Thanks to Alan Mason for this new post
There are four unusual aspects of this featured artwork. To begin with, it is composed of four separate parts, which together form an integrated whole. Secondly, although the horses regularly appear in holiday snapshots, most visitors are unaware of them, perhaps because they are positioned about 60 feet (20 m) above ground level.
Thirdly, although it is possible for the intrepid tourist to get really close to them, these are not the real thing, and merely skilful copies. Fourthly, the real artwork is accessible to tourists in an internal protected environment close to the replicas.
Integration of Four Parts
The four horses were designed to be part of a quadriga, a chariot from the Classical world, drawn by four horses. This is why all four of them are wearing collars. The nearest horse has his head turned outwards, towards us. The second horse turns his head inwards towards the third horse, which is also turning his head inwards towards his partner. The fourth horse, at the back, is turning outwards like the first.
High Level Location
The typical view of St Mark’s Square (2) shows lots of tourists and pigeons. The brick Campanile (Bell Tower) is on the right, and the many-domed Basilica, (Cathedral) is straight ahead. Who would notice the four tiny figures right above the topmost arch of the Basilica’s widest door?
Even at closer quarters, (3) there is so much architectural splendour, and mosaics, that the horses high above the arch are easily overlooked.
The Venice Lagoon is an arm of the Adriatic Sea, and now extensively industrialised. The air is polluted by smoke from factories and petro-chemical plants, so that both the ancient metalwork and stone surfaces have been seriously corroded, during the 19 and 20 centuries. For this reason, accurate replicas (4) have been placed over the main door of St Mark’s Basilica.
The real gilded horses have been brought indoors, restored, conserved and protected from any further damage by the Venetian atmosphere (5).
Who Made the Horses?
This is not known. The precise age of the horses is still a matter of dispute among scholars. It had been suggested that they dated from the Classical period of the Fourth century BC, but the current view is that they were made in the Second century AD, during the time of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, and his building works in Byzantium, or Constantinople, as it was later re-named in the time of the Emperor Constantine.
Much of the discussion of the age of the horses, in Reference B, is purely stylistic, and consequently qualitative. It concludes with the hope that some scientific evidence can be found, for example, in the fireclay of the casting, to date the horses accurately.
What are the horses made of?
It was originally thought that they were cast in bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, but modern analysis has revealed that they are made of 97.67% copper, which is much softer than bronze. The reason suggested for using copper, is that it unites more readily with a gold-mercury amalgam, than bronze does. Their original appearance would be as bright glittering golden horses, unlike the greenish yellow of corroded copper (7).
What were the horses designed for?
The horses were probably made for a triumphal monument set up in the Hippodrome of Byzantium (8). This was a stadium, 1,300 foot long (396 m) with seating, for watching horse-drawn chariot races. It was modelled on the much older Circus Maximus in Rome.
The Quadriga (four-horse chariot) was set up on a high column, or arch, as a symbol of victory or triumph. A couple of centuries after this monument was built, Byzantium became known as Constantinople, in honour of the new Roman Emperor Constantine.
Other Historical Quadrigas
This symbolism, of using a Quadriga as a sign of victory, has continued during the course of history. The famous Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, (9) was completed in 1791 on the orders of Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia. In those days, Berlin was much smaller than it is today, and only the capital of the small state of Prussia. The Brandenburg Gate, built in a Classical Greek style, led to the road eastwards to the small state of Brandenburg.
Friedrich Wilhelm had the monument set up to the vision of European peace. This was highly optimistic, as only two years before the completion of the monument the French Revolution began, followed by twenty years of warfare against Napoleon, and the eventual invasion and humiliation of Prussia by French troops in 1806.
The sculptor of the Quadriga was Johan Friedrich Schadow. He has arranged the four horses in much the same way as those at St Mark’s Basilica, but he has placed a Nike, or Greek “Winged Victory” in the chariot. She carries a staff bearing the Prussian Iron Cross, topped by a Prussian crowned eagle with wings outspread (10).
There is also a British Quadriga in London’s Hyde Park, on the Wellington Arch, close to Hyde Park Corner (10). Originally, there was an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington, victor of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain, against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, and victor of the Waterloo Campaign in 1815, against Napoleon himself. This was removed to the Sandhurst Military College, and was replaced by the present Quadriga in 1912. It is the work of the sculptor, and military veterinarian, Adrian James (1845 – 1938).
