By Charles Freeman
Even now that they are under cover within St. Mark’s basilica in Venice, the four Horses of St. Mark’s still have an extraordinary impact. They are the only example of a quadriga, a team of four horses, to have survived from antiquity and they are truly superb works of art.
The Venetians looted them from Constantinople after the notorious Fourth Crusade of 1204. They are so beautifully crafted that many have felt that only one of the greatest sculptors of antiquity, Pheidias, or Lysippus, Alexander’s the Great’s favourite sculptor, must have made them. This would place them back in the fifth or fourth centuries BC but metal cannot be dated and their style was difficult to place.
The mystery of their date and origin may now be solved. The horses were cast in copper, a challenging metal to work with because its melting and solidifying temperatures are so high. There must be a reason. The horses are gilded and we now know that the method used, with mercury being heated off from the gold, only works on copper. Bronze corrodes. The conservationist Andrew Oddy, from the British Museum, discovered that this process was only known from the second century AD. This was the breakthrough.
We know the horses were made to be seen from below. In the second century this meant a triumphal arch and only emperors were allowed to erect him. The emperor Septimius Severus had conquered Byzantium, later Constantinople, in the 190s and as good a bet as any is that he commissioned the horses to go atop an arch built in the city to celebrate his triumph. They were still there when the Venetians found them a thousand years later.
About the author: Charles Freeman is a freelance academic author and Historical Consultant to the prestigious Blue Guides series. He leads study tours of Italy, including Venice, and most recently is author of the Blue Guide to Sites of Antiquity (2009). His other books include the bestselling The Closing of the Western Mind, A.D. 381, The Greek Achievement, and Egypt, Greece, and Rome. When not exploring the Mediterranean, he lives in Suffolk, England.