Il Leone in Noi



Editor: La Cittadella Edizioni 2009                                    

Written by: Rita Miglioranza e Mario De Poli                        

Texts: Francesca Brandes – Danilo Mainardi – Beppe Gullino

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Mario De Poli’s lions, with that gleaming and dazzling light – a Mediterranean, steady light – reverberating in the canvasses, are apparently an enigma. They evoke a threshold which they seem unable to cross; they belong to earth and heaven, enjoying neither solid naturalistic statutes nor an entirely iconic role. Similarly, the (over fifty) drawings dedicated to the same subject, albeit conceptually adhering to the theme and being formally mighty, suggest an evoked dream.
The artist realizes a notion of modus symbolicus which reminds of the Hegelian conception: these subjects appear, at first, as pre-signs because there is nothing arbitrary in the correlation between signifier and signified. That is to say that De Poli’s lion, symbol of courage in the premises, holds as well the quality whose meaning it is supposed to convey (the animal is protagonist because it dominates the canvas, because it is provided with a strong compositional connotation, because, we may say, it is a lion “in face”). Yet, that is not enough. At a slightly deeper analysis, it becomes manifest that we are dealing here with an analogue symbol – a lion which resembles a legacy of memory, a feeling, a fear – which immediately presents itself as peculiar, ambiguous. Such is the extent of the semantic field that De Poli orchestrates in these works.
There is, however, something more remote, a structural meaning upon which the artist subsequently works with mastery. Almost a universally experienced nostalgia, beyond the enigma of suppositions. I believe that the core of this series, besides the variegated and exciting modus inherent to the pictorial effect, is to be found in the archetypical worth which the artist discreetly suggests, by little hints. Nearly a disorienting collective a priori (hence the subtle sense of dépaysement exuding mystery and referring actually to the subconscious), in which instinct forms are recognizable. Such is the meaning of works where the symbolic presence is variously iterated, sealing a multi-nucleus composition, and where the represented gains agency. The artist insists upon a mirror-modulated structure, whereas the surrounding landscape, often rarefied, suggests a typically oneiric dimension. Like being bounced into a space-time elsewhere, and then gradually realizing that such an elsewhere lays within ourselves.
Therefore, it is a story that comes from afar, and belongs to us; it comes from astrology as well as from symbolic medicine and physiognomics. We may call it a heart story: a round, full, gold-and-sulphur-colored story that emerges from the bottom. It is the same warmth, chromatic and temperature gradient at the same time, which blazes in the middle of De Poli’s canvasses. These works enjoy a warm and dry nature, and their tint closely resembles the passion of existence, just like a heart in the chest, in fact. In them, the thought of art seems to be blended with will; it appears as volition, umor-amor, vitality, power or as imagination, and it is not immediately recognizable as a thought because it does not consist simply of reflexive, abstract reasoning. This is the reason why its modus symbolicus seems an enigma, at the beginning: because it follows other rules, archetypical and as fundamental as the rational analysis.
I think that a crucial aspect of this fantastic construction lies (but this actually applies to the whole De Poli’s production) on believing. Then and only then, nourished by a lively and non-dogmatic faith, the spirit of such an art can turn into project, wish, interest. As D.H. Lawrence writes in his Symbolic Physiology, providing an extraordinarily fitting image which could not be any closer to De Poli’s art, «…in the cardiac plexus, in the middle of our chest, we hold a great sun of knowledge and existence». Nonetheless, the effects of such a fullness, of such an awareness and its potentialities do not seem to be simply self-referential in the artist. On the contrary, they project the wonder outside, in the world.
