What is today known as ‘whistleblowing’ could once take the form of interacting with a threatening gaze carved into the city wall. It is the case of the ‘boche de Leon’ or ‘lion’s mouths’ disseminated by the old Venetian Republic throughout its territory to suppress illegal activities. Through a close visual reading of these stone creatures, Alex Wilk speculates upon how their very aspect might have been a core part of these control devices. Hybrid beings between animal and human, voiceless yet provided with words, they embody a liminality that mediates the intertwining of citizen life with state power.

Keywords:

With staring eyes their mouths hang open, each one caught in a silent vocal act: a gaping howl, a drooping sigh, a curled snarl, a wide laugh. Carved into the stone to varying degrees, some are etched with a darkened outline, while others emerge from the rock, protruding into the street in front. These strange creatures are known as boche de leon in Veneto dialect – ‘lion mouths’ in English – yet to describe them all as lions would be to stretch this image to its limits. Their gazes usually seem to belong to hybrid beings that lie somewhere in between animal and human, god and monster.

I first encountered one in the city of Verona, northern Italy. Like many of the country’s towns and cities, the historic centre is densely inhabited by a vast variety of figures, both human and nonhuman, that silently observe the streets from the doorways, windows and columns of its Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Although part of this wider population of images that characterised early European cities, the particular faces of the boche de leon are associated with the Republic of Venice, which governed Verona for almost 400 years, and can be found scattered across the territory it occupied between 697-1797 AD.

Their very name pays homage to the official symbol of the empire: the winged lion of St. Mark which was is in itself a recurring motif of the landscape, appearing pervasively far beyond its former island capital of Venice1 – whether west in the Italian cities of east Lombardy; widely around the Mediterranean Sea, in Cyprus, on Croatian islands, even in the alps, sculpted in a boundary stone to signal the border with the Habsburg Empire.2 The winged lion’s most iconic presence stands high on one of the two columns of Piazza San Marco in Venice, its gaze here facing eastward to convey the state’s command over the seas. In most cases, however, the lion faces us directly with the gospel of St. Mark held open by the paw, creating a powerful image that unifies both state and divine orders to affirm an apparently righteous dominion over the occupied lands.3

Fig. 2. The winged lion of St. Mark standing on a column in Piazza Erbe, Verona
Top image: Fig. 1. Boca de leon, Chiesa di San Martino, Castello, Venice.

To today’s passing tourists, the numerous figures and faces in historic towns such as Verona may well be judged as simply the result of bygone fashions. Yet, given the richness of the symbolic meaning that these images almost always carried during those eras where they proliferated, it is worth considering possible use-purposes within the city that go beyond the mere ornamental. Indeed, art historian, Fabrizio Nevola argues that within the early modern city, images formed a ‘pervasive network’ embedded into the urban structure itself that served as a pre-technological surveillance system.4

The author gives the example of the 406 candlelit street shrines of the Virgin Mary in Venice which, beyond their religious purpose, were also a form of street lighting that, as today, would help deter crime through visibility.5 Furthermore, the omnipresent, holy gaze of the Madonna would cue individual self-regulation and thus provide societal control that functioned through common belief structures, here namely, the Christian doctrine.6

The shrines were therefore much more than religious decoration, rather, an integral part of the urban security infrastructure, enabling a decentralised and continuous surveillance undertaken by many sets of eyes: those of the community, who could observe as a result of the lighting, as well as those of the holy figures that would prompt the correct behaviour of those who passed by. In a similar fashion, the winged lion of St. Mark, elevated for all to observe and simultaneously to observe all, would also surely prompt compliance under its gaze, impressing visitors with its might and reminding subjects of whose jurisdiction they were under.

Fig. 3. The winged lion of St. Mark mounted on a canal wall in Campiello Gore, Venice.
The inscription reads: ‘In memory of Count Piero Foscari for public subscription – this lion is here installed in place of that which was sculpted in 1797. | 16th June 1925’.

