The Horses of Saint Marks

The Horses of Saint Marks

The four horses that now stand just inside of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice have a long and varied history across the European continent. Dating back to classical antiquity, they have stood as a prime example of empirical looted art and have been associated with four separate empires. Starting with Constantinople, and the Eastern Roman Empire, which later turned into the Byzantine Empire, they were later taken in the13th century, when the Venetians sacked the city and placed them at Saint Marks. Finally the Napoleonic Empire, in the late 19th century, looted the quadriga and placed them outside of the Tutiliers palace in Paris. The fact that the horses, being made of copper, have survived the throws of history proves remarkable due to the record of melting down bronze and copper statues. The symbolism placed upon the horses of Saint Mark’s Basilica helped each nation convey a sense of triumph and victory, especially in consideration of each instance of looting and placement of the horses. The horses have played a major role in the empires of Constantinople, Venice and the crusades, and Napoleonic France. This paper will seek to prove the underlying value of The Horses of Saint Mark though the many instances of looting, and different placement of the horses within each targeted empire.

            The image of the triumphal quadriga is in ancient idea that reflects the Roman practice of the triumphal procession. During the Roman Empire, it is a well-known fact that certain generals and war heroes were awarded with procession that ran up through the Appian Way, through triumphal arches and continued on into the forum by way of the Via Sacra. Overall, the goal was to publicly display the victory that the given general or emperor had won over their enemies. One such procession is shown on the arch of Titus on the eastern end of the Roman forum. It shows the procession documented by Josephus after the attack and sacking of Jerusalem in 81 AD. The procession is shown with the number of slaves, objects and looted works being paraded through Rome, all follow by the person of honor riding on a triumphal carriage pulled by four horses. Often images of the gods are present as well showing the victory of the Roman Empire in all of its glory supported by divinity.[1] Once this context is know, it is difficult to see the image of the four horses without thinking of their original role in the Roman procession. However, without proper citation and documentation, it is difficult to claim that all three empires, that of Constantinople, Venice, and Napoleonic France all understood the original context. Therefore it is important to understand that each empire had their own reasoning for taking the horses. In each case, the horses were given the symbolism of triumph and victory, not necessarily in the same context as the Roman victory, but in their own right.

            It is no question that the Horses were crafted with extreme detail and embody a beauty characteristic to Hellenistic Greece. However, the date of their creation has been heavily debated throughout the study of them. For instance, Renaissance scholars who observed the horses in Venice attributed the statues to a number of Greek artists, Lysippus being the focus of much thought.[2] Lysippus was a well-known artists working during the 4th century BC in Sicyon, a city located on the northern end of the Peloponnesus.[3] According to the later Roman writer, Pliny the Elder, Lysippus was known in antiquity to have created over 1,500 works in bronze, however, none survive to this day.[4] Outside of bronzes, Lysippus made several famous marbles, among them, the Apoxyomenos, the Agias of Pharsalus, and several busts of Alexander the Great. One statue that lends credibility to the theory that Lysippus was in fact the artist behind the horses, is The Heracles at Tarentum, which was recorded as making its way from Greece to the Roman empire, and eventually to the Hippodrome at Constantinople, where the horses were supposedly looted from.[5] It stands to say, that if one work by Lysippus made it to the Hippodrome, then it is possible that another, namely the horses, could have also made it. However, the Heracles was melted down during the sack of Constantinople, and the Horses survived.

Even so, it is difficult to say that the horses truly date back to Greece. A far more probable theory has arisen in recent study, by conservationist Andrew Oddy, indicates that The Horses of Saint Mark were created during the rule of Septimius Severus during the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries AD.[1] While the actual style of the horses, the realism of the musculature as well as the subject matter, is characteristic to Hellenistic Greece, the actual method of creating the horses, as well as the material used, makes it more likely that the horses were indeed commissioned under the rule of Septimius Severus. Oddy found that the process used to gild the horses only works on copper, this process, he discovered was only known from the 2nd century onwards. The horses, though often described as bronzes, are mostly copper. If this is true, considering Septimius Severus’ long stay in Constantinople, one can argue that the horses were commissioned and immediately placed into the Hippodrome there. This realization, that the horses are not original from Greece, allows for the discussion of their movement to begin in Constantinople, rather than in Sicyon.