However, a little dark body, as Jung would call it, is left at the core of the individual, a twilight zone in which the depicted melancholy finds place. In my opinion, here is where artist De Poli develops the lion portraits series: often reduced in size, they can be apparently considered as a witz, whereas they represent a major interpretative key of the whole series. By analyzing, for example, the Crying Lion, one of the most beautiful works upon which one can practice, it is immediately recognizable the great anthropomorphic poignancy of the animal, depicted according to the tradition, but with a totally unusual melancholic sweetness which contrasts with the shining power – the gold, the warmth, the sulphur – of De Poli’s painting. “Human-like” semblances can be found in all the lion portraits, but it is a pensive and fragile, transient human. An attribution of nearness, not supremacy.
In the Lion at the mirror, the theme of the other, of the resembling (but bizarre is the mirror and decentred the focus) takes a tragic dimension, just as in other examples the story (and the portrait) becomes epic, shifting the focus on the concept of unveiling. Consequently, the leonine or the human are no longer important, because the story and its dark core merge in tones of deep sharing, of pietas.
Love and will, self and other (other than ourselves) overlap so totally that the artist’s vision is – simultaneously – humanistic and natural, monotheistic from intention up to the effects. In De Poli the heart is always one and always entire. A (compositionally well structured) rhythmic fervour characterizes its intensity, a single manner which prevails magnified. For the Depolian lion heart, the task of conscience consists in recognizing the archetypical structure and bringing all actions, tensions and objects of faith back to it.
The artist’s practice in the world, his essential and fundamental painting, very closely recalls the alchemic process. Here is where the conformity and the objectification of Mario De Poli’s thought perfectly condense: the sulphur combustion principle, what alchemists define as magna flamma. Accordingly, the lion is a flickering tongue of fire, vegetation, shiver of landscape shaken by autumn wind. In its unusual posture, the icon-lion goes by, brought back to his own material quality.
The painter’s imagination, in which the moment of conflagration and that of chromatic coagulation overlap, is anima mundi. As a result, desire and object of desire become indistinguishable. In short, the manifest love in the lion’s heart may be defined as enforced projection, and the process provides for a particular state of consciousness leaving painting apart (or perhaps inscribing it in a broader life cycle). The urge – which is also an urge to paint, canvass after canvass, lion after lion – turns into will to change, starting with transparency, with the sweet weakness identifiable in the portraits, in that power made of prodigious frailty and not-always-manifest fear.  «…in impenetrable forests – in Petrarca’s verses – just when I think to be more alone»: here is where the lion-self moves. It starts from here the phenomenological analysis and its hermeneutics which lay at the heart of De Poli’s series. Here, in the reflection upon archetypes and upon the paces of individual and collective time, the artist becomes aware of the problem of evil, of identity decay: what kind of heart is that – he wonders –which does not react to phenomenon, and wants to turn diversity into desert? The lion, beyond the religious symbolism of the tradition which has associated it with Christ over the centuries, can possibly represent a path to salvation in itself, to rouse the vital beauty: with fire, extroverted rage, thick colours. With a roar, as if to revive lion cubs on the third day after birth, says the Physiologist. Therefore, De Poli’s painting takes a strongly critical nuance as well, (however refined and discreet, as it has always been in the artist’s style).
In his work – and at this point of the analysis it is important to reaffirm that – there is a time for expression and a time for sensemaking, although the two phases are not automatically sequential. First of all, the work reveals a usable substrate, as to say, which characterizes it as a physical object.