Yet, the hybrid lions of the boche de leon were not elevated in this way, rather, these gazes were usually positioned on the sides of buildings at head height, confronting passersby face-on. Neither were they sacred images nor, strictly speaking, the official symbol of the state, though its lion-esque form and name are clear allusions to it. However, as Nevola argues, they too belong to this pervasive network of images that together would form part of the security apparatus of the Venetian Republic to maintain societal control. As the carved inscription that usually accompanied them reveals, these lions had a specific use function:

FOR SECRET DENUNCIATIONS
TO THE INQUISITION
AGAINST ANY PERSON,
WITH IMPUNITY, SECRECY, AND
BENEFIT TO THE STATE.7

The boche de leon were the Venetian form of denunzie – their open mouths were designed as boxes to communicate ‘secret denunciations’ to the state, governed for the most part of its history by ‘The Council of Ten’ along with ‘The Full College’.8 They could be used to name individuals or groups such as the health service (fig. 4) and crimes such as usury (fig. 7) or the smuggling of gunpowder (fig. 5) and silk (fig. 6).

While the implications of the specific positioning of the boche de leon within the city space have been little considered by historians, Nevola argues that this aspect is not without significance. For despite the promise of secrecy and anonymity, the faces were often present in very public, open spaces either within busy streets, squares or attached to important public buildings or churches. The denunzia, Nevola maintains, should therefore not be considered as a private act but rather, a ‘visible and public transaction witnessed by the polity’.9

This performative and public aspect of the supposedly secret denunciation perhaps not only ensured that the process was not abused, as a result of the regulating gaze of fellow citizens, but it also might have reinforced the necessary participation of all of the republic’s subjects in this disciplinary exercise. It is a sentiment echoed in the short preface to the Promissione Maleficorum, the 13th-century Venetian legal code: ‘we hold that justice requires our unceasing vigil and concern in order to correct excess and punish crime’.10 Perhaps then, as part of this ‘unceasing vigil’, citizens were encouraged to take part and, importantly, be seen taking part in the processes of law and order.

But beyond their spatial arrangement within the city, I would like to explore the other formal qualities of the boche de leon that I hypothesise were surely also not coincidental. If one considers affective power of certain visual components, namely, their stony faces, hybrid human-animal nature and gaping mouths, we might reach the conclusion that these elements together constituted important mediators of this public, political act of denouncing a fellow citizen. More precisely, the latter of these – the open mouth that served as the slot of the post box – I argue should not be considered solely a visual component but also represents a vocal one, albeit a vocalisation that cannot be heard. It is precisely this absence of voice that I believe is worth listening to: the non-vocalised vocalisation, akin to a whisper or a gasp that carries the unutterable, signalling the limit of what can be said.

 

Stone faces

In English, ‘to draw blood from a stone’ (in Italian, cavar sangue dalle pietre), signifies the act of obtaining something, usually information, with great difficultly. It derives from a similar Latin idiom with the same meaning aquam a pumice nunc postulas – ‘to get water from a stone’. While blood and water are symbolically and literally connected to life, stone, for the most part of western culture, represents what is lifeless or close to it. We talk of being ‘stone cold’ and ‘stone dead’; an unfeeling person, close to inhuman, may have a ‘heart of stone’ (avere il cuore di pietra). As Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, Mladen Dolar observes, it is deaf and mute: ‘‘Silent as a stone’, one says in many languages; ‘stone-deaf’, one says in English’.11 And despite its ability to erode over time, stone represents permanence – to be ‘set in stone’ (scolpito nella pietra) – the opposite of an ever-changing, fragile life.

Fig. 4. Boca de leon at Dossoduro, Venice.
The inscription reads: ‘DNCIE CONTRA LA SANITÀ PER IL SESTIER DE OSSO DURO’
(‘Denunciations against the health service of the Dorsoduro district’ [translation mine]).