            For the better part of a millennium, the horses were on display somewhere in Constantinople. Just like with the debate on the creation of the horses, there are again, conflicting reports as to where the horses stood within the city. Eusebius, author of the work, Life of Constantine, perfectly summarizes the collection and display of artwork in Constantinople during the 4th century AD. He describes the city as follows:

From others again the venerable statues of brass, of which the superstition of antiquity had boasted for a long series of years, were exposed to view in all the public places of the imperial city: so that here a Pythian, there a Sminthian Apollo, excited the contempt of the beholder: while the Delphic tripods were deposited in the hippodrome and the Muses of Helicon in the palace itself. In short, the city which bore [Constantine’s] name was everywhere filled with brazen statues of the most exquisite workmanship, which had been dedicated in every province, and which the deluded victims of superstition had long vainly honored as gods with numberless victims and burnt sacrifices, though now at length they learnt to renounce their error, when the emperor held up the very objects of their worship to be the ridicule and sport of all beholders.[7]

In this description, Eusebius explains that artwork from all around the Empire could be found within the walls of the city. While one source, the Parstaseis Syntomoi Chronikai, an 8th or 9th century Byzantine text, claims that ‘four gilt horses [stood] above the Hippodrome


came from the island of Chios under Theodosius II’, it is just as likely that the four horses stood elsewhere in the city and were one of the other two Roman Quadrigas cited to be on display.[8]  Even with this uncertainty, it is possible to claim that the horses were indeed the four horses that stood within the hippodrome in Constantinople. According to the ninth century text the four horses of the hippodrome were covered in gold. With copper being easier to gild than bronze, this might indicate that horses of Saint Mark’s Basilica did originally stand in the Hippodrome, and that the provenance of the horses was lost long before the text was written in the 9th century. If this holds to be true, it opens a whole conversation about the context of the horses within the hippodrome and the meaning attached to them in the Byzantine Empire, and then later the Venetians.

            The Hippodrome played host to several pieces of looted art.[9] Among them stood obelisks, statuary, and bronze figures from all over the Byzantine Empire. Even without the context of the hippodrome, the horses were attributed meaning based off of the other artwork on display in the Hippodrome. The four horses were placed at the head of the hippodrome and overlooked the central aisle, where much of the other work stood. It both visually resembles the procession, with the horses appearing at the end of the long line of looted art, and symbolically represents victory, due to the placement in the racetrack. This is in direct conversation with the idea of the original triumphal procession of the Roman Empire. Putting another layer on top of that, they do stand within the hippodrome, which play host to chariot races in other sporting events. In that context, the horses can still be seen to show victory in a sense that they are directly associated with a race and with the victor of it. The original context and meaning of the horses was certainly not lost in Constantinople, however this is not true of the Venetians.

            Under the doge Enrico Dandolo, in 1204, crusaders, French and Venetian alike, laid siege to Constantinople. They were originally sent to the city in order to help the deposed king regain his throne, however, following a series of unfortunate events, where the king as well as the prince died, the Crusaders decided to take the city for themselves. Upon taking the city they looted and destroyed much of the art splitting the treasures between the French and the Venetians. In describing the events that occurred during the sack of Constantinople, T. Okey explained that, ‘the crusaders’ lust was unrestrained…nothing was spared. Palaces and houses were ransacked; churches and sanctuaries stripped; priceless statues were melted down; pictures [were] torn to shreds’.[10] According to the French crusader Geoffrey of Villehardouin, who described much of the artwork that was present, a lot of the more pagan imagery, including most of the bronze statuary were among those destroyed.[11] However, the Venetians, since they were ‘a more cultured people’, were reported to save as many of the wonderous works of art from destruction as they could.[12] Because of their efforts, the four horses, were chosen by Dondalo and were sent back to Venice to be put on display. While many of the crusaders were only concerned with taking religious works, why is it that Enrico Dondalo took and subsequently displayed the horses on the basilica in Venice?

