Though hundreds of churches seem to dot the skyline of this lagoon city, undoubtedly one of Venice's most beautiful monuments is the Basilica de San Marco, the decadent church constructed in honour of the city's patron saint.
Though the entire facade is a dizzying array of marble sculptures, finely polished columns and intricate stonework, it's upon the loggetta of the structure that one of the most mysterious sculptures still surviving from the ancient world stands, a quadriga which overlooks the grand Piazzetta and confronts visitors with curious tilted heads, proudly raised hooves and stoic expressions. These horses have been greeting people in the same manner for over a thousand years and though these statues are fakes, they nonetheless excude the same air of potent grandeur as their original cousins who in fact live only a few feet away, concealed in shadow.
|Two of the four horses atop the loggetta.|
The real horses of St. Marks have not always lived in Venice, they have a shaky history, one that has taken a deep plunge into the pool of historic puzzle-piecing and has emerged with a more than turbulent story. They have in fact traveled across the mediterranean and have presumably also witnessed some of history's most exhilarating moments, from adorning the triumphal arch in Emperor Constantine's newly created capital Constantinople, to being settled temporarily in Paris after Napoleon's wave of domination through Europe. They were spoils of war, and gifts of the most extravagant nature, but they have always found a home in some dramatic position no matter who their former owners might have been.
The originals are protected from the elements, nestled inside the basilica on the upper level and tucked into a corner behind glass. They are bronze as the fakes are, and were created utilising a lengthy process known as the 'lost wax' technique, which requires a sculpture to first be created in stone, clay or another material from which a cast is made and eventually used to produce the final metal reproduction. This of course means that even these bronze 'originals' aren't really originals .... at some point in history there was indeed a sculpture made of a less durable material, but unsurprisingly, this has been lost somewhere along the lines of the supposed two thousand years of the piece, in Rome, or Greece, or wherever they came from.
Part of the reason why these horses have remained such a tantalising puzzle for historians and archaeologists is that their past is so obscure, many have tried to place them originating from this or that city in the ancient world and many characters throughout history have mentioned them - or what is believed to be them - in various documents. The fact remains that their true story will most likely always be unknown, apart from what we can glean through the more recent accounts we have, paintings and historical writings being the largest source.
You can also glean things about the past just by looking, of course. A close inspection reveals that the horses were in fact bridled at some point, which could indicate the presence of a chariot or at least reins which were removed at some stage, and an engraving from 1740 shows that the horses once bore decorative collars as well, which have now been replaced by less-spectacular placeholders (1).
Napoleon himself saw great value in the quartet, and in December of 1797 had them removed from the basilica of St. Marks to be sent to Paris. Later after much difficulty on the part of a particular Italian artist (and by the Italian government themselves) the statues once more made their way back to Rome, and finally were settled back on their logetta in 1815.
|Napoleon's troops assembled outside the Tuileries in Paris in the late 1700's.|
The horses can be seen standing on the pillars of the outer fence.
No matter the past, the horses are as much today a symbol of power and elegance as ever, and Venice has a knack for procuring those sorts of items. Their re-introduction to the city was a great windfall for the populace, who hadn't been too keen on Napoleon comandeering the items in his plunderous sweep, but Venice it not the horses true home either. Will the Greeks one day rise up in protest to have them back? Probably not, but they're definitely worth the 2 Euros it costs to see them, if you're ever visiting the city and wish to witness some of history's most dramatic and lesser known artifacts.
You can read the most comprehensive history of the horses to date in Charles Freeman's 'The Horses of St. Mark's' (Abacus, 2007).
1. Freeman, Charles. The Horses of St. Marks p. 173