The Triumphal Quadriga are better known as the Four Horses of San Marco. Quadriga is a Latin word for a chariot drawn by four horses, but it can also refer to the horses themselves. While these horses aren't Venetian in origin, they have come to be just as loved in Venice as the famed lion.
There are many interesting stories about these "miraculous stallions," as writer Jan Morris calls them, and things we do and do not know. We do know that the Venetians stole them from Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade and brought them to Venice
Not known: where they were made. Were they created in ancient Greece or in ancient Rome? It's believed that before they were taken to Constantinople, they resided on Trajan's Arch in Rome, but it's possible that the Romans looted them from Greece.
Carbon dating done recently indicates that they were created around the beginning of the 2nd century BC, which means that they were already 1,400 years old when they moved to Venice over eight hundred years ago.
They are often called the bronze horses or the golden or gilded horses, but in fact, they are made mostly of copper (between 96.67 and 98.35% copper, according to the Basilica website). Each horse weighs 1,700 pounds.
During their first 50 years in Venice, they were displayed at the Arsenale, but then they moved to the Basilica di San Marco and were mounted above the main entrance. After these pagan horses went to church, they became an allegory for the power of the four evangelists as well as a symbol of the power of the Republic.
But then in 1797, the Venetian Republic fell to Napoleon, who stole much art work from Venice, and the horses were taken to Paris for 15 years or so. After the defeat of Napoleon, they were returned to Venice and the basilica. This painting below (Return of the Horses) by Venetian artist Vincenzo Chilone was completed in 1815, the year that they returned home.
But their traveling days weren't over yet. During both World Wars, the horses were removed for safe-keeping. During WWI, they were sent to Rome, and during WWII, they were stored in a warehouse on the mainland. The poignant photo below shows them leaving Venice in 1942.
And then in 1982, after so many centuries outside, they were moved inside the church to protect them from the effects of pollution and the elements. The horses that we see outside today are boring and lifeless copies. To see the real horses, you must pay a few Euros to go upstairs to the Museo di San Marco and it's well worth it. They are magical creatures, and they love visitors. :)
From Jan Morris' "A Venetian Bestiary"~
“So subtle, elegant and powerful were their forms, so true to life and yet so full of suggestion, that like all great works of art they generated a magnetism far beyond their substance.
The Venetians recognized their divine quality from the start, and so the Golden Horses came to the lagoon…they were the ultimate loot, and they were placed on the ultimate exhibition shelf above the doorway of the Basilica di San Marco, looking out across the Piazza. It is probable that when they hauled their chariot the outer two horses tossed their heads outwards, the central two inwards. The Venetians mounted them instead in separated pairs, each pair of animals inclining their heads towards each other, and this perhaps gave them a gentler look, less tempestuous but more compassionate, like four friends.”
Beloved friends they became indeed to the citizens of Venice, and symbols to every foreigner of the Republic’s unshakable fortitude. They were the most reassuring of all the devices that gave such all-confident splendor to the city…”
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