Yet curiously, the idiom speaks of the difficultly of drawing blood from a stony source but not the impossibility, since speakers usually employ the phrase to express the challenge in obtaining the information but not a failure to do so. After all, stone is an organic, product of the earth, often home to lichen and moss. Turn over a stone and its wet underbelly might reveal a hive of beastly activity in the mud below and that clings to its surface. Some semblance of liveliness or life-source remains attached to that hard exterior. Rather than being placed firmly in the category of the inanimate, stone seems to straddle the border between the lifeless and the living. Indeed, in Italian that liminal state of a deep sleep is likened to stone – one ‘sleeps like a stone’ (dormire come un sasso), the equivalent to the English idiom ‘to sleep like a log’, another ambiguously alive entity. A more tenebrous example is the horror trope of petrification, dating back to many ancient mythologies and folklores, which represents a fate that is similar to death but perhaps not death itself – life here might be trapped but not necessarily eliminated.12

So, as Dolar also concludes, ‘stone is a border creature’ – it possesses a strange ability to put into question those firm distinctions we usually draw between the animate and inanimate, interior and exterior, subject and object.13 What appears as an impenetrable exterior is actually porous. This considered, it would appear that it is not by chance that the faces of the boche de leon are not painted in colour to be rendered life-like, rather, they are left as bare stone. They are semblances of trapped life, objectified by their petrification within a wall – a liminal being from the start due to its very materiality. This liminality is also quite literal since the face sits at a border crossing in more than one way: physically so, for it inhabits a structure that separates inside from outside, but also, as we shall see, the figure guards a more conceptual border that delimits the boundaries of full citizenship within the Venetian Republic.

Fig. 5. Boca de leon within the courtyard of Porta dei Bombardieri, Verona.
The inscription reads: ‘DENONCE SECRETE CONTRO CONTRABANDIERI DIPOLVERE’
(‘Secret denunciations against gunpowder smugglers’ [translation mine]).

Furthermore, if we consider other aspects of these stony faces, we might start to find this same liminal quality imbued in other intriguing ways. Multiple symbolic representations of the liminal, I suggest, perhaps stem from the power within the act of denouncing a fellow citizen by one who was not usually entitled to do so – for only the Venetian aristocracy could partake in the republic’s politics (see note 5) – and consequently, a need to curtail such exceptional power. After all, it was an act that could carry dramatic consequence, in the most severe cases, condemn a fellow citizen to imprisonment or execution.

While the decision to investigate an accusation and the punitive result was not automatic but evaluated and decided by the councils, this direct involvement of the citizen must still have surely been carefully delimited in order not to cultivate the sentiment that any ordinary person could have power over another, certainly not assume the power that was granted to only to the ruling class. My hypothesis, based on a visual reading of the boche de leon, is that within this performative act of the denunciation this tempering of power might have occurred precisely through these various symbolic representations. Together they would work to affirm that the true power was held by that stoney, silent, liminal being who mediated the process, not the human who faced it.

 

Hybrid beings

To begin with, this liminal quality is corroborated by what is carved into that very stone: a hybrid creature that sits outside our usual discrete categories. The images of the boche de leon fluctuate along a sliding scale of lion-human with some instances appearing more human and others more lion.14

While human-animal hybrids are of course scattered throughout various mythologies, it is interesting to me that the boche de leon are not the only example that deals with an inside/outside border. Another Venetian example is the plague doctor – a recognisable historical character of the floating city, famously imitated during carnival still today. The long beak of the mask that would cover the doctor’s face served the purpose of containing aromatic herbs thought to purify the air and protect the medic from infection while dealing with the patients.

Of all the forms that this nose could have taken, to me it seems no coincidence that the result is a bird-like one. This figure was, after all, another determinator of who would remain within the human realm and who would pass over to the afterlife, perhaps even he himself considered able to walk the borderline of these two states of existence. The many representations of mermen and mermaids within the churches and buildings of Venice hold a similar symbolic significance: art historians interpret them as representing the otherworldly passage by crossing of the sea.15 And while from different times and cultures, others such as the jackal-headed ancient Egyptian god Anubis also come to mind – the embalmer and another usherer of souls into the afterlife. Or the ancient Greek Siren – half women, half bird – present within funerary contexts since they were believed to join the voices of the lament and also guide the dead to the afterlife.16

This ability to traverse such finite and unidirectional borders, such as life and death, and in the case of the boche de leon, the temporary or permanent expulsion from society by imprisonment or death, thus seems to be a somewhat recurring theme within animal-human hybrids and it is not too difficult to imagine why. Symbolically, this power could not belong to a purely animal figure, since, at least within the Christian, western tradition, animals have been positioned as a lesser form of life and outside of human affairs. Animals (still today for the most part) inhabit a world that is conceptually external to polis, even if when physically present within the city. Their life is reduced to a basic form concerned only with survival – zoē, as the Greeks called it – without the political capacity and culture that was considered as unique to human life – bios.

