The Wandering Horses of Venice by Beverle Graves Myers

Posted by on Jul 26, 2012 in 17th-18th Century Europe, Historical Tidbits | 7 comments

The Wandering Horses of Venice  by Beverle Graves Myers

I received an intriguing email from another author a while back. Mary Reed and Eric Mayer are the collaborating authors behind the John the Lord Chamberlain Mysteries set in sixth-century Constantinople. Mary pointed out that our sleuths—Lord John and Tito Amato—have several things in common. The most obvious is being forced to face life as eunuchs. The other is a sculptural grouping of four horses that formed part of both men’s daily landscape.

How can this be—since about nine centuries and almost 900 miles separate the two detectives? Sit back and read the tale of these wandering horses.

The origin of these equine beauties is one of history’s mysteries. The first mention comes to us from a well-known Roman historian, Pliny the Elder. Pliny attributes the four gilded bronze horses to Lysippus, a Greek sculptor of the fourth century B.C.E. Their location in Greece isn’t known, although the island of Chios has been mentioned. According to Pliny’s account, an admiring Emperor Nero eventually had the horses transported from Greece to Rome. Recent scientific analysis casts doubt on this theory, however. Investigation of the metal and its gilding shows evidence of Roman, not Hellenistic, manufacture.

We do know that the four horses came to Constantinople (now Istanbul) to adorn the Hippodrome in time for John to view them during the reign of Justinian. Construction on the Hippodrome began around 203 A.D., but it was the emperor Constantine the Great who enlarged the Hippodrome and made it the city’s main venue for athletic competitions, games, and chariot races. For hundreds of years, the horses stood atop the central arch of the stables where the live horses who pulled the chariots were housed. An artist’s rendition of what the chariot gates might have looked like is below.

Years passed, and war raged between Christian and Muslims lands. During the fourth Crusade in 1204, Venetians under orders from Doge Enrico Dandolo sacked Constantinople. The Hippodrome was destroyed, and the horses ripped from their mountings. They were carried off to Venice, stored at the Arsenale, and eventually placed above the main entrance to the Basilica San Marco. They were still there in Tito Amato’s time, the mid-18th century. On his way to the opera house, Tito crossed the piazza almost every day and would have seen them looking down on the carnival antics that had taken over the great square.

The horses still had some traveling to do. In 1797, Karma visited Venice in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. The city that owed so many of her magnificent treasures to medieval pillage, was in turn looted by the French general.

The four horses were crated up and sent to Paris where they found a temporary home on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. You can still see a sculpture consisting of horses, chariot, and several figures on the monument, but these are not the four horses of Venice. France was forced to return the looted horses by the Congress of Vienna which attempted to impose order on post-Napoleonic Europe. Apparently, nobody gave a thought to pushing them back one additional looting and returning them to Constantinople.

If you’ve visited Venice, you may think you’ve seen the horses standing proudly on the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica, but today’s steeds are actually bronze replicas. After the originals were refurbished in the 1990s, they were moved inside to keep them safe from the elements. You may see them in St. Mark’s Museum within the Basilica.

Besides Lord John and Tito Amato, I wondered if there might be another fictional detective who viewed the horses during their French sojourn, 1806-1815. A quick glance through the enormously helpful timeline of mystery series at the Crime Thru Time website (http://www.crimethrutime.com/) came up with only one definite prospect: Inspector LeBlanc as penned by Bernard St. James. I haven’t read these novels, but as the series is set in early 19th-century Paris, it seems like a good bet.

If we knew more about the horses’ early wanderings across the ancient world, we might be able to come up with a few more sleuths connected to these bronze beasts. Perhaps Gordianus the Finder, Marcus Didius Falco, Claudia Seferius, or Marcus Corvinus. Who knows? It’s likely to remain a mystery, but the research was fun.

A brief version of this post first appeared on CRUEL MUSICBeverle Graves Myers’ blog dedicated to her Tito Amato Mysteries. 


7 Comments

  1. I won’t get Citizen Ravel to 1806 for a long, long time yet, but the horses are in his future–he would certainly have seen them many times while detecting his way around revolutionary and Napoleonic Paris!

    Susanne Alleyn
    The Aristide Ravel French Revolution Mysteries

  2. Thanks for the nod, Bev, and for setting your visitors nice little mystery to ponder. I am not going to be much help because I have not read Jane Jakeman’s
    In The City of Dark Waters, but given it’s set in 1908 Venice there is a chance at least it mentions St Mark’s wandering equines, particularly since one of the protagonists is Monet. Perhaps another reader of this blog will be able to provide more details!

  3. An enjoyable read, Beverle, thank you. Another lovely, caring story about wandering horses is Frank Westerman’s ‘Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse’ (2010). “When you touch a Lippizaner,” he was told as a child, “you are touching history.” See http://www.frankwesterman.nl/goto_english_version.html

    • Nicolaas, this looks intriguing. I’ll be on the watch for it.

  4. Fascinating story, Beverle. I will certainly look for