Beauty. The four horses at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy can only be described with one word, beauty. They are called the bronze horses, but they are actually almost pure copper. If you stare at them long enough, they almost seem real. The two horses pictured above are looking at each other like they are sharing a secret, and we are left in the dark. It’s a miracle of history, time, and circumstance that these horses exist today. We are able to stand and admire their craftsmanship because of a long history of looting, theft, and historic preservation.
The history of the four horses stretches the imagination. They may have been created by a very famous sculptor, Lyssippos, in the fourth century B.C. However, recent studies suggest that the horses have a Roman origin. If the antiquity of the horses is not enough to produce a feeling of awe, then the story of how they made their way from Constantinople to Venice will surely stretch the imagination. From at least the ninth century, and possibly much earlier, the horses stood on top of the Hippodrome at Constantinople. In 1204 Constantinople was sacked, and many of the treasures, including the four horses, were shipped west to Europe. Even though the Latins sacked and plundered the Byzantine Empire, we should be grateful for that today. If the Latins had not looted Constantinople of their treasures, they would have probably been lost forever when the city finally fell in 1453.
From 1204, these four beautiful horses graced the terrace at St. Mark’s Basilica. In 1797 Napoleon decided that he wanted the horses and carried them off to Paris. They were returned to Venice a short time later in 1815. There they stood on the terrace until the 1980’s, when they were moved inside to save them from pollution. Today on the terrace you can view the replicas, but the real treasure is located inside. The horses stand guard just inside the entrance, and look like they are in motion, prancing towards the visitors to greet them. There they will stand for future generations to admire their beauty and realism. Photography is not allowed, but I won’t tell if you won’t.
I visited Venice in 1960 while the original horses were still in place on St Mark’s terrace over the narthex. I was exited, to say the least, to be within touching range of these unimaginably beautiful creations from the ancient world. One horse would have been sufficient for a tourist’s day in Venice, but four of them, and in the setting of the church and the piazza and the lagoon and San Giorgio on the island beyond (to name a few) was beyond incredible.
Thanks for the comment. I just finished teaching my students about the history of these horses!
Thanks for sharing.