Horses of Saint Mark: A Triumphal Quadriga That Traveled

Welcome to Rome Across Europe!

If you are like me, then you are a fan of author Dan Brown and his works regarding Harvard Professor Robert Langdon. Having just finished reading Inferno, I am about to go see the movie of the same name.

The book focuses a lot on Florence, but also touches down in Venice. It is the latter location in which we travel to examine a piece of art so amazing that world leaders have stolen it to show their power.

Today we explore the Horses of Saint Mark!outside

The Horses of Saint Mark, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga, is a set of Roman bronze statues of 4 Friesian horses, originally part of a monument depicting a quadriga (a 4-horse carriage used for chariot racing). These 13 foot tall horses were placed on the facade, on the loggia above the porch, of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, northern Italy after the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

The sculptures date from classical antiquity and have been implausibly attributed to the 4th Century BC Greek sculptor Lysippos, but a date in the 2nd or 3rd Century AD is considered far more probable. The famous Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (c. 175 AD) provides a point of comparison.

Septimius Severus (Capitoline Museum)
Septimius Severus (Capitoline Museum)

They were probably created to top a Triumphal Arch (like the Arch of Trajan in Rome) or some other grand building, perhaps commissioned by the Emperor Septimus Severus. They may originally have been made for the Eastern capital of Constantinople, and certainly reached there later.

Although called bronze, analysis suggests that they should be seen as an impure copper (as they are at least 96.67% copper) rather than bronze. The high purity copper was chosen to give a more satisfactory mercury gilding.

Hippodrome of Constantinople
Hippodrome of Constantinople

It is certain that the horses, along with the quadriga with which they were depicted, were long displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The horses may be the “four gilt horses that stand above the Hippodrome” that “came from the island of Chios under Theodosius II” mentioned in the 8th or early 9th Century Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai (brief historical notes).

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.

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 (which got underway in October 1202).

Crusaders leaving Venice for the Holy Land
Crusaders leaving Venice for the Holy Land

A largely French force, but also crucially comprising a significant Venetian contingent, set out from Venice for Cairo in Egypt, intending to invest Jerusalem overland through Egypt. Fewer Crusaders 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.

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.

Alexios III Angelos
Alexios III Angelos

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 Venetian transports arrived off Constantinople in late June 1203, with the Crusaders finally entering the city on 13 April 1204.

Capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade
Capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade

After a siege of many months, the horses were looted by Venetian forces as part of the sack of the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Doge Enrico Dandolo wanted these coveted horses back in Venice to show the Republic’s, and his, power.

To allow them to be transported from Constantinople to Venice, the animals’ heads had supposedly been severed, thus collars were added upon arrival in Venice to obscure said cuts. Once the horses had been deemed ready they were installed on the terrace of the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in 1254.

Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs
Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs

The Triumphal Quadriga was, of course, not the only things taken from Constantinople by the Venetians during the Crusade. Also ending up in Venice were the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, built into a corner of the Basilica of San Marco, adjacent to the Porta della Carta.

The Basilica had been consecrated in 1094, and the consciously Byzantine-style of the building reflected the favored status Venice had long enjoyed in its dealings with the Byzantine Empire. Venice was given the title “favorite daughter of Byzantium” in 1000 by Basil II, as such the Venetians’ prided themselves in possessing an edifice which shared the same magnificent architectural design as the ancient basilicas of the Twelve Apostles and of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

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 the Great Council of Venice finally voted itself into extinction.

The horses remained in Venice until looted by Napoleon in 1797. On Napoleon’s orders, the Four Horses were forcibly removed from the basilica and carried off to France.

They were initially housed in Les Invalides. The horses were next placed on gate piers guarding the entrance to the Tuileries before they finally were used in the design of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel together with a quadriga.

Arc de Triomphe today with replacement horses

In 1815 the horses were returned to Venice by Captain Dumaresq. Having fought at the Battle of Waterloo and being with the allied forces in Paris, Dumaresq was selected by the Emperor of Austria to take the horses down from the Arc de Triomphe and return them back to St Mark’s in Venice.

For the skillful manner in which he performed this work the Emperor gave Dumaresq a gold snuff box with his initials in diamonds on the lid.

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

The horses remained in place over St Mark’s until the early 1980s, when the ongoing damage from growing air pollution forced their replacement with exact copies. Since then, the originals have been removed from the facade and placed in the interior of St Mark’s for conservation purposes, with replicas in their position on the loggia.

Original Horses
Original Horses

Like many artefacts in museums around the World, the St Mark’s Horses are not simply exquisite objects from a distant past to be admired. They have played an active, symbolic role in Europe’s changing political landscape which make artifacts like these all the more interesting.

St Mark’s Basilica

We hope you enjoyed today’s look at some stunning horses. Hopefully they’ve seen the last of their travels and will retire in Venice in peace.

Till next time Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Anon. The Horses of San Marco Thames and Hudson (an English translation of a 1977 Venetian city government publication).

Arthur, Judge. The Four Horses Rest Inside St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice after Being Plundered from Constantinople in the 13th century. Association For Research Into Crimes Against Art (ARCA). 6 June 2011.

Boissier, Henry. A History of The Boissier-Scobell Families, 1933.

Dowson, Thomas. The Horses of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Archaeology, Martin (ed), A Handbook of Roman Art, p. 95, Phaidon, 1983, ISBN 0714822140

Houpt, Simon. Museum of the Missing: A history of Art Theft. Sterling Publishing Co,. Inc. p. 32. ISBN 1402728298. Retrieved 18 September 2014.

Byzantium 1200 Hippodrome Boxes

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