When a travel blogger friend of mine recently told me she was going to Venice, I mentioned my desire to see the Horses of St Mark’s Basilica. These four near Life-size horses are said by many to be among Europe’s finest creations. Although I was delighted to receive Penny’s photographs of the horses today I have to admit to being a tad jealous! They really are exquisite artefacts, made all the more fascinating by their biography, a biography that has been shaped by some of Europe’s significant historical events.
The horses are often described as bronzes, whereas in fact the metal they were made with is 96.67% copper. This is not a minor insignificant detail. Copper melts at a higher temperature than bronze, making it much more difficult to work with. Unlike bronze, however, it can be gilded. And it is the use of this metal and technique in sculpture making that suggests a Roman date for the horses rather than a Hellenistic one.
Today, these horses can be seen inside Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice. When they came to Venice in 1254 they were placed on the front façade of the basilica, in pairs above the central portal. Given concern for their continued preservation because of increasing levels of air pollution, the horses were taken down and placed inside the church in the 1980s and replaced with replicas.
As ancient artefacts go, the Horses of St. Marks have been around, although it is their origins that is debated. What is certain is that the four horses were sent to Venice from Constantinople. But from where in the Byzantine capital is not certain. An eighth century account of the various monuments of Constantinople includes mention of at least three teams of horses, each of which could be a candidate for the horses of St Mark’s. One suggestion, and a popular one, is that they came from the hippodrome. Nicetas Choniates, the author of that eighth century report, has the following to say about the hippodrome team:
Now, in the Hippodrome there was a tower which stood opposite the spectators; beneath it were the starting posts, which opened into the racecourse through parallel arches and above were fixed four gilt-bronze horses, their necks somewhat curved as if they eyed each other as they raced round the last lap.
Where ever in Constantinople the horses came from, it was following the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 that they were sent to Venice by Enrico Dandolo – the leader of the Venetian Crusaders. They were again looted by Napoleon when in 1797 he conquered much of Italy. The horses, along with a vast war booty, were paraded before Parisians, in much the same way that Roman Emperors commemorated their victories. To provide a permanent commemoration of his victories, Napoleon had the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel built, which was modelled on the Arch of Constantine in Rome. The horses, with a chariot to form a victory quadriga, were placed on top of the Parisian arch.
The horses’ stay in Paris was short-lived. Following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy in 1814 the statuary were returned to the Austrian Empire who, in the terms of the Congress of Vienna, had annexed Venice. The Austrians in turn returned the horses to Venice.
Like many artefacts in museums around the World, the St Mark’s Horses are not simply exquisite objects from a distant past to be admired. They have played an active, symbolic role in Europe’s changing political landscape. And, as is so often the case, it is these biographies that make artefacts like these all the more interesting.
For a thorough biography of these horses, I can recommend Charles Freeman’s book The Horses Of St Marks: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice (2005, published by Little Brown).
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Penny Sadler is the author of Adventures of Carry-On, a travel blog with lots of beautiful photographs and inspiring articles about art, architecture, culture and people.