            Venice is unique among major Italian cities in that it has no classical past of its own. Unlike Rome at that time, being surrounded by monumental works from classical antiquity, Venice had very little contact to the classical world. According to Patricia Brown, a scholar on antiquity in Venice, Venice did not show much interest in the classical world during the height of the Byzantine Empire. It was not until the first half of the 14th century, with the cartographer and historian Fra Paolino, that Venetians took an interest in linking the historical past of Rome with the current history of Jerusalem and their contemporary world. Prior to this, Venetians were caught up in their own Byzantine heritage and the early Christian art and relics of that time. As such, much of the work that was brought back to the city from Constantinople and earlier were important Christian works or artifacts, including the body of Saint Mark, which was taken out of Alexandria in 828 AD. This being so, the survival of the horses cannot be attributed to their importance in the Classical world. Instead the meaning that they held must not have been understood to the Venetians. If the Venetians took them out of context of the Triumphal procession, they would have only known them for their role in the Hippodrome. Even so, I would argue that Enrico Dondalo still understood their worth and symbolism of victory. Since secular art largely did not survived the sacking of the city, the preservation of the horses and their placement upon the façade of Saint Mark’s Basilica must have been purposeful, in that the horses represented the triumph of the crusaders. Their placement on the façade of a building that ended up housing much of the looted treasure form Constantinople indicates that the horses were used in a similar way as they were originally used in the Hippodrome. While not a place of competition, Saint Mark’s Basilica housed looted art, just as the Hippodrome did. As such, the horses are a visual reminder of their original role, while standing as a physical reminder of the siege of Constantinople.

            The horses adorned the façade of Saint Mark’s until 1798, when, following the seige of Venice by Napoleon, they were removed and transported to Paris. One major difference to point out between the Napoleonic empire and the Venetians, is that of the French interest in classical history. While the Roman history of the triumphal quadriga and the processional of the four horses was most likely not the reason for the Venetians to loot the works, it is safe to say, by looking at the other works looted by Napoleon, as well as the works commissioned by him, that the French were fully aware of the classical past, and they were trying to convey a certain idealogy through the use of Roman images.

            Just like the Venetians, the French were portraying a symbolic victory through the looting and public display of the horses. While the Venetians logic probably went as deep as the victory at the Hippodrome, the French were fully aware of the classical past and were trying to emulate the same kind of victory as the Romans, one supported by the empire and divinity. Just as the Romans decorated their city with Triumphal Arches, such as the Arches of Titus and Constantine in Rome, and the Arch of Septimius Severus in Leptis Magnis, so did Napoleon in Paris following his many conquests abroad. The Arch de Triomphe du Carrousell, as well as the Arch de Triomphe de l’Etoile, stands on the historical axis of Paris, leading up the the Palace de Tutiliers, similar to the historical path of the Roman processions along the Appian Way and through the forum. Both arches served to commemorate his victories, however, the Arch de Triomphe du Carrousell was chosen as the site for the display of the horses. Similar in design to the Arch of Titus in Rome, the Arch is composed of a large central archway flanked by two smaller arches. It is elaborately decorated with releif sculpture depicting Napoleon’s many conquests: one shows him entering into Munich, another Vienna, while yet another shows the surrender of Ulm.[13] In addition to this, the pediment sculptures show scenes specific to his conquest of Italy. One shows the arms of the kingdom of Italy with personificaitons of both history and art, while another shows personifications of wisdom and strength holding the arms of the Kingdom of Italy all accompanied by Prudence and Victory.[14] All of the imagery ties back to the original Triumphal arches in Italy, while all the while promoting the French victory of Italy. To top it all off, Napoleon had the Horses of Saint Mark placed atop the arch. If the imagery of the reliefs was not enough, the horses solidify the message that Napoleon wanted to convey. The horses stand as an overt sign of victory; they are a visual sign that Italy was then subjected to Parisian power. Napoleon took this particular piece of work, which in the past symbolized victory and power, to promote his own conquest of Italy. While the horses changed hands several times throughout the years, the use of them in Paris is most similar to their original use in the Roman Empire, that of acting as a visual representatoin of victory.

