The winged lion is a symbol you see everywhere in Venice -- palaces, flags, statues -- everywhere. It seemed a somewhat unusual mascot for a seafaring power and made me wonder what the origin to the symbol was. Turns out the story is as colorful as anything in Venice's history.
In the 9th century, grave robbers stole the body of St. Mark (one of Jesus' disciples) from Alexandra, Egypt and smuggled it to Venice. The body had to be concealed and they encountered difficult sailing, but it was safely delivered to the Doge (ruler) in the Venetian lagoon. From that point on the city adopted St. Mark as their patron saint and the saint's emblem, the winged lion (aka The Lion of St. Mark), as the logo of the Venetian Republic.