The Horses of St. Mark’s
by Lesley Sudders
I had always wanted to see Venice, and some years ago my husband and I traveled there. I had studied its history, read memoirs and travel books, and was well aware that in one week I could barely scratch the surface of that marvelous place. I thought it would be like going to any large museum: one must choose with discernment what to see, or it would all blend into a chaotic vision. This entire city is a museum.
We took a brief trip one morning by vaporetto (a water taxi). The sun bounced off the water in the lagoon as we headed for the Piazza.
Someone – perhaps Napoleon – called Piazza San Marco “the drawing room of Europe.” The appellation conveys the sense of the importance of people. The absence of cars on the collection of islands that compose Venice makes the sound of human interaction, voices, and live music more notable, more important. We stopped for espresso at an outdoor cafe and watched people feeding the pigeons. I love most birds but loathe pigeons.
We enjoyed the view of St. Mark’s Basilica, our next stop. It dates to the ninth century and occupies the east side of the Piazza. Byzantine in design, its opulence has inspired many to call it the Church of Gold. Some scholars devote their lives to the study of this ancient church, its fascinating history, its incredible beauty, and its secrets. Perhaps the most tantalizing mystery revolves around the question, Who is buried in St. Mark’s tomb? No one really knows.
But I wanted to see the horses. We strolled the short distance to the Basilica.
A few years earlier, the bronze horses that had occupied the façade of the Basilica had been brought inside to protect them from the polluted air. The ones now trotting on the façade are splendid replicas.
A guide on the main floor pointed us to the stairs and told us the horses, the original ones, were not displayed to their best advantage, as they occupied a small area that was not well lighted. We climbed the stairs.
His words were lost on me. I had never seen anything more beautiful.
Of ancient and of uncertain origin, maybe Greek, maybe Roman, and of historical significance, these horses are among the great works of art in the world. Two of the horses, with their golden patina, stand forever with left front legs raised, while the other two hold the right ones up in readiness to gallop off, pulling a chariot, now lost. Their heads are finely wrought. Manes and forelocks are clipped and shaped. perhaps in the mode of their times. Each wears a collar.
These horses had traveled from wherever they were created to Constantinople sometime before the 13th century. At that time, the horses became spoils of war as Venetian forces helped capture and sack Constantinople. The horses’ heads were lopped off so they could be loaded on a ship to Venice. The collars were later fashioned to hide the welding needed to put the heads back where they belonged.
The horses later became war trophies for Napoleon. They were on display in Paris on the Arc de Triomphe for several years before being returned to Venice.
No one knows their original purpose. Their residence now in a church, and a Christian one at that, is an accident of history and a display of Venice’s power as a city-state in times past. The horses and their chariot may represent the pinnacle of achievement and pride of some group of artisans in antiquity – or just another day of hellish slave labor at the foundry. Don’t I wish I knew! Could those metal workers have imagined the future of these creations? A Christian church? These horses predate Christianity by several centuries.
Sometimes art reflects ourselves back to us, or in an attempt to understand, we connect it to familiar things or memories. I’ve always loved horses, but these bore little resemblance to Betsy, the beloved half-Shetland mare of my childhood.
Art can also be an intellectual exercise to find meaning, such as knowing the history of a piece or the biography of the creator. More often, great art seems to speak to our emotions. We “like” a work, even if we can’t always articulate why.
But that day, something else was at work for me. Being in the presence of these pieces of bronze – mostly copper – creatures allowed some kind of direct transmission from the formless, the eternal, into a part of my brain or my heart, completely bypassing conventional religious framework.
We took our time, but eventually left. I felt peaceful. Back on the Piazza, I didn’t even mind the pigeons.
Lesley Sudders has published a mystery, The Brodick Affair, writing as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.