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May 2009

Can a monument or a statue provide us with detailed information on daily life in antiquity? Start a journey by reading the symbols on the statues of the Virtues, currently being restored thanks to the contribution of sisters Marina and Susanna Sent from Murano. This is an appealing way to discover unexplored curiosities from the times of the Serenissima republic.

"Every language serves as a mediator and bearer of meaning, and therefore the language of living symbols of the tension between signifiers and meanings. Symbols bind signifiers and meanings together in the closest possible way." To be immediately recognisable to their observers, today just as yesterday, the statues of Virtue bring with them in a very obvious way the symbols that characterise them. Symbolism was of fundamental importance in antiquity - starting from the premise that most of the population were illiterate, symbols were used to express concepts in a synthetic way that would be immediately clear to anyone observing them. For example, early Christians used a variety of symbols to identify themselves and to identify very specific situations. In this case the Virtues symbolise what were the characteristics of a perfect and honest citizen, over which towers Venice representing Justice, namely the one who is above everything and everyone. Dwelling on the detail and observing their attributes gives us a more precise picture of the iconographic meaning of the group of statues. Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and makes it possible to balance the use of the goods created. It ensures the domination of will over instinct and keeps desires within the limits of honesty." The balance is represented by what is called "vessels pouring liquor from one to another" - an hourglass. The hourglass is the symbol par excellence of time passing. As it has to be reversed each time after the passage of the sand, it is also the symbol of the end and the beginning of new cycles and epochs, or the changing influences of heaven on earth and vice versa. Justice is the order of human relations - the constant and perpetual wish to acknowledge everyone with what is due to him." The symbol of justice is the sword, as a very sharp instrument and symbol of choice, the separation of good and evil and as such a symbol of justice. The cut off head refers to the enforcement of law. The Fortress is the ability to withstand adversity, not to be discouraged when faced with setbacks, and to persevere in the path of perfection - it reinforces the decision to resist temptation and to overcome obstacles in moral life." It is symbolised by the shield as a defensive tool. Prudence comprises discernment, that is the ability to distinguish true from false and good from evil, in order to act responsibly, that is accepting responsibility for the consequences of one’s own actions." It is symbolised by the mirror, with its function of a creator of images and "reflecting" thinking, a symbol of knowledge of others and of oneself, awareness, truth and clarity. So much for the cardinal virtues, for the two theological figures Faith and Hope the situation is more particular because they are often characterised by the same symbols. Referring to the text, Faith is located on the left and Hope on the right, while Charity is in the centre. Faith is depicted here with hands joined, looking upwards towards the hand of God. Hope is symbolised by a flaming heart and a cornucopia. The heart, which is the central body of man and the site of emotional forces such as love, intuition, wisdom and memory, in this case symbolises a pure heart which receives the light of divine truth. The cornucopia, depicted as a horn full of flowers and fruits, is a symbol of plenty and of providence, which is divine in this case.

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