The New Renaissance: A silent road
Symbols are everywhere. From images and flags to slogans, physical depictions serve as visual representations of values and beliefs.
The intersection between art and symbolism is especially interesting, as symbols add a deeper layer to the message of any piece of artwork. One medium in particular where symbols play a critical role is fashion, and one house which was heavily founded on symbols is Chanel.
The camelia, the ribbon, the comet and the sun, the feather and the lion all are symbols of the House of Chanel.
The lion in particular holds a deep meaning in Chanel fashion, serving as a representation of both Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel herself and a city she adored: Venice.
Venice is known as the city of the lion. All across the city, winged lions can be seen adorning architecture and murals. It is so common that the exact number of lions throughout Venice remains a mystery.
The history of the lion in Venice runs so strong that it can be dated back to the building of the Piazza San Marco, where the winged lion stands alone, high on a pillar looking outward. Yet, its prevalence remains to this day, as a more modern reference of the Venetian lion is its place as the official symbol of the Venice Film Festival.
Just as modern films are rewarded with a golden lion at the film festival, the lion has punctuated Venetian art dating back centuries. Namely, Tintoretto’s painting “Venice, Queen of the Adriatic, Crowning the Lion of Saint Mark” is a direct statement of the value Venetians placed on the lion. This painting, dating back to 1597, depicts the crowning of the lion and directly establishes the power and majesty of the lion.
Clearly, the lion has been, and continues to be, a central figure in Venice. In addition to majesty, its purpose is to represent power and uniqueness of identity.
This meaning was especially deep to Coco Chanel, as she was once quoted saying, “I am a Leo and, like a lion, I use my claws to prevent people from doing me harm, but, believe me, I suffer more from scratching than from being scratched.”
Another figure who felt a deep connection to Venice and the lion was English poet Lord Byron.
In his poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (I Stood in Venice),” Byron also references Venice and the lion, saying:
“Looked to the wingéd Lion’s marble piles, / Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles! … The pleasant place of all festivity, / The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!”
Byron’s poem references the beauty of Venice in both its physicality and history. For a city where art reigns from music to architecture and painting, the richness of Venice’s history is another lifeline symbolized by the lasting presence of the lion.
The beauty of symbols is that one simple image can carry such an elaborate history behind it.
It’s ironic, however, that a symbol meant to represent uniqueness and individuality can also become a commonly referenced figure. Something so individual could go on to touch the lives of so many people. Something so anchored in the memory of the past could go on to decorate generations to come.
It is no wonder that Coco Chanel, grieving the loss of the love of her life at the time of her trip to Venice, would choose to find inspiration and particularly associate herself with the strength, individuality and majesty of the lion. It is no wonder that Lord Byron, who lived in Venice from 1816 to 1819, found inspiration from a city so rich and full of hidden symbols, and chose to write about its fading history, despite its lasting beauty.
That’s why symbols are so important — they act as a bridge between the past and the present. Moreso, they carry histories behind them while also allowing people to carve out new meanings.
The lion, though sculpted in bronze and unmoving, still roars throughout Venice, serving as the same symbol it did centuries ago. And as countless artists have stood in the lion’s city marveling at its silent grandeur, the lion will continue to watch over Venice, holding the secrets of its past and the hope of its future.
Jina Umakanthan is a rising sophomore writing about the continuous relationship between present and past artwork in her column, “The New Renaissance.”