In 1441, the Venetians intervened in what was then Piazza del Comune, now Piazza del Popolo. To emphasise their power over the city, they enlarged and paved the square and introduced some features of Venetian art, such as the two granite columns, on the top of which they placed the statue of San Apollinare, patron Saint of Ravenna, and the Lion of San Marco.
The two columns, made by Pietro Lombardo (father of Tullio, author of the Guidarello statue), very similar to those in Saint Mark’s Square a few steps from the Lagoon, were meant to be a reference to Venice and, at the same time, delimit the square towards the Padenna course.
On one of the two circular bases of the columns we find a cycle of bas-reliefs with the twelve signs of the zodiac and an additional element depicting Ophiuchus, also known as Serpentario, which may be the thirteenth character of the Zodiac, but is in fact the only constellation crossed by the ecliptic that has not given its name to a sign of the zodiac. Mentioned since the time of Ptolemy, Ophiuchus depicts a mighty man, perhaps Asclepius, holding a huge snake at bay.
Under the inscription confirming the authorship of the plinths, which reads “Opus Petri Lombardi 1483”, there is also a depiction of Hercules Orario , also known by the people of Ravenna as Conchincollo – “conca in collo” (basin on neck) – a miniature of a large statue of Hercules erected by Emperor Claudius, which tradition places in the heart of the city.
The original statue depicted a kneeling Hercules, bearing the great weight of a sundial in the form of a hemisphere, on the top of which a stylus was thrust from which the hour lines stemmed.
The statue thus served as a sundial that marked time for the citizens of Ravenna until it collapsed in an earthquake in 1591. Some parts of the original statue are kept in the National Museum of Ravenna, while others were used to make the base of the column, which thus bears its memory.
The year Pope Julius II took possession of the city, the insignia of the Serenissima was removed and the lion was replaced by a statue of San Vitale by Clemente Molli. On the surface of this column you can still see the ‘meridian line’ clock, first made by the Venetians and then engraved in 1793. It was used to indicate the solar noon of Ravenna with the corresponding Italic hours, so-called “da campanile”, in use at that time, but also to regulate the public clock of the square – mechanical – first built by the Da Polenta family.
After its restoration in 1868, the sundial was left without a gnomon because of the alleged inaccuracy of the time marked, especially with regard to the solstices and equinoxes.