Most visitors to Venice will spend a moment or two admiring the copper horses that stand proudly above the entrance to St Mark’s Basilica – but relatively few will be aware of the truly remarkable history that lies behind this iconic foursome.
Believed to have been cast during the Roman period, between 5th century BC and 4th century AD, the four stallions of St Mark’s are the only team of horses to have survived from the ancient world. Originally depicting a four-horse chariot, it’s widely thought that the group would have topped a triumphal arch commissioned by an emperor such as Septimius Severus, who conquered Byzantium in AD 195. Certainly we known that by the 13th century the horses were located in Constantinople, as in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, they were plundered from the city and brought back to Venice as booty.
Once here, they were placed above the loggia of St Mark’s, bolding symbolizing the triumph of Venice and the freedom of the city; when the Genoese threatened Venice from Chioggia in 1379, the Genoese commander promised he would put “bridles on those unreined horses of yours”. It was therefore perhaps inevitable that Napoleon would include them among the loot he took from Venice in 1797; in Paris, they were placed with a chariot on the triumphal Arc du Carousel – exactly the sort of setting for which they had probably been designed.
Thankfully, in 1815 the horses were returned to the façade of the Venetian Basilica, where they remained until the 1980s, before being replaced with copies due to ongoing damage from air pollution. Today, the extraordinary originals can be enjoyed in all their gilded glory inside the (easily missed) first-floor museum of St Mark’s, which can be found via a discreet flight of stairs near the exit of the Basilica. When you visit, be sure to head out onto the balcony too, which offers close-up views of the replicas, and sweeping panoramic views over St Mark’s Square and across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore.