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CONSTANTINOPLE – The Horses of Saint Mark

The original Horses of Constantinople now located in Venice

The Horses of Saint Mark (Italian: Cavalli di San Marco), also known as the Triumphal Quadriga or the Horses of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, are iconic bronze statues of four horses that originally formed part of a quadriga, a four-horse chariot used in ancient races. These magnificent sculptures have a storied history that spans centuries and continents.

Originally part of a monument in Constantinople, the horses were taken to Venice after the city was sacked in the Fourth Crusade in 1204. There, they were placed on the loggia above the porch of St Mark’s Basilica, becoming a symbol of Venetian pride and power. These horses remained in Venice until Napoleon looted them in 1797, transporting them to Paris. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the horses were returned to Venice and reinstated on the basilica’s facade.

Hippodrome of Constantinople

The horses are believed to date back to classical antiquity, with scholars debating their exact origins. Some suggest they were crafted in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, noting similarities to the Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Others argue that their naturalistic rendering points to Classical Greece of the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Regardless of their exact age, the horses’ short backs and long legs indicate they were likely meant to be viewed from below, perhaps atop a triumphal arch or a grand building.

Interestingly, these sculptures are composed of an impure copper, with analysis showing a composition of at least 96.67% copper. This choice of material, rather than bronze, was likely to achieve a more effective mercury gilding.

The facade of St. Marks Basilica in Venice features the four replicas

Historically, the horses were prominently displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople and might have been commissioned by Emperor Septimus Severus. They were long admired for their grandeur and craftsmanship. The 8th- or early 9th-century Parastaseis syntomoi chronikai mentions “four gilt horses that stand above the Hippodrome,” suggesting their significant presence in Constantinople.

In 1204, the horses were seized by Venetian forces during the Fourth Crusade. To transport them, their heads were severed and later obscured by collars. They were sent to Venice and installed on St Mark’s Basilica in 1254, where they were admired by many, including the poet Petrarch.

Napoleon’s forces removed the horses in 1797, taking them to Paris where they adorned the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. After Napoleon’s defeat, the horses were returned to Venice by Captain Dumaresq, who received a gold snuff box from the Emperor of Austria for his efforts.

In the early 1980s, due to damage from air pollution, the original horses were moved indoors for preservation. Today, they are displayed inside St Mark’s Basilica, while replicas stand on the loggia, ensuring that their legacy continues to inspire and captivate visitors from around the world.

The original location of the horses on the Basilica facade

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