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Joseph Kaminski

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September 16, 2019

The Horses of Saint Mark

Did you know there’s a work of art that has been stolen by some of history’s most influential leaders? The Horses of Saint Mark hold an incredibly intriguing history. You won’t believe who owned them, and that each of its most outstanding owners stole them from the last!

The Horses of Saint Mark is a bronze set of four magnificent Greek horses walking in a line, each with one hoof raised above the ground. Most likely made by the Greek sculptor Lysippus, who worked for Alexander the Great, the piece of art has an intriguing and interesting history to follow the incredible detail that was put into it.

Some like to say that the work of art started out on the island of Chios. Others like to say they were created in Rome, perhaps commissioned by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus. Regardless of origination, the four horses were stolen around the year 300 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine, who put them in his new Roman capital of Constantinople. Historically speaking, they were placed on the triumphal and glorious gates that lead into the Hippodrome.

In 1204, they were stolen for the second time by Doge Enrico Dandolo, the famous Venetian, after the sack of Constantinople in the fourth crusade. Enrico Dandolo put them on the terrace of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, where they gained their artistic fame and stayed until 1797.

That’s when the work of art was stolen for a third time, this time by Napoleon Bonaparte. After nabbing them and bringing them back to Paris, Napoleon ordered for them to be mounted atop the Arc de Triomphe. At one point in Napoleon’s height of power, he ordered that the horses be melted down to be used as cannon balls. The foundry declined, stating that the horses were made of the wrong type of alloy (being made of 96.67% copper) to use in an ignited cannon. The victorious allies sent them back to Venice after Napeolon’s fall in 1815.

The horses remained in place over St. Mark’s until the early 1980s, when the ongoing damage from growing air pollution forced their replacement with an exact replica. Since then, the originals have been on display just inside the basilica while the replicas dawn the outside for the world to see.

It’s interesting that this work of art has had several historically important owners, and that each of its owners stole it from the last.

Perhaps Alexander the Great (or Septimus Severus) held onto the work of art before Constantine I placed it upon the gates of the Hippodrome…before Enrico Dandolo of Venice placed them at St. Marks…before Napoleon had them placed atop the Arc de Triomphe (before tiring himself of them and asking to have them melted down into cannon balls…).

Look into the eyes of those horses! They’ve seen more history than any of us have!

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