On the other hand, human life represents participation within the polis, as active, moral citizens, and so should remain quite firmly within this realm until death. While in the case of expulsion or imprisonment human life becomes animal life – allowed only to survive but not to live as human. The animal therefore represents what is external to human life, whereas a hybrid being can symbolically exist in both realms.

Fig. 6. Boca de leon in via Dante, Verona.
The inscription reads: ‘DENONCIE SECRETE CONTRO CONTRABANDIERI DI SEDE ECHI TENISSE CAVALERI O FORNELLI DA TIRAR SEDA SENZA BOLLETA’
(‘Secret denunciations against silk smugglers and whoever keeps silkworms or stoves to extract silk without a tax declaration’ [translation mine]).

In the act of denouncing a fellow citizen, power must therefore be handed over to a liminal creature that can inhabit both sides of the border, capable of existing both within and beyond the polis, both internal and external to human affairs. As it sits immobile in the stone wall, this hybrid being accepts the name into its mouth and holds it in a dual state of inside and outside, dead and alive, animal and human – a name suspended while it awaits the declaration of which side of the border lies its fate.

 

The silent said

It is not just the guardian of the name with its stony, hybrid face, that I believe communicates a liminality. As the human approaches and faces it, the interaction with the creature by placing the piece of parchment within its mouth could in itself be a performative representation of this quality. My interpretation is that this might serve yet again the purpose of discharging power away from the person who holds the parchment to the creature that accepts it. For unlike in a catholic confession or the testimony of a witness, in which verbal enunciation is an integral part, here the person need not utter a single word.17

Perhaps for this reason, it is also no coincidence that these words are placed in the locus of the emission of the voice of the creature. While according to Aristotle’s infamous assertion that has in large part defined western thought, speech is what makes ‘man a political animal’, in this apparently political act, speech is in fact not vocalised but is given to the mouth of another. What are we to deduce from this apparent contradiction?

The act of placing written words in the mouth seems to also inhabit a half-way point, this time between the thought and the said. I suggest we think of this gesture as akin to a non-voiced vocalisation, like a whisper or a gasp. As explored by critical theorist John Mowitt, these barely audible, sonic emissions that use the breath alone without the vocal cords to utter words (in the case of a whisper) or simply express a feeling directly (as in the case of a gasp) should be read not only as paralinguistic mechanisms but also as embodying a more profound relation to the greater social discourse that delimits what can be said and what cannot.18

To whisper serves the purpose of lowering the volume of what is being said, but it is also a means of detachment from the content of what is said. Here one need only think about whispering even when there is no risk of a third party overhearing. To whisper even when safe to speak openly, in the privacy of one’s home, say, demonstrates how the act is somehow used to remove the speaker from their words, rendering the said less ‘said’. The gasp takes this unspeakable quality one step further, affirming the limits of language to articulate certain subjects due to their traumatic nature or the boundaries of social discourse.

Fig. 7. Boca de leon attached to the Camera Fiscale (Tax chamber) in Piazza dei Signori, Verona.
The inscription reads: ‘DENUNZIE SECRETE CONTRO USURARJ E CONTRATI USURATICI DI QUALUNQUE SORTE’
(‘Secret denunciations against usurers and usurious contracts of any kind’ [translation mine]).

Placing the parchment in the mouth of the creature, I suggest, can also be considered a speech act that sits at the boundary between the said and not.19 Perhaps it is a further acknowledgement that this particular political gesture goes beyond what would normally be granted to the Venetian subject. In the act of denouncing a fellow citizen, the human pays testimony both to the crime that brought them to the boca de leon and the punishment that can only be declared and carried out by the state. By symbolically passing the vocalisation of the testimony to the hybrid creature, political power is once again curtailed, responsibility is detached and handed over to the mediator. This speech cannot belong to the person who has reached the limit of the sayable, instead they bear silent witness to the unspeakable nature of this act and the suffering of human subjects pitted against one another by those in power.