            The horses endured a relatively short stay in Paris since, following the Battle of Waterloo, they were returend to Venice by Austrian power in 1815.[15] The complete story of the horses cannot be understood without mentioning the work that the Bourban’s comminsioned as a replacement for the horses atop of the Arch de Triomphe du Carrousell. They ordered a new quadriga which shows Peace riding in a triumphal chariot flanked by gilded victories.[16] It is visually similar to the Horses of Saint Mark, and arguably achieve the same effect the Napoleon intended, but this time, commemorating the return of the Bourbons and their victory at Waterloo. This only serves to strengthen the meaning that Napoleon originally placed upon the horses by setting them on the Arch de Triomphe du Carousell.

            Overall, the Horses of Saint Mark take part of the tradition of displaying artwork from the conquered nation to symbolize the triumph of the victor. This is seen across the varying nations that saw their value and removed them from their home. Though the underlying reasoning for looting the statues varies, the symbolism that the Emperors of Rome and the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians, and later Napoleon and the Bourbon Royalists, all embued on the horses evoke triumph and victory. The horses have truly withstood the test of time, and to this day, stand as a reminder of the past turmoil of the Europeon continent. Without their complex past, a modern viewer can still see the beauty and detail of the horses, however, they miss out on a facinating tale of empires and the history of looted art.


Becatti, Giovanni, The Art Of Ancient Greece And Rome (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968), pp. 323-324

Brown, Patricia Fortini, Venice And Antiquity: The Venetian Sense Of The Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)

Cameron, Averil, and Judith Herrin, Constantinople In The Early Eighth Century: The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai (Leiden: Brill, 1984)

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Lysippus | Greek Sculptor”, 2015 <> [accessed 14 December 2015]

Eusebius, Averil Cameron, and Stuart George Hall, Life Of Constantine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999)

Freeman, Charles, The Horses Of St Mark’s (New York: Overlook Press, 2010)

Guilland, Rodolphe, “The Hippodrome At Byzantium”, Speculum, 23 (1948), 676-682

Huguenaud, Karine, “Arc De Triomphe Du Carrousel – Paris”,, 2015 <>

[accessed 14 December 2015]

Hutton, Edward, Venice And Venetia (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1912), pp. 42-67

Lucas, E. V., A Wanderer In Venice (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1914), pp. 6-30

Maguire, Henry, and Robert S Nelson, San Marco, Byzantium, And The Myths Of Venice (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010)

Munro, Dana C., “The Fourth Crusade”, Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, 3 (2015), 1-18

Nicol, Donald MacGillivray, Byzantium And Venice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Okey, T, Venice: And Its Story (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1910), pp. 56-72

Roberts, J. W, The Oxford Dictionary Of The Classical World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Tucker, Holly, “The Mystery Of Who Made The Horses”, Wonders & Marvels, 2010 <>

[accessed 14 December 2015]

[1] Giovanni Becatti, The Art Of Ancient Greece And Rome (London: Thames and Hudson, 1968), pp. 323-324.

[2] Charles Freeman, The Horses Of St Mark’s (New York: Overlook Press, 2010).

[3] J. W Roberts, The Oxford Dictionary Of The Classical World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[4] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Lysippus | Greek Sculptor”, 2015 <> [accessed 14 December 2015].

[5] Encyclopedia Britannica

[6] Holly Tucker, “The Mystery Of Who Made The Horses”, Wonders & Marvels, 2010 <>

[accessed 14 December 2015]


[7] Eusebius, Averil Cameron and Stuart George Hall, Life Of Constantine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999).

[8] Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin, Constantinople In The Early Eighth Century: The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai (Leiden: Brill, 1984).

[9] Rodolphe Guilland, “The Hippodrome At Byzantium”, Speculum, 23 (1948), 676-682.

[10] T Okey, Venice: And Its Story (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1910), pp. 56-72.

[11]Dana C. Munro, “The Fourth Crusade”, Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, 3 (2015), 1-18.

[12] T Okey.

[13] Karine Huguenaud, “Arc De Triomphe Du Carrousel – Paris”,, 2015 <>

[accessed 14 December 2015]


[14] Karine Huguenaud

[15] Charles Freeman

[16] Charles Freeman

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