Winged Figure with Elephant

In the third courtyard of the Procuratie Nuove, Piazza San Marco, facing a staircase leading to the apartments of the ex-Palazzo Reale, an allegorical stone sculpture of a winged female figure with a small elephant can be seen. After years of exposure to the elements, both figures are cracked and covered with mossy green algae. Following a request from the Venetian authorities, Venice in Peril raised the funds for restorative treatment and conservation, at a cost of approximately £10,000 and the work has now been completed.

The provenance of this appealing work, believed to be of the 17th century, is something of a mystery, because no records have yet been found to indicate how long it has been installed there. Nor is it listed in the catalogue of sculptures from the Correr collection, which were stored in the Fondaco dei Turchi from 1887 and subsequently moved back to the Archaeological Museum, Piazza San Marco, in 1922.

Is it the work of a Venetian sculptor, or might it originate from another Italian city? So far, its history is unknown, and theories differ as to the subject and its meaning. John Julius Norwich has suggested that the work might represent one of the Four Continents, raising speculation as to whether sculptures of the other three ‘corners of the globe’ might be found elsewhere in Venice.

I believe that the female figure is most likely to represent Vittoria, the winged Roman goddess of Victory (Nike in Greek mythology), who was sometimes portrayed with an elephant. Victory / Nike was invariably depicted with wings, and wore flowing robes and sandals. Gisbert Cuper’s De elephantis in nummis obviis exercitationes duae (1719) illustrates (left) an Iberian coin struck in the mid 1st-century BC, at Osicerda, in Roman Spain. Caesar’s elephant is imitated on one side, with Iberian script; and the winged Victory is shown on the reverse. The elephant was viewed by the Romans as a symbol of military might; and centuries later the animal was to hold similar associations for Napoleon. It could be significant that the sculpture is situated near an entrance to the state apartments.

Following analysis of samples of the algae at the Misericordia laboratory in Cannaregio, the restoration work which took place last year (2014) was directed for the Superintendency by Annalisa Bristot, assisted by Lucia Bassotto.The conservation report has recently been received and the Fund's summer newsletter will publish details of this conservation work and the findings of the historical report.

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