Thursday, January 17, 2013

St. Mark's Horses

Cambridge, January 17, 2013

What would you do with four large bronze horses?

A number of people actually had some good ideas.  When the Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, their loot included four horses cast mainly in copper and gilded in gold.  Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, sent the horses back home (*) where they were placed on top of the entryway to St. Mark's Basilica.  The statues made the most compelling symbol for Venetian preeminence in the Byzantine world (having been forcibly taken from Constantinople was certainly a plus in this respect) and their size and proportions worked perfectly to be seen from above.

The horses remained in St. Mark's Square for almost six centuries, until Napoleon Bonaparte took Venice in 1797 and ship them to Paris, to be place on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel celebrating his victories.  But the horses' French sojourn was rather brief.  After Napoleon's 1815 defeat in Waterloo, the Treaty of Paris explicitly included an article ceding the horses to the Austrians, whom in turn returned them to Venice.

In Constantinople, the horses were most likely located somewhere in the Hippodrome.  As to their origin, there are number of theories.  Some historians argue that the horses were cast in Constantinople maybe during the time of Septimius Severus (early 2nd century.)  Others attribute them to the 4th century BC Greek sculptor Lysippos.  Some sources indicate that the sculptures may have been brought from the Greek Island of Chios by Theodosious II in the 5th century, while others suggest that they preceded Constantine (3rd century.)

I'm sure that over the centuries other people have had all sorts of ideas.  For example, in one of his "capricci" (ideal or imagined views,) the Venetian painter Canaletto placed the horses on tall pedestals aligned in front of the Palazzo Ducale, right in the middle of the Piazzetta.

So many possibilities!

(*) Interestingly, the aging Dandolo himself never went back to Venice, as he died in Constantinople and ended up buried somewhere in the balconies of Hagia Sophia.

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