Blog Subscription via

June 6, 2011

The Four Horses Rest Inside St. Mark's Basilica in Venice after Being Plundered from Constantinople in the 13th century

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

Constantinople, or Byzantium, had been founded by Constantine I in 330 (F Baez, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, English Translation by A MacAdam, Atlas & Co, New York, 2008, page 94):
“It became the capital of the Byzantium Empire, where the traditions of Greece and Rome were maintained. ... [T]he world is indebted to Constantinople for the possibility of reading authors who would otherwise by nothing more than names. Without its contribution to the transmission of ancient texts, we would probably not have the works of Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, or Archimedes – to name just a few.”
Constantine the Great, or to give him his full name, Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, was the first Christian Roman Emperor, and ruled either jointly or alone from 306 until his death in 337. He had turned the Greek colony at Byzantium into an imperial residence, renaming it Constantinople. Subsequently it became the capital of the Empire in 476 CE, thus triggering the entry of Rome "into its thousand years of medieval slumber" (Francis Henry Taylor, The Taste of Angels, Atlantic Little, Brown, Boston, 1948).

The Fourth Crusade saw what might be termed one of the great detours in world military history. Pope Innocent III had become Pope in 1198, and immediately started to preach for a Fourth Crusade. [One of the churches in which it is claimed by some writers that he proclaimed the crusade, the Chiesa Sant'Andrea, stands in the central piazza in Orvieto.] The Third Crusade had failed abjectly, and in Western Europe there was little stomach for another go at the Muslims, now firmly in control of the Levant, including Jerusalem and much of the adjacent territory.  But, despite that, the Fourth Crusade finally got underway in October 1202. A largely French Army, but crucially also comprising a significant Venetian contingent, set out from Venice for Cairo in Egypt, intending to invest Jerusalem overland through Egypt.

Fewer crusaders (memorably described by Michael Palin as “wandering psychopaths with really sharp swords ...”) than expected had turned up in Venice, whose merchants and bankers had expended a large amount of money and effort preparing for a much larger army - much like, nowadays, a city will spend up large preparing for the Olympics, to the bemusement and often resentment of local taxpayers. Venice expected a significant return on its investment. Venice insisted on payment up front of the princely sum of 85,000 silver marks, which the crusaders only partially managed by beggaring themselves. The result was that when the crusade sailed, the Venetians were feeling decidedly out of pocket. A displaced prince of Constantinople, Alexius Angelis, seized the opportunity presented by the presence of a large but strapped-for-cash army, and offered money, transport, knights, and control of the Greek Orthodox Church if the Crusaders would but place him back on the Byzantine throne in Constantinople. So the Crusade detoured to Constantinople. The sack of Constantinople was not, it seemed, initially part of the deal. After an attack on a trade rival of Venice’s, Zara on the east coast of the Adriatic , carried out despite express prohibition by the Pope, Venice offered the Crusaders winter residence in Zara. In effect, Venice was taking "profit wherever it could be found" (Taylor, page 40)[Another source for this material is Wilhelm Treue's Art Plunder: The Fate of Works of Art in War and Unrest (Translated from the German by Basil Creighton, The John Day Company, New York, 1961).]

Eugène Delacroix, The Taking of Constantinople
 by the Crusaders (April 12, 1204),
Salon of 1841, Entered the Musée du Louvre in 1885

The Fourth Crusade in its Venetian transports arrived off Constantinople in late June 1203. The siege occupied many months, but finally the ‘Latins’ entered the city on April 13, 1204. As Wilhelm Treue comments in his book, Art Plunder: The Fate of Works of Art in War and Unrest (John Day, New York, 1961):
“Old men, women, and children, carrying crosses and holy images, went to meet the victorious troops, but there was no restraining their lust for blood and plunder; they were Crusaders no longer; they were plunderers such as Europe had never known till that day. Whoever stood in their way was killed..... the forty richest cities on earth could not equal the riches which Byzantium now lost to her conquerors. All this was now distributed throughout Europe and added unimaginable riches to the legacy of antiquity and the medieval Eastern Empire. Venice benefited chiefly, but the whole of Europe as far as the British Isles and Scandinavia, wherever relations and friends of any crusader were to be found, shared in this amazing windfall. Every Crusader of any rank found himself in possession of a fortune on April 13, 1204. ... An eclipse, taken to be a sign on the wrath of God, put an end to the looting on April 16.”
Speros Vryonis in Byzantium and Europe (Harcourt Brace, 1967) gives a vivid account of the sack of Constantinople by the Frankish and Venetian Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade, and comments:
The estrangement of East and West, which had proceeded over the centuries, culminated in the horrible massacre that accompanied the conquest of Constantinople. The Greeks were convinced that even the Turks, had they taken the city, would not have been as cruel as the Latin Christians. The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Crusading movement thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.
Thus occurred uncontrolled looting of what was then the grandest and richest city in Europe, the repository of many centuries of art and culture.

