As we discussed in an earlier article, Epcot’s Italy pavilion is modeled after the Piazza San Marco in Venice, intended to create a warm, welcoming atmosphere that invokes the elegance and charm of Italy. Disney’s imagineers wanted to create a place that echoed the feeling of being in Italy, but being imagineers, they wanted more than that – they wanted to generate that feeling by reproducing details, creating a remarkable echo of the Venetian original.
Among those important details are a pair of columns flanking the entrance to the pavilion. Each column is topped with a carved statue, and most guests simply push past the pair, eager to shop or find their way to the next ride or dining experience. But those statues are an important detail – a window into Venice’s past, and into the importance of Venice as a gateway to the Italian experience. In order to understand why those columns are so important, however, you have to consider a brief history lesson…
…once upon a time the great and powerful Roman empire dominated the known world (that would be Europe, the Middle East, and the Northern coast of Africa to us). Rome remained powerful for around 1,000 years, which gives it a track record significantly better than most modern countries. But gradually it went the way of all nations. It was politically and morally corrupt; it had a huge trade deficit, and it could no longer afford to support the massive welfare system that many of its residents relied on. The great Roman Empire could no longer govern all of the territory it had once ruled, so it withdrew to the area it could handle – the area around Constantinople (near modern Turkey).
Even though the Roman, now Byzantine, empire had withdrawn it was still the political heavyweight in the world, and many areas of Europe desperately tried to associate themselves with its power…and one of those places was Venice.
In order to show its ties to Constantinople, Venice adopted a patron saint who was an important part of Byzantine tradition – a guy named Theodore of Heraclea. Theodore was a soldier who died for his faith, and the people of Venice built a church in his honor and put up a big statue of him.
But times change, and gradually Constantinople and the Byzantine empire began to have some competition from Rome. The city of Rome, with its papal authority, became the real mover and shaker in the world, and Venice decided to change its loyalties. It needed to be associated with Rome now, to be close to the rising center of power…so they adopted a new, more “Roman” saint – St. Mark.
To show this new loyalty, they built a new church and…wait for it…a new statue.
Those two statues, mounted on massive columns at the entrance to the Piazza San Marco are a testament to the history of Venice, to the historical balance of power between East (Constantinople) and West (Rome). They mark Venice as a crossroads of the world, a center point in the shifting politics of history, and thousands of people pour between them at the Epcot pavilion every day, oblivious of their significance.
So next time you visit Epcot, look up. Those two columns at the entrance to the Epcot pavilion? Yeah, they’re important. The winged lion is the symbol of St. Mark – the saint who became the center of Venetian authority. And the guy with the spear? That’s Theodore. Those two figures represent Venice’s position as a center point, a place of power between extremes, a meeting point if you will. And by walking between them, you, knowing or not, acknowledge that balance and enter into a place of moderation – a place between the extremes.