The Lions of Piraeus

Sunlight danced on the heavy beams. Early workers and tabarros navigated the taverna with the weightless momentum of the whole Venetian tempo. A friend was introducing me to her favourite breakfast. ‘Now you must have that, and this, and that, with that!’ Select Spriss and Baccalà haunted my sinuses as we stepped out into the brisk January air. A phalanx of ducks slewed over the gondola garage opposite. ‘Now you have to see the wind dial at Punta della Dogana!’ We set off along Zattere, the baroque range of Giudecca mounting over the trembling field of briccola ricks.

Growling barges and shellacked taxis carved their silver furrows, lowing as they rounded Academia, weaving like Bombay tuktuks into the rush hour of the Grand Canal. Some things I remembered. Others (the quiet cursing of Godolieri at their corpulent freight), I never realised until now. The wind dial – a vast 17th Century mobile (Europe’s oldest, perhaps?), stands atop the old customs house. Somehow this, too had escaped my attention.

Francesco Guardi c.1765 – the dial still stands on Atlas’ globe

For my contribution I pointed out the building, located behind the Guggenheim collection, which once housed the embassy of Elena’s native Russia.

When, at about 9:45, my companion’s mystique obliged her to ferret away to her employers in Rialto (no doubt a boutique jewellers with a sideline in microdot cameras), I decided to explore the ‘hood.

A city without a hinterland of stairwell stabbings, pawn shops and rap music blaring from upstairs meth labs isn’t to be trusted. Venetians can’t possibly subsist entirely on marbled paper and macaroons so I reasoned that, like Bede’s sparrow in the banquet hall, a local was worthy of pursuit.

I followed at a respectful distance in the echoing, supercilious, footsteps of a tall lady in a long coat, whose cigarette smoke eddied through each alley she departed. Glimpsed now and again across a quiet square, she wanted only for a tricorn hat as she piloted into the labyrinth. Alas, as we arrived at the dead end vaporetto stop in San Sebastian, a glance on the pontoon left me with the stark choice between turning back the way we had come or strangling her and pushing her into the canal to save us both the embarrassment of realising that she had led and I – an aimless tourist – had followed to nowhere.

So then I was in St Marks, plotting a murder thriller involving a large dysfunctional family gathered whence the overbearing matriarch had scattered them by a mysterious agent of karma sending her to Neptune.

I headed East, into the empty part of the tourist map which accounts for about a third of Venice’s area. After quarter of a mile or so, washing lines embowered the dirty bricks and iron braces. Choking waterways carried the smell of soap suds and the echoes of screaming infants and teachers on their stale Adriatic breath.

A discarded condom floated in the water; betraying a locale where people either fornicate or have marital sex while being unable to afford the financial burden of additional children. Either way, ’twas the Hogarthian blast of the ghetto. Truly was I now in the ‘hood. Dingy travel agencies advertised holidays to Craxi era spas on the mainland. Pawn shops and gambling machines competed for the second hand tobacco smoke of moribund junkies. Albanian workmen fixed tatted teen mums with the eye of Cantonese cooks browsing dogs in the wet market.

Here was real Venice; the Venice of pirates and Doges and Casanova and poetry and venerial disease. And here, in search of whatever historical grievance might justify my own questing on the seas, I encountered the Arsenale.

This is the naval shipyard – established about a millennium ago. Radio masts and Nato flags rise from behind the 15th Century walls. Surly men stand on the wooden bridges, smoking in their combat fatigues. Wikipedia sort of implies that the base no longer has a military use, but one isn’t allowed past the Renaissance gatehouse to check. Then I remembered: the lions outside! I had read about them somewhere.

From the Middle Ages till the beginning of the last century, Piraeus [in Athens] was known as Porto Leone, after a large, ancient, marble lion standing at the entrance to the harbour. It had some Nordic runes carved on its shoulder by Harald Hardrada, when he was in the Mediterranean. The lion was looted and carried off to Venice by Doge Francesco Morosini in 1687 and placed outside the Arsenale, where it still stands.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, letter to Diana Cooper, Jan 3, 1955

So where were these famous runes; perhaps the earliest surviving inscription by any western monarch? There were several possible lions to choose from. I started with the smallest – hewn with the crudity of a loyal dog on a Saxon tomb. The surface of the stone was weathered but, the statues belonging to classical antiquity, I hoped that Hardrada’s addition might at least have lasted for half that time. No luck. I moved on to the most magnificent of the pride. The Arsenale has many entrances and images of lions are omnipresent throughout Venice (in connection with the city’s patron, Saint Mark), yet it struck me as certain that this particular lion was of foreign provenance because the marble seemed less like that in Florence than Paros. As Lawrence Durrell would have it:

The famous Parian marble, with its sweet, almost translucent blond colour… the light sinks deep into its surface and reflects back from inside – giving an impression of lightness and transparency. Michelangelo and Canova became enamoured of white Carrara, but in my opinion this Greek stone is superior.

from ‘The Greek Islands’

But I could still find nothing and would have given up had the sun not at that moment reached a position in the sky to throw the surface of the right flank of the statue into the sharpest possible contrast.

Behold! The weather-gouged crevasses were criss-crossed with the radicals of nordic runes!

The inscriptions are visible more for their arrangements in Scandinavian knots and whorls than any single cypher. If the sun isn’t exactly right, you can still see the runes by standing right back and doing funny things with your eyes. A followup Wikipedia session confirmed to me that nobody has been able to disprove that they do indeed read: ‘Harald and the boys of the class of 1035 chundered here on their gap-yah to Jerusalem. Lolz, Miklagarðr girls are sluts!

So there you go: a Classical statue with Viking graffiti, looted from the orthodox world and guarding a military base under the Nato flag. This must be the most cosmopolitan lump of rock on Earth.

A week later, I left Italy for my boat which is wintered in the Cyclades and passed through Piraeus (Porto Leone), on my way to the Greek islands. Here’s a photo of the port. I have no idea where the lions stood – perhaps on top of that 1960s warehouse or in the Blue Star ferry terminal?

When it comes to the Elgin Marbles, Greeks will whine like gypsies on trams. But couldn’t they at least have set up a modern homage to the lion that was nicked (along with half the treasure of the Mediterranean), by the ‘hood that is Venice? I imagine a vast, slightly constructivist, lion of shuttered concrete – guarding the gates to the industrial harbour and lit up at night by nordic runes cast onto its side by projectors.