 

Border crossings

The boche de leon remain in Veneto walls, their faces worn, their mouths still open. I returned to a few in the centre of Verona recently with the view to rephotograph them for this article. Perhaps spurred by the mental dedication I had given them in writing this, I wondered whether they still today hold some affective power over those who meet their gaze. And so, for the first time, I dared to peer closely inside their mouths. I had imagined that they would today collect notes and litter, mainly the latter, but I wasn’t prepared for what I found. While I only managed to pull out but a few examples to examine, almost all seemed to be love letters or declarations, written spontaneously on the back of any scrap of paper that happened to be at hand.

Fig. 8. Notes inside the boca de leon attached to the Camera Fiscale (Tax chamber) in Piazza dei Signori, Verona. (See fig. 7)

 

It makes sense, of course, the city of Romeo and Juliet has turned many of its historic buildings, bridges and monuments into opportunities for romantic tourism. Only one note I found bared testimony to the lion mouth’s original purpose. Scribbled on a torn piece of card in what seemed to be red lipstick, with a curious use of the letter Z, it read: ‘DENUNZIAMO LA FALSITÀ DELLE PERZONE FALZE’ (‘We denounce the falseness of false people’).

Fig. 9. Note on scrap card written in lipstick: ‘DENUNZIAMO LA FALSITÀ DELLE PERZONE FALZE’ (‘We denounce the falseness of false people’).

 

It would be intriguing to investigate how the faces of the boche de leon function in the city today – to understand how their imagery might affect the passerby in different ways, instigating and mediating novel rituals for contemporary times. In this article, however, I have speculated upon how these denunzie may have functioned on a symbolic and affective level during a time when images in the urban fabric proliferated. As Nevola argues, in the early modern city, images were also employed as pretechnological securitisation devices to prompt the correct behaviour of citizens. Together they would form a decentralised surveillance system that functioned through shared symbolic knowledge and the inevitable participation of all members of the community.

This seems to be applicable to the boche de leon for their placement within the public streets and squares. But I add that the formal qualities of these images – their bare stone materiality, their embedment in the literal boundary of the wall and their hybrid lion-human nature – all communicate a power that transcends the human subject who faces it and that might have also played an important role in mediating the political act of the denunciation.

Together these elements convey an ability to inhabit both sides of a political border, between inside and outside, dead and alive, human and animal, subject and object. It is a liminality that claims power over the subject who faces the creature and who remains firmly in their place on one side of the boundary, while the denounced enters a state of limbo. Furthermore, the act of placing the written note in the lion’s open mouth, I suggest, can be considered an affirmation of the unspeakable nature of this act. It is unspeakable to once again confirm that it is not the subject that holds such power – that a Venetian citizen could never fully participate in such a process – but furthermore speaks to the traumatic nature of what potentially awaits. Unable to be uttered now, a name hangs in a silent whisper, waiting to be enounced by a power that can.

 

About the Author


Alex Wilk is one of the co-founders and editors of Anima Loci. She works between research, design and editorial projects for the arts. Her personal projects take visual and textual formats: she has taken part in art residency programmes, exhibitions and today she enjoys exploring her research interests through writing. Alex holds an MA in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London.

www.visivastudio.org/alex-wilk

Footnotes & references

[1] The winged lion of St. Mark is still today the official icon of the contemporary region of Veneto, imprinted upon its flag, trains and the administration’s branding.

[2] This latter example is located in la Muraglia di Giau (the Giau wall) in the Dolomites.

[3] During times of war, the imagery would change once again: the gospel is closed shut under the lion’s paw while the other holds a sword pointed upwards.

[4] Nevola, Fabrizio (2013). ‘Surveillance and Control of the Street in Renaissance Italy’. In: I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (September 2013), pp. 85-106.

[5] Ibid. For street count see:
Muir, Edward (1987). ‘The Virgin on the Street Corner: The Place of the Sacred in Italian Cities’. In: Religion and Culture in the Renaissance and Reformation, ed. Stephen Ozment. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press. pp.24-40, 27.

[6] Nevola, Fabrizio (2013).

