The Horses of St. Mark's: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris, and Venice
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The Horses of St. Mark's in Venice are among art's finest creations-and certainly one with a story like no other.
Celebrated historian Charles Freeman, author of the 2009 surprise hit A.D. 381, explores the mysterious origin of the statues and their turbulent movements through Europe over the centuries: in Constantinople, at both its founding and sacking in the Fourth Crusade; in Venice, at both the height of its greatness and fall in 1797; in the Paris of Napoleon, and the revolutions of 1848; and back in Venice, the most romantic city in the world. In this remarkable new book, Freeman shows how the horses came to stand at the heart of European history time and time again.
in the new museum planned in the former royal palace of the Louvre. What confirmed the procession as triumphal were the four horses. It was always in a chariot drawn by four horses, a quadriga, that a successful Roman commander paraded himself with his booty through the streets of Rome.* Now, even in Napoleon’s absence, the four horses from Venice could be seen as a symbol of his military victories. They also carried with them a political message, proclaimed in the slogan on an accompanying
integrated with the patronage of its saint. The horses stand not only as symbols of victory but also as symbols of Mark. They are transformed within a new Christian context, just as in the Piazzetta other ancient bronzes were transformed into the statues of Theodore and Mark. (These reliefs, some the originals, some resin copies, have now been placed alongside the horses in St Mark’s.) This carefully composed design was shattered when the decision was made in the 1420s to replace the reliefs
himself, and attained and expressed understanding.’ His dominance of intellectual life and breadth of interests were such that Nietzsche was to describe him as ‘not just a good and a great man, but an entire culture’. During his youth Goethe had been soaked in ancient history and literature, and Italy had always been the country he had most yearned to visit (Italian was the first foreign language he learned), but it was not until 1786, when he was in his mid-thirties, that he first went there.
victory by France in Spain in the 1820s was used to justify the installation of replicas. (Mary Evans Picture Library) Milton’s thoughts reflect his English prejudices, but they also suggest that Napoleon’s ambition had resulted in a tasteless display of extravagance. Although the emperor liked to extol himself as a patron of the arts and sciences, there is no evidence that he had any aesthetic sense. We have a report that when his minister of the interior, Jean Antoine Chaptal, took him
surviving objects from this period which appeared to be of copper or bronze, those found to be of copper made up only 2 per cent of the total, and there were no examples at all of copper mirrors or armour. As we have seen, it was discovered as early as the eighteenth century that the St Mark’s horses were, in fact, cast in almost pure copper, with lead and tin making up only 2 per cent of the total. A typical percentage of tin in bronze is 10 per cent and sometimes it is as high as 20 per cent.