The most noticeable thing about the horses, of Adrian James, is that they are much more “busy” than those of St Mark’s Basilica. The two outermost horses are rearing up, and lashing out with their forelegs, while the two centre ones are moving normally. To me, this is a surprising departure by the sculptor. The whole ensemble is supposed to represent triumph after battle. The fighting is over, so the horses should be behaving themselves, and getting on with the job of pulling the chariot. That is what they are there for, and any charioteer would have no use for horses that took time out to have private combats.
The charioteer is also a Nike, or Winged Victory, but she has much better wings than those of Schadow’s Victory on the Brandenburger Tor. Perhaps she needs them, poor dear, because sculptor James has given her a laurel wreath, and a sprig of herbs to hold, as well as drive the chariot. It would be really fascinating to see what the sculptor of the St Mark’s horses had provided for them as a charioteer.
How did the horses arrive in Venice?
Very briefly, the horses were looted from the city of Constantinople in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade. It would take too long here, to go into detail about the history and politics of these momentous events. Very briefly the Venetian Empire, based in Venice, and the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire based in Byzantium/Constantinople were maritime empires competing for markets and political influence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The painting by Palma Giovane (12) was made some 350 years after the events portrayed, but it conveys some of the realities of the attack on Constantinople. Soldiers and sailors are shown scrambling along the yards of the galleys moored in the harbour, to attack the defenders along the high walls and round towers of the city’s defences. Venetian troops, at ground level, are seen carrying a red banner, bearing the golden lion of St Mark.
The end of Constantinople as a Greek-speaking political entity came in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks overran it, turning it into a Turkish Muslim city. The great cathedral of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was converted into a mosque. It acquired another new name, “Istanbul”, in the English-speaking world.
Many of the archaeological treasures of Byzantium have continued in existence to the present day, but not the Hippodrome, or the arch or column upon which the four copper horses of St Mark once stood. The map of modern Istanbul (13) shows the site of the Hippodrome, near the Obelisk of Theodosius, and the Hagia Sophia, translated into Latin as the “Sancta Sophia”.
Horses Stolen by Napoleon
From the time of the Fourth Crusade, the horses have remained in Venice over the last eight hundred years, save for a short interruption of eighteen years, from 1797 to 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte had become the leading soldier of France, by the last few years of the eighteenth century. His original role was to protect the fledgling French Republic.
He was one of the great thieves of European history. Whenever he conquered a province or country, he took all their wealth and stripped their resources to fund his military campaigns and his future political ambitions. His principal job was to promote three aspects of French Republican foreign policy, “a stubborn defence of French territory, anti-Royalist propaganda, and further conquest to obtain ‘natural frontiers’ and the economic benefits of occupation”. (Ref I)
Translating the bland phrases, “natural frontiers” means the same as Nazi “lebensraum”- living space- or taking over other countries just as you see fit. The “economic benefits of occupation” means stripping a country bare to pay for more military conquests.
In case the reader should think I judge too harshly, my French source (Ref I) goes on, “Bonaparte’s Italian campaign of 1796 at once revealed a master of the art of war. Though Milan (15) welcomed him as a deliverer from Austrian tyranny, it was forced to pay a huge indemnity.
The French then turned south, systematically plundering as they went. Armistices were successively imposed on the Dukes of Parma and Modena, on the King of Naples and on the Pope himself. Everywhere vast financial contributions were extorted and art treasures, pictures, precious manuscripts, antique sculpture, forcibly exacted. Bonaparte was now master of all northern Italy.” (Ref I)
In May 1797, Napoleon entered Venice and overthrew the ancient Republic with its Doges or elected leaders. He plundered the City and many of its treasures, including the four horses of St Mark. They were taken to Paris, and there were various proposals, as to a suitable public place for them. It was even suggested that the figure of Napoleon should be sculpted as the charioteer of the Quadriga, but he rejected it. (Ref H) After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and his banishment to the remote island of St Helena, the four horses of St Mark were returned to Venice by the victorious Allies.
The Parisians however, missed St Mark’s horses, and determined to have a French Quadriga of their own. A triumphal arch had been built in 1808, at the Carrousel, originally to provide a home for the horses of St Mark. Napoleon died on St Helena, in 1821, just six years after his defeat at Waterloo, and the world gave collective sigh of relief.