The Tetrarchs, Venice
Before turning to consider the travels of the Four Horses, they were of course not the only things taken from that city. Also ending up in Venice were the Tetrarchs, built into a corner of the Basilica of San Marco, adjacent to the Porta della Carta.

In addition, Francis Henry Taylor notes in his 1948 book, The Taste of Angels, that the marble facing and incrustation was prised off the exterior of Hagia Sophia and used as ballast in the Venetian ships before being used to continue the decoration of the basilica.

Overall, the looting was so widespread, Fernando Báez writes in his bookA Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Day Iraq (Atlas & Co, 2008):
“ ... that almost all the churches of Europe came to have treasure or relics from Constantinople. According to the historian Steven Runciman, ‘the sack of Constantinople has not parallel in history ... There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”

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.”

The horses remained in Venice, in a variety of locations but mostly on the Basilica, for nearly 600 years, until Napoleon arrived in 1797.

The fall of Venice followed on from the plundering of Rome. There was no frontal attack, but rather Napoleon engineered the rebellion of a number of subject cities on the mainland against their Venetian masters, and after a year of negotiations, on Friday 12 May 1797 the Venetian Great Council voted itself into extinction, and the French occupied the city. This brought to an end 1070 years of independence, and left Venice and its dependencies and territories, under the terms of the Treaty of Campo Formio, signed in October 1797, divided between France and Austria. But the Austrians did not arrive to take control of the city until January 1798. In the meantime the French looted the city. As Chamberlain notes, curiously for the legalistic French, there was a four day lacuna between the dissolution of the Great Council, and the signing of the Treaty of Milan on 16 May 1797, which allowed for the removal of art treasures .

In any event, The Four Horses were a primary target of the French. Chamberlain describes the scene:
[On] a day in December 1797, six weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Campo Formio, they were lowered from the front of the basilica. Again, as in Rome, French commissioners had to go to work protected by French bayonets from the anger of an Italian mob. The contemporary illustrations of the event point up, accidently or inescapably, the contrast between the serenity of the beautiful creatures, and the restlessness of the crowd, as they made their way in stately procession across the piazza.
Most of the art work plundered from Rome and elsewhere in Italy was assembled in the Tuscan port of Livorno (in English, Leghorn), there to join the marshalling of plunder from all over Italy, and from thence (largely at the Vatican’s cost) to Paris, arriving in 1798. Quynn notes: “[A group of savants] were horrified at the idea of an unceremonious arrival in the capital of precious relics from Rome arriving like coal barges and unloaded at the Quai de Louvre like boxes of soap..." So a parade on the Champ de Mars (where, nearly a century later, Eiffel was to build his Tower) was hastily arranged. An etching by Berthault of the parade clearly shows the horses, amongst the camels, lions and the like. The procession was headed by a banner reading: “La Grece les ceda; Roma les a perdus; leur sort changea deux fois, il ne changera plus” which translates, (more or less) to: “The Greeks gave them up, Rome lost them; their fate has changed twice, it will not change again”. Quynn lists some of the contents of the procession:
In these crates there travelled to Paris such treasures as the Apollo Belvedere, the Medici Venus, the Discobolus, the Dying Gladiator, the Laocoon, and sixty or more other pieces of sculpture from the Vatican and Capitoline museums and other collections. Nine paintings by Raphael, two famous Corregios, mineral and natural history collections, the bears of Bern, animals from zoos, and valuable manuscripts including those from the Vatican dated prior to AD 900.”
France’s actions were not without their critics: the sculptor Canova, later, as we shall see, actively and successfully to represent Pope Pius VII in obtaining the return to the Vatican of much of the plundered sculpture, archives and manuscripts; sardonically addressed Napoleon: “May your Majesty at least leave some things in Italy. These ancient monuments form a chain which cannot ever be transported.” Quatremere de Quincy similarly protested in a pamphlet and subsequently a petition signed by eight Academy members and 43 artists, arguing that arts and sciences were a common republic, so that no one country had the right to assert an exclusive claim to the heritage of art, or to divide it up unilaterally, and any country that did so should suffer the reproach: “ ... of barbarity and ignorance for thus damaging the common property.” But such lone voices were few and seldom heard, and the torrent of art continued to pour into Paris – mostly to the Louvre, but in time to provincial museums elsewhere in France as well.

The Four Horses were initially housed in Les Invalides, then placed on gate piers guarding the entrance to the Tuileries, before finally being placed atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, also in the Tuileries. But compared to their centuries of repose in Venice, their stay in Paris was over in the blink of an eye. A mere 17 years after their removal from Venice, and following Napoleon’s final exile to St Helena after the defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, Austrian and English engineers lowered them from the arch on 17 October 1815, under guard by Austrian soldiers . Two months later they were loaded onto barges and ferried across the lagoon and back to their old home. There they stood until air pollution forced their removal, in the early 1980s, to their present, much less lofty, position just inside the Basilica.