However, fruition can never be considered univocal in De Poli – and this series do not fail the expectations. Time, or rather the feeling of intimate and chronological time, sets the coordinates through which the painting can be read. In some canvasses the icon, the leitmotiv of the series, suggests an imaginative and heraldic reflection, with precise trans-temporal characteristics. In other cases, the constructive process – with the lion that becomes a structural part of the architectural element – envisages a future interval of unpredictable consequences.
With this regard, the graphic section is even more significant. In a thin and intricate texture, where the Indian ink draws veiled arabesques, the pure and essential symbolism appears as evident memory, sense of origins and stones. The echo of time, materially assonant in the engraving-like line, lives on memory, enriched with a highly personal elaboration. In doing so, the artist actually constructs world cameos through his composition act, reproducing in the signs the complexity of the paintings, occasionally even functioning as a synthesis.
In fact, the absolute attention to the flowing of time and to its tracks collection has always been central to the artist’s work; indeed, among his many projects, he dedicated an important series to the Veneto walled cities; another utterly valuable one is Echo of silence, which brings together painting and musical excerpts on the Mòcheni Valley; the powerful The forgotten stones (oil paintings, drawings and engravings) made in Istria and Dalmatia is also noteworthy.
The scent of the centuries and its wonderful tracks affects De Poli anything but descriptively. That is, the (meticulous, accurate) analysis does exist, but it is supported by a conscious breeze, the same that – turned into synthesis – frames the lion series. I would define the artist’s time as a circumnavigation time, meaning the urge to look behind the surface, to make spaces flowing temporally around his own hand. In other cases, the most introspective ones, his works necessitate a recomposition time as well, in which fragments may find a unifying logic and, from single elements, they may be reintegrated within a comprehensive view.
All that, however, has definitely to be considered, especially in the case of a complex and erudite artist as De Poli, in the light of a content time, which is simultaneously the enunciated (for example the narration of a sequence of facts) and the enunciation (the act of narrating, sulphur and red burning the earth). Put it simply, we may say that – in many pieces of this series – a privileged content emerges, a sort of enunciated enunciation. The very act of doing, every roar, stand for the staging of the content. If we look at the variegated works, we realize that the extraordinary syncretism of the process achieves the same results. At times, the intersected planes contain different interest centres (put into the concrete form of the lion, repeated as a seal), but the choral event comes close to a temporal as well as stylistic uniformity, as if the facts were told concurrently and they all together justified such a simultaneity. On the other hand, in the reduced size of the Lion man, the metamorphosis – sole protagonist of the work – has become definite, clear. The leonine component is tamed (but the shape, revealing itself, expresses quite a different meaning) and the gaze is neither animal nor completely human, as if it was the sign of an ambivalent condition. Also in this case, the lion is together the end, symbol of a self fading in the mist of time, and the means (for us, to comprehend such a warm and concealed hub, such a root, that dwells in the middle of our chest).
In the last analysis, besides the energy that this artist’s painting conveys, besides the ability to frame the pictorial act around units of meaning, there is, I believe, a fundamental reason why De Poli’s work is significant and foundational. That is probably because his answers correspond to the questions. In other words, every aesthetic answer – as it only occurs with masters – is always a moral answer: and they say human beings possess some of the lion’s nature because they do not get angry easily, unless they are hurt… says the Latin Physiologist. And in Mario De Poli’s painting, that is an auspice rather than a statement of fact.

