union of different parts, both in terms of the materials, sourced from various places in the Mediterranean, and their historical origins. This represents a testament not only to the ancient culture of Venice, but also the union that the Republic was able to create between different civilizations.
On the base of the statue can be seen the trades of the fishmonger, who offers fish from a wicker basket, next to the blacksmith about to hit an anvil with a raised hammer. Other figures can be recognised beside them, although with very faint outlines, perhaps indicating butchers and wine sellers depicted carrying out their work.