The French now set about mythologising his name, conveniently forgetting the millions of men who died in his wars, and the civilian men, as well as women and children dying from starvation and destitution.
In 1828, the new Quadriga was ready for its place on the Carrousel Arch. The sculptor was François Bosio, and the four horses were cast in bronze, so they have a dark green patina. Each of them has been provided with a bit in the mouth, and gold harness for the head.
Two rather restrained Winged Victories stand on either side of the chariot. These are in the same gold-coloured material as the harnesses, but it is curious why the horses were not given the same gold treatment, to make them look more like the horses of St Mark. The figure of Peace as charioteer is also cast in bronze, and carries a Classical torch, so she has one hand free for the reins of the horses.
Despite the figure of Peace in the chariot, the pediment has sculptures of the Napoleonic soldiers, a cuirassier, a dragoon, a horse grenadier and a sapper. These were the men who carried war, death, destruction and poverty, all over Europe from Spain to the heart of Russia.
Twentieth Century Wars
Given the turmoil of the two World Wars, it would have been surprising if these events had not had some impact on the horses of St Mark. During the First World War, Italy was allied with France, Britain and Imperial Russia, against the “Central Powers” of Imperial Germany, Austria and Turkey. Venice, and its horses, was very close to the border with Austria, and there had been heavy fighting on the Alpine frontier in very difficult terrain.
The horses were taken down from the Basilica of St Mark in May 1915 (18) and transferred to the Castel Sant Angelo in Rome for safe keeping. After the end of the war, the horses were returned to their original place on the 11 November 1919, the first anniversary of Armistice, in 1918.
During the Second World War, Fascist Italy, under the dictator Benito Mussolini, was allied with Fascist Germany, under Adolf Hitler. It was thought prudent to remove the horses from St Mark’s Basilica, but this time they did not travel far, as they were lodged in the Abbey of Praglia, which is on the Italian mainland, about 12 Km SW of Padua.
Following the successful invasion of Sicily in July 1943, British and American troops invaded southern Italy in September 1943, and the Italian government declared an Armistice later in the month. Their German allies were not inclined to give up so easily, because they knew that Italy provided a useful “back door” into Austria and Germany.
Consequently, the British and Americans were involved in a hard-fought campaign, until the Germans surrendered on the 2 May 1945. The horses were returned to the Basilica of St Mark in August 1945.
Protecting the Horses
Although Reference B (“The Horses of San Marco-Venice”) contains a great deal of minute detail on almost everything, I was unable to discover when any of the scientific conservation began, or when it had been completed. None of the authors of individual specialist articles thought that dates were worth including.
As Reference B was first published in 1977, it seems likely that the conservation work began in the mid-sixties and was completed by the mid-seventies. The scientific studies included: photogrammetric surveys, ancient casting methods, horse anatomy, metallurgical investigations, and micrographic investigation of corrosion.
The illustration (20) of “Horse A” is described by the author of the article (Licia Borelli Vlad) as a “contour map”, but it is clearly no such thing. We all recognise contour maps from school geography. It is a photographically accurate diagram of the surface features, showing a multitude of small patches caused by damage and repair over the 1,800 years since the horse was first cast in the second century AD.
The following illustration (21) is more like what we would expect to see in a contour study of a horse. The highest regions are on the shoulder, which is nearest to us, and the contours fall away steeply towards the chest.
The photogrammetry of the ventral (belly) surface of “Horse A” provides us with a rarely seen view of the testicles. The penis of a horse is housed inside the abdominal wall and only emerges during mating. The copper statues are occasionally called “The Stallions of St Mark”, because they are clearly entire male animals, uncut or uncastrated. Given the apparent docility of the horses drawing the Quadriga, the term, “stallions” seems to be unduly dramatic, and the various Italian writers in Reference B, habitually refer to “cavalli” (horses) rather than “stalloni” (stallions).
The Eyes of the Horses
One of the problems with the specialist essays in Reference B is that there is a lot of flowery language but not too much in the way of hard scientific evidence. Here are three commentators on the eyes of the horses of St Mark.
(i) Anna Guidi Toniato: Each of the eyes bears a “lunula” or half-moon incision, “which gives the pupil a vivacious quality and creates certain effects of light and shadow.”
