The Horses of Saint Mark: Reading time approximately 2 minutes
Introducing the horses
This is the story of the well-traveled horses of Saint Mark. The name refers to Saint Mark’s Basilica, or the Basilica di San Marco, in Venice.
Someone created these four magnificent bronze statues were probably no later than the third century AD. It could have been the Romans, but, some evidence leads back to fourth century BC Greece. The statues each stand about twelve feet high and weigh around a ton. Regardless of their origin or original purpose, the horses of Saint Mark eventually found their way to Constantinople where they were installed at the Hippodrome, the site of chariot races. Since they are from pre-Christian times, they have nothing to do with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse mentioned in the book of Revelation.
On guard at the Hippodrome
There is a good chance they were there at the Hippodrome in AD 532 and observed the Nika riots. At that time, Justinian I was the Roman emperor and a devout Christian. Citizens of the city took chariot racing so seriously that they had almost religious devotion to their teams. Events came to a head when supporters of the main teams rebelled against the unpopular emperor. Rioters set fires that burned much of the city. Justinian responded by sending troops into the Hippodrome. There, they murdered about thirty thousand rioters and reestablished order.
The horses remained at the Hippodrome until 1204. That year, the Fourth Crusade was hijacked by the Venetians. Instead of setting out for Egypt and the Holy Land, they took a detour. It’s a long and involved tale, but the crusaders and their Venetian navy instead ended up in Constantinople. There they ransacked the city, and part of their loot they stole were the four horses of the Hippodrome. The Doge of Venice claimed them for his city.
Off to Venice and beyond
The Venetians reattached the heads, which had been removed during their transport, and in 1254 installed them on the terrace of Saint Mark’s Basilica and where they gained their current title—the horses of Saint Mark. From that vantage point, they oversaw activities in Venice, including the 1797 invasion by Napoleon’s army. He removed the horses from their terrace and took them to Paris and installed them on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, Napoleon’s monument to his many victories.
In 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo ended in Napoleon’s defeat and exile, the victorious Emperor of Austria, who had annexed Venice, ordered the horses returned to that city. They were reinstalled in their former site at the basilica. Later, in the twentieth century, the horses were removed and placed in storage during the two world wars.
Meanwhile, the Parisians installed new statues on their arch in 1828. By the 1980s, because of damage due to air pollution, the Venetians moved the original statues inside the basilica for restoration and placed replicas on display on the terrace of Saint Mark’s façade. There they stand today, as regal and proud as ever, even after all the insult and damage they’ve had to endure. The statues are interesting in one other way. Most of the metal statues from antiquity have been melted and the metal used for other purposes, such as weapons and ammunition. These four horses of Saint Mark have beat the odds and are now well cared for.