To Bridle the Horses of St Mark

The copper horses of St Mark's Basilica, Venice

The copper horses of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Photo: Rosemary Forrest.

Emerging from somewhere unconfirmed in classical Greece or Rome, this quadriga of horses lived in Constantinople until it was sacked by the Venetians in 1204, and they were carried off to stand guard over the Basilica of St Mark’s. Like many horses, they experienced literal upheavals in times of war, and were stolen by Napoleon in 1797 for a Parisian triumphal arch, and only returned in 1815. To Venice, that is, not Constantinople. In anticipation of damage in World War One they were taken by barge all the way to the Palazzo Venezia in Rome for safekeeping, and in the Second World War they were also packed up before being restored to pride of place. Air pollution achieved what global war could not, however, and in the 1980s they were moved into the interior of the church, and replaced with replicas.

“. . . the four bronze horses which stood for 700 years upon its façade, and which so impressed Goethe that he wanted to get the opinion of  ‘a good judge of horseflesh’ on them. No pampered thoroughbred, no scarred war-horse has enjoyed so romantic a career as these. . . .[they] became so symbolic of Venetian pride and glory that the Genoese, when they were at war with Venice, used to boast that they were going to ‘bridle the horses of St Mark’ . . . I can hardly bear to think of them shut away out of the sunshine, because they always seemed to me, as to generations of Venetians, truly living creatures, animated by the genius of their unknown creators. For all their wanderings, they used to seem, up there on their proud pedestals, ageless and untired. I often saw them paw the stonework, at starlit Venetian midnights, and once I heard a whinny from the second horse on the right, so old, brave and metallic that St Theodore’s crocodile, raising its head from beneath the saintly buskins, answered wtih a kind of grunt.”

Venice, by Jan Morris. 1993 Faber edition. Thank you to Mum for the photo.

 

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