Project 365 – 23rd August 2010

Posted: August 23, 2010 in Project 365
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Day 204 – Neverending

Instead of a picture today this is a screen grab from google maps highlighting the Greek island of Chios where it is rumoured the Horses of St. Marks originated. I had to do a presentation in college on the subject so I’ll post that today instead of writing. There is also a video at the end that I made of the Horses’ history and movement through the last 2,000 years.

The Horses of St Mark’s

The year is somewhere between 400 BC and 300 AD, a sculptor is working hard to create a framework of iron rods covered in clay in the shape of a horse. He finishes and applies some wax before two more layers of clay that will be strengthened by rings and wire, leaving an inner mould. He sets about building a pit under a brick furnace where he and his helpers will place the clay horse. Then the work really begins, copper must be heated to over 1,000 degrees so it will liquefy and pour into his moulds and he knows the exact amount of tin and lead to add to the mixture that will bring the temperature to the correct level. Once this is done and cooled he begins smoothing the imperfections, closing up the gates, making patches and joints to get the horse into perfect shape. Not finished yet he must add mercury and, on top of that, a layer of gold. The mercury he then heats off before surveying the shining sparkle of horse number four.  We don’t know who he was, where he was from, or even anything about his thoughts and dreams, but surely he couldn’t have imagined the impact that was to follow over what he had just done.

What exactly he had made was The Horses of St Mark’s (also known as the Triumphal Quadriga), a group of four sculpted horses, made to be positioned in a quadriga. Quadriga’s were chariots pulled by four horses side by side and usually raced, by the Greeks, in the Olympic and other games. Previous to these games a two-horse chariot was used in battle but the four-horse model in such races was to become a status symbol of the aristocratic world. They also became a symbol of triumph with later Roman emperors attempting to make permanent the public feeling of victory by erecting triumphal arches and having statues of the quadriga’s made.

The popularity of the quadriga as a symbol of triumph is seen as far back as the eight century BC when aristocratic Greek women would be buried with pottery containing images of the gods and goddesses. The gods that existed with chariots had, without fail, a group of four horses. The quadriga seemed to confirm their divine status.

In Constantinople, between the reign of Constantine and the 4th Crusade in 1204, there are many mentions of sculptured quadriga’s displayed in prominent places. They were representations of a powerful and majestic animal in an almost mystical formation. It makes it all the more surprising that only one example from Antiquity of this powerful combination has survived, the four that are held in St Mark’s today.

Not a lot is know for definite about the Horses of St Marks but what is known is that they were either made in Classical Greece or even a little later in Ancient Rome copying that classical style. Some critics have attempted to belittle the relevance of the Horses by saying that their position as the only surviving example from Classical Antiquity of a quadriga is almost impertinent due to the fact that they are not emulating nature. This is true in terms of their physical characteristics. Their legs are too long and their backs are too short to be considered true copies of horses of the time. Goethe, who examined the horses in comparison to the Elgin Marbles, which were considered to be more true copies of nature, commented that it wasn’t necessary to debate which was better but that through “both of these works we are presented with a new concept of nature and art”.

Venice, of course, is the location most associated with the Horses and it has a similarly fascinating history. Ironically not much is known either about the first Venetian settlers but various stories exist. One linking it to the Fall of Troy in 1250 BC, another reminisces that inhabitants from the Ancient Christian city of Aquileia, where St Mark had preached, took refuge in the Venetian Lagoon after the city had been sacked by Attila the Hun in 452. Charles Freeman interestingly comments that different stories of origin were retold depending on who they were being told to and that Venetians seemed adept at “manipulating the symbols of the past to their advantage”.

In the centuries leading up to the 4th Crusade Venice was beginning to break away from the Byzantine Empire. They became more and more proficient in trading and expanding their borders, while marble and antiquities were constantly sought to improve the city, with a specific emphasis on St Mark’s Square. In 1202 an ambitious and manipulative doge called Dandolo set in motion the wheels that would flatten Constantinople, all the time hiding behind a Christian agenda. In 1204 the 4th Crusade plundered the Byzantine city and the Venetians took possession of what was to be their most famous acquisition. A city looking to make itself a history had found an icon wanting to be a part of one.

The Horses of St Mark’s, as they were to be known, completed the grandeur and triumphant symbolism the Venetians were trying, and succeeded in creating but they also had other parallels with their new hosts. They were a sculpture, not of realistic horses but idealised ones, with Venice being very much a city of idealistic aspirations. Another interesting analogy was the role of the apparently Christian Venetians in the 4th Crusade and the position of the Horses as a Pagan symbol above the entrance to a Christian church. An irony that was not lost on its rival cities.

In terms of restoration versus conservation Venice constantly struggled with their decaying city and in deciding how far should one go? There were to be similar concerns surrounding the horses. However the greatest irony of all came in 1807. Their Republic collapsed under the weight of false French liberty and the most important specimen of their former grandeur was taken to Paris to become plundered plunder.

The horses were returned again in 1815 after Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo but they were to meet further challenges from the two World Wars to susceptibility to atmospheric pollution and possible erosion. Venice is similarly fragile with constant fears it will one day lose its battle with its waterways, but for now they both withstand the forces that seek to destroy the mystery that is Venice.

Historians John Martins and Dennis Romano recently wrote “There are simply to many Venices, too many unknown dimensions. Just when one believes one is beginning the story line Venice transmogrifies and, both in spite of and because of the richness of its archives and artistic treasures, is again a mystery, an enigma, an indecipherable maze of interweaving stories, false and true”. That has also been my experience researching the Horses of St Marks.


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