Francesca Brandes ,
Venice January 2009




Looking at the nice and suggestive lion series painted by Mario De Poli, you have the peculiar sensation of shifting – but this is actually the charm of series – from lions which are and declare, albeit in the artistic interpretation, to be mere animals, up to lions totally anthropomorphized. To some extreme extent, actually, they are humans much more than lions. And here comes the doubt, or perhaps the certainty, that the Author wanted, more or less consciously, to represent himself as such a lion man. An identification definitely turning into a sort of peculiar self-portrait.

And, at this point, I really need to make some zoological or, even better, zooanthropologi­cal remarks regarding certain characteristics of such an extraordinary feline. The first one is this: the lion, meant as a species, possesses a peculiar quality, he has got a different name for each of the two genders. Lion for male, lioness for female. It is true that, unlike tigers, pigeons and many others, in this species there is indeed a great difference be­tween genders. Because the mane is very important, not to mention the terrifying roar. Nonetheless, are these differences significant enough in order to grant such a peculiar distinctiveness? Apparently not, if we think about the differences between, say, the male and female peacock. Indeed, these two birds represent the most extraordinary example of, scientifically speaking, sexual dimorphism.

The fact is that, among the few who possess such a peculiar privilege (for instance bull and cow, cock and hen, stallion and mare), there is something else, something more. And it is something concerning us humans. Us, the only species who names every animate or inanimate, encountered or imagined object. And this is the matter: an ancient, constant, important acquaintance with humanity. As a result, in our mind fantastic thoughts and symbolic roles develop with regard to some very special animals, which end up perform­ing a sort of second life. A life originating in our mind but affecting the real one as well, coercing those animals into unusual roles. Just think about the poor lions forced to fight in the Coliseum. Think about the bull’s role in the corrida. A merging of nature and culture, a bridge between the true reality, the one of biology and evolution, and the imaginary one agitating in our mental setting. Well, the lion not only belongs to this uncommon category but among all he is the most extraordinary one.

Therefore, a symbolic lion as well lives in our mind and has always been living in our cul­ture. This is the lion of San Marco, basically, or also the tale lion representing the king of the forest or, better, the king of animals. Indeed, this second version is the most correct one, since the real lion has always been actually living in the savannah, in Africa and Asia, although in Asia the lion is nowadays disappearing.

Hence, the lion lives a double life, which means that, as well as in nature he lives in medi­eval bestiaries. Or in the Bible, where it is said to be named 130 times as common (and impending) animal in Palestine. He used to live there as well, in fact, in that ancient age, and also in Greece, where he was exterminated around 200 BC. Nevertheless, it is prob­ably in Africa, where he survives today although not too well, that since the beginning the natives pictured him as the real king of animals (and possibly of men as well). That is what the great predator would proclaim to be in the dark nights. His frightening roar would say: «He inchi ya nani-yangu, yangu, yangu», that is «Whose land is this? It’s mine, mine, mine!». At least that is what the scared natives thought they understood.

And this – but here we shift from culture to nature – is also what every lion instinctually perceives when crossing an alien territory. «Keep off, foreign lions. This is my territory, my kingdom. Don’t get close, unless you want to challenge me and fight with me».

The roar, then, and the mane. These are the main male peculiarities compared to the female ones, those of lionesses, which are extraordinary, functional, social and cooperative. Yes, this is how they are, but what is the male like? If we look at them carefully, the roar and the mane say everything by themselves, since both of them evolved functionally to the competition with other males, which is the lion’s major problem. Because the lion is polygamous, or better, polygenic, by his own nature, which means that, if he wants to transmit his genes to future generations, each male must defeat the other males. This is the only way he can establish his longed-for harem. And this also means fights and threats, so to overcome all competitors, and that is what the resounding roar and the protective mane are for. After all, if the male function was to predate, much more effective would be the nimble and strong female structure. Think about the monogamous tigers, in fact, where the differences between sexes are almost non-existent.

But in the social life of lions, things are different and each gender has got its own role. The female predates, whereas this is optional for males, for them it is a subsidiary and uncommon function. On the other hand, when the male succeeds in defeating all other males, then he really behaves like a king. Terrifying and indulgent, tolerant with his own cubs but infanticide with the others’. His concern, however, is first of all to procreate and, secondly, to make sure he is not replaced. Which thing will fatally happen, sooner or later. A collaborative and beloved brother can be the only other adult male accepted in the King’s territory. But notoriously, a brother shares a great quantity of genes, and in nature this is extremely important. To conclude, roughly speaking, this is what the lion’s kingdom in the real life is like, and it is surprising that, at least at a first glance, the lion of nature seems to be not so different from the one imagined by the human mind. And this is not so strange, if you carefully think about it.

Danilo Mainardi, Venice February 2009



In the Apocalypse of Saint John, the four evangelists are associated with as many sym­bols; the San Marco’s one is a lion because his Gospel begins with St. John the Baptist, «vox clamantis in deserto», the voice of the one who yells in the desert to announce the forthcoming advent of Jesus. A voice resembling the lion’s roar, hence the association, documented since the 5th century.

Well, in 828 two merchant sailors, Rustico from Torcello and Buono from Malamocco, succeed in purloining San Marco’s body, which was buried in Alexandria, and they bring it to Venice; it is a religious-political operation which we don’t want to focus on here. What really matters is that Venice chooses San Marco as her patron saint thus replacing former Saint Theodor (Tòdaro), and that, in order to host him properly, a basilica was built, pre­cisely the basilica of San Marco.

