A Note on the Lions of Viterbo

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It is related by the Viterbesi that when Hercules came through Italy during the course of the twelve difficult jobs given to him by King Eurystheus, he was wearing as armour the pelt of the Nemean Lion, his face looking through the visor of its jaws. Finding at Viterbo a city full of fierce, brave and powerful warriors, he was so impressed that he left the pelt with them as he went on his journey. They adopted the lion as their emblem.

Now Viterbo is a city of lions. The walled and gated part, which can be circumambulated in an hour or less, contains thirty churches and cathedrals, besides many cloisters, chapels and shrines, both ancient and more recent, dedicated to the Virgin and other Saints including St Rose, St Lawrence and St Crispin of Viterbo. In every piazza there is a fountain, and every fountain has one or more lions carved of marble or of the dark lava-stone characteristic of the region. In addition, many of the buildings bear crests depicting lions, and not a few have entire lions, carved in the round, standing on a gable or the peak of a roof, offering a proud silhouette to the eye. There are crests, carved of both of stone and wood, where lions do battle with unicorns and crests where the Papal insignia including Peter’s crossed keys, seem entangled with the claws and tails of lions rampant. A great many doors have knockers where the faces of bronze or wooden lions bear heavy metal rings in their mouths.

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Attempts have often been made to count the lions of Viterbo, and although many scholars and enthusiasts have wandered the city’s streets, squares and public buildings[1] counting them, none have reached a figure that agrees with any other. There are sites on the internet devoted to the enumeration of the lions. The numbers they give are wildly various and should not be trusted. Some of the sculptures are so eroded that it is no longer possible to determine whether they are lions or some other beast, or perhaps merely lumps of stone. There is a fountain where some of the beasts may be lionesses or mane-less lions though they are probably horses. Also, it is a well-known fact that some of the lions, especially those carved in the round, come to life or some semblance of life in the hours between midnight and dawn and move about the town like silent cats before resuming their places, or even some new place as the first hint of dawn brings its bleach to the eastern sky. It is notoriously difficult to spot them, for they move only in shadows, and freeze against the dark stone should they detect any sign of human presence. More rarely, lions who appear only as full-face emblems holding the spout of a fountain or a brass ring in their great jaws will step forward, emerging from the space behind, their silent stone paws reaching into the free three-dimensional nocturnal universe.

The region is subject to occasional earthquakes and shiftings in the lithic world, and during these violent events some lions are known to go missing, others to appear where none had been seen before, at least not in recent memory. In another disturbance, during the Second World War the Germans set up a command post in the Quartier Trinidad, the area to the north-east of the Piazza del Plebiscito, and the Allies bombed it. Many buildings were reduced to rubble which was later bulldozed into the raised area now serving as the station for the orange buses. Nobody knows how many lions were destroyed in that conflict, but it is a commonplace that the beasts of the rubble still emerge on moonless nights in the hours before dawn to stalk like basilisks through the narrow cobbled streets. If you should see one, do not look into its eyes. Word has it that you will then yourself be turned to stone, perhaps in the form of a lion, or some shape so eroded that it could also be a saint or a cherub or a Pope.

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Should you visit the city, by all means take a map and make the attempt to count the lions yourself. Viterbo is small but you will appreciate the difficulty of walking the labyrinth of stairways, streets, alleys, and lanes which twist, wind, ascend and descend like a map of the brain of a dark lava-stone lion. You probably won’t arrive at a definitive total. You may as well attempt to count the pretty girls and handsome young men there by spending a day or two strolling the streets and squares with a notebook.

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[1] These exercises are almost always confined to the area surrounded by the still-intact mediaeval walls, though the city and its lions have long since spilled out onto the countryside beyond the ancient limits.

The drawings are pencil-sketches that I did in Viterbo in July 2014.


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