[7] This Lion Mouth inscription is fictional and included as part of the set for Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda (1876), set in 17th-century Venice. I have included it for its ability to capture the general function of the denunzie. The original text reads: ‘DENONTIE SECRETE PER VIA / D’INQVISITIONE CONTRA CADA / UNA PERSONA CON L’IMPUNITA / SEGRETEZA ET BENEFITTI / GIUSTO ALLE LEGI.’

[8] The Venetian Republic was ruled by a number of collective assemblies, the two main ones being ‘The Council of Ten’ and ‘The Full College’. The system has been described as an ‘oligarchic republic’ since only the social body of the Patriziato (a minority, albeit a large one, of aristocrats) could participate in the internally democratic process to rule, not represent, the remaining citizens. Unlike other contemporaneous republics, the system was considered a huge success due to the empire’s relative peace, hence Venice’s other name, La Serenissima –the most serine’. See:
Centre for Intellectual History, University of Oxford. (2021). The Proud Oxymorons of Venice’s Parliamentary Culture. [Online]. Centre for Intellectual History. Last Updated: 29 November 2021. Available at: https://intellectualhistory.web.ox.ac.uk/article/the-proud-oxymorons-of-venices-parliamentary-cultur [Accessed 10 April 2024].

[9] Nevola, Fabrizio (2013). p.104.

[10] Guido, Ruggiero (1978). ‘Law and Punishment in Early Renaissance Venice’. In: The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. Vol. 69, No. 2. p.244.

[11] Dolar, Mladen (2011). ‘The Vocal Stone’ In: Bild und Stimme. Leiden: Brill. p.32

[12] In ancient Greek Mythology most stories of petrification, such as that of Medusa, imply an eternal fate for the victims, but whether in these cases petrification is equivalent to death or not remains ambiguous. There are some instances which speak to the potential liveliness of stone such as Pygmalion’s statue, Galatea, whom Aphrodite brought to life. Or from a more recent era, the statue in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1788) that springs to life spontaneously after being ridiculed.

[13] Dolar, Mladen (2011), pp.31-47.

[14] For anthropological analysis of chimeric creatures, see:
Severi, Carlo (2020). Capturing Imagination: a proposal for an anthropology of thought. Trans. Howard, C. et al. Chicago, IL: Hau Books.

[15] The mermen of Venetian church Santa Maria dei Miracoli is a notable example is. See:
Luchs, Alison. (2010). The Mermaids of Venice: Fantastic Sea Creatures in Venetian Renaissance Art. Turnhout: Harvey Miller Publishers (Brepols).

[16] For example, Helen’s words in Euripides’ play: ‘…Sirens, may you come to my mourning with Libyan flute or pipe or lyre, tears to match my plaintive woes; grief for grief and mournful chant for chant, may Persephone send choirs of death in harmony with my lamentation…’
Helen’ in: Euripides. The Complete Greek Drama. Ed. Oates, W.J & O’Neill, E. Vol. 2. Trans. Coleridge, E.P. New York NY: Random House. 1938.

[17] For an analysis of how we lend voices to images see:
Severi, Carlo. (2009). ‘La parole prêtée. Comment parlent les images’. In: Cahiers d’anthropologie sociale. 5. pp.11-41. [Online]. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3917/cas.005.0011 [Accessed 13 April 2024].

[18] Mowitt also observes how a ‘whisperer’ is also used to represent a person skilled at taming animals (and in the case of American TV series ‘The Ghost Whisperer’ also the paranormal). If we follow the logic that the animal represents the outside, the whisper seems to be a mode of communication between inside and outside, used to access what is external to humanity and to bring it closer by taming it. Mowitt theorises that in the act of taming the animal is a repetition of the conceptual excision of the inherent animality out of the human subject within the tradition that distinguishes a hierarchical division between the two. Can we also consider this moment of ‘whisper’ at the boche de leon also as a symbolic curtailing or taming of the animality from the human subject?
Mowitt, John (2015). ‘Whisper’. In: Sounds: The Ambient Humanities. Oakland CA: University of California Press. pp. 58-77.

[19] A speech act can be understood as those verbally uttered statements that bring forth a change in reality. For example: ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’. For an analysis of this similar performative agency applied to the visual sphere see:
Bredekamp, Horst (2021). Image Acts: A Systematic Approach to Visual Agency. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.


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