June 5, 2011

Continued Short History of the Four Bronze Horses in Venice (Part Three)

Four Horses in St. Mark's Basilica in Venice 
by Judge Arthur Tompkins, ARCA Lecturer

But principal among the riches plundered were the Four Horses.

They are most likely of Roman origin, although some argue for an older, Greek origin.

Originally accompanied by a quadriga, or chariot, they were displayed in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, having arrived there centuries before, from Rome.


A recent reconstruction of the starting boxes for the Hippodrome’s chariot races shows one possible location of the horses.

They are made largely of copper, with tin added, which suggests a Roman rather than Hellenistic origin, although Chamberlain categorically states that they are of Greek origin. They may have once stood on the Arch of Trajan in Rome.

The collars were added in 1204 by the Venetians to conceal where the heads had been severed to facilitate their transportation by ship from Constantinople to Venice.

The fate of the quadriga is unknown, but the leader of the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade, the Doge Dandolo, arranged for the four horses to be installed on the pediment above the entry to the Byzantine-style St Marks’ Basilica, the Cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice, in 1254.

The Basilica had been consecrated in 1094, and the consciously Byzantine style of the building reflected both the favoured status Venice had long enjoyed in its dealings with the Byzantine Empire – Venice was given the title “favourite daughter of Byzantium” in 1000 by Basil II - but also the Venetians’ “pride in possessing an edifice which shared the same magnificent architectural design as the ancient basilicas of the twelve Apostles and of St Sophia in Constantinople for the Doge’s church and for their patron saint’s mausoleum.”

The choice of the Horses as the principal symbolic booty was deliberate:
“The Horses were part of the spoils allotted to the Venetians – about a third of the rich booty accumulated by the Crusaders and gathered together in the three churches in Constantinople – and were already designated as such before the decisive attack took place. ... The choice of the Horses of San Marco already in 1204 and their transfer to Venice can now be seen as undoubtedly a conscious act to witness the triumph of the Republic – an idea conceived by [Doge] Enrico Dandolo who knew Constantinople extremely well since he had been the Venetian ambassador at the court of the Byzantine emperor. ... The ambition to have inherited the glory of Rome, which had indeed been nurtured by many other ancient cities during the Middle Ages, was to be commemorated in Venice with a monument which was both an expression of triumph and of the Roman spirit. No such combination seems loftier and more solemn to us than the Horses of San Marco which formerly watched majestically over the city of Constantinople.”
The horses are secular, with no or little religious connotations – why then were they displayed on a Church? Taylor notes that the Church had, throughout the so-called Dark Ages – the period of the Middle Ages from around the fall of Rome in the 5th century, through to the creation and flowering of the Italian republics, a vital role to play in preserving art and culture and the Renaissance:

“It was, moreover, the responsibility of the Church to see that during the dark night of barbarism the lamp of classical learning was not totally extinguished. The Christian communism of the Middle Ages had put an end to private wealth, and Europe was not to see a bourgeoisie again until the formation of the Italian republics. Only the hereditary rulers and the prelates of the Church were in a position to patronize the arts.”

Tomorrow read the final post in this series on the Four Horses.

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