Every single doge contributed to such an enterprise with great zeal; along with the riches stolen to Costantinopoli after the terrible sack in 1204 AD, the Venetian ships apparently carried also a winged lion. This had possibly reached the Bosporus as a trophy from one of the many wars carried out by the Byzantines against the Persians, and it was perhaps a relic of some Assyrian–Babylonian palace; apparently, it represented a chimera.

Once in Venice, the lion becomes the symbol of the city and of the Republic of San Marco. We find him variously depicted: the most widespread representation shows him going, with his front legs leaning on the land where a tower with a small flag is standing, whereas his back legs dominate the sea waves: such an iconography symbolizes the amphibian nature of the Serenissima, half Western (the State on dry land) and half Eastern (the State on the sea). The lion holds an open book, where one can read the famous words: «Pax tibi Marce, evangelista meus». Actually, the complete sentence goes on: «Hic requiescet corpus tuum» (Peace on you, Marco, my evangelist; one day your body will be resting here and it will be worshipped). The hint here is at the life of Marco who, coming from Aquileia, shipwrecked right in the Venetian lagoon.

As to the tradition, which shows the lion holding the book open in times of peace and closed in times of war, or, alternatively, with a sword replacing the book, there is nothing sure about that; we know, though, that the lion holding a raised sword mainly symbol­izes justice, a basic requirement for a political order that was able to develop a millenary culture.

Have you ever seen the statue of a single doge in the Veneto’s squares? Not indeed: the Republic would ban the cult of the individual; on the other hand, we find the lion ubiqui­tously represented, but such an evoking symbol stood for a State that, in the 16th century, stretched from the snowy Alps to the warm seas of the East, from Bergamo to Cyprus (and with Cyprus we are in Asia, geographically speaking). A State connecting people of different ethnicities, religions, languages, cultures, traditions which would find a synthesis under the prestigious symbol of the lion of San Marco.

Beppe Gullino, Venice March 2009



In all ancient civilisations the lion symbolised strength, pride, virility and supremacy over all other animals.

In man, this iconography has represented (even unknowingly) the competitive desire of this symbol of strength and virility; with the difference that in the lion, hunting and command serve the purpose of continuing the species, whereas for man they are for dominating those who are weaker or uncomfortable rivals.

In my pictorial story, the symbolic meanings linked to the lion go back to the early eighties, during the course of my graphic research work on the walled towns of Veneto: in these medieval settings, between stones and towers, the lion appears inside and outside the walls, together with saints, princes and soldiers, in an imaginary tale evoked by ballad singers and musicians.

At the beginning of the nineties my Lion became a protagonist, inside and outside triangles; the lion becomes the guardian of the pyramids. A vain Lion in the looking-glass or powerful keeper of old memories.

In the pictorial span of my fifty years of artistic activity, the first decade was characterised by an intimistic and silent quest, to subsequently approach my cultural and pictorial source through analyses of the landscape, revisited and proposed in the various publications: “L’eco delle mura” (The echo of the walls), L’Eco del Silenzio” (The echo of silence), “Le Pietredimenticate” (The forgotten stones), “Le pietre e il mare” (The stones and the sea).

The lion reappears in the paintings dedicated to Istria and Dalmatia: its vital energy appears in big flights in the blue skies, in the stones of Istria and in the sunsets and the sea.

St. Mark’s lion, of Babylonian origin and becoming the symbol of the Venetian Republic, symbolises the meeting between the cultures of the West and the East, whose civilisations lived together in harmony, despite their diversities.

In the volume ”Il leone in noi” (The lion in us) I transfigured the images of humanised lions: aggressive, suffering, vain and feline lions, becoming, precisely through this empathic process, a reflection of the lion in us, as a metaphor of the vital force and symbol of the path for approaching other cultures.

Mario De Poli