(ii) F. Magi (in 1970-71): “This way of representing the pupil, was a common practice in the Emperor Constantine’s time (274-337 AD) and could be used as a way of dating the horses.”
(iii) Augusto Azzaroli (a hippologist, or horse-expert): He praised the great accuracy of the sculptor’s work, but said, “Only the eyes are faulty: the pupils are defined by a lunula, which is a sculptural device for effectively rendering the round pupil of a human eye, but not for the horizontally elongated pupil of a horse.”
This agrees with what we know of evolutionary biology. Human beings are Primates, and most Primate species live in the trees. Front-facing eyes are essential for accurate stereoscopic vision in jumping or swinging from tree branches.
Modern groups of horses have evolved as grazing animals on grassy plains and savannahs. Their eyes are placed at the sides of the head and each has an almost 180 degree field of vision. When grazing, with head down, this enables them to respond to movements of predators all round, but especially from behind.
Even domesticated horses are easily scared by sudden or unexpected movements near them. If it was a leopard or jaguar they would need to respond quickly or they would be dead.
From a horse-rider’s perspective, the head (23) shows what is called “a kind eye”, meaning that the animal is well-behaved, and well disposed towards humanity in general.
The last view of the Horses of St Mark, (24) in this essay, seems to me a very happy one. They are off-duty, away from their high calling, on holiday, and relaxing at ground level. One can look them in the eye and maybe offer them an apple to munch (a golden apple, perhaps?). At any moment, they might bend their necks down, to begin munching the flowerbeds in the Palazzo gardens.
A. “Venice – Queen of the Sea”, Edizioni Storti, 1986
B. “The Horses of San Marco-Venice”, The Royal Academy, Olivetti, 1979
C. “The History and Conquests of Ancient Rome” by Nigel Rodgers, Anness, 2003
D. “Byzantium”, by Philip Sherrard, Time-Life, 1967
E. “The Great Cities / Istanbul” by Colin Thubron, Time-Life, 1978
F. “Lines of Succession” by Jiří Louda and Michael MacLagan, Little, Brown, 1999
G.”The Venetian Empire-A Sea Voyage” by Jan Morris, Faber and Faber, 1980
H. “Napoleon Master of Europe 1807-1807” by Alistair Horne, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1979
I. “Larousse Encyclopaedia of Modern History”, editor Marcel Dunan, Hamlyn, 1967
1. The four horses of the quadriga above St Mark’s Square, Venice (Ref A)
2. St Mark’s Square, Venice, looking towards the West Front of the Basilica (Ref A)
3. The Great West Door of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice (Ref A)
4. The Replica Horses over the West Door of the Basilica (Ref A)
5. The Real Horses in their safe home inside the Basilica (Wikipedia)
6. Marble portrait-bust of the Emperor Septimius Severus (Ref C)
7. Green corrosion on the copper horses (Ref B)
8. Modern artist’s impression in aerial view, of a small corner of ancient Byzantium, showing the Hippodrome (Ref D)
9. The Brandenburger Tor, top, and detail of the Quadriga, below (Wikipedia)
10. Shield of Arms of Friedrich Wilhelm II, King of Prussia (Ref F)
11. The Wellington Arch and Quadriga in Hyde Park, London (Google images)
12. Detail from a painting by Palma Giovane (1544 – 1628) “The Taking of Constantinople” (Ref G)
13. The site of the Hippodrome in modern Istanbul (Ref E)
14. A study of Napoleon by the painter, Jacques David (1748-1825) (Ref H)
15. The Cathedral in the prosperous City of Milan (Google images)
16. The French Quadriga atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris (Wikipedia)
17. Details of the pediment below the Paris Quadriga (Google images)
18. The horses are lowered down from St Mark’s Basilica, to a waiting cradle, 1915 (Ref B)
19. The horses on their cradles in front of the Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s Square, Venice, Dec 1942 (Reference B)
20. Surface details of the left side of “Horse A” (Ref B)
21. Photogrammetry contour map of the right side of “Horse A” (Ref B)
22. Photogrammetry of the ventral surface of “Horse A” (Ref B)
23. Head of a San Marco horse, showing the lunula of the eye (Ref B)
24. The Horses of St Mark in the garden of the Palazzo Venezio (Venetian Palace) in Rome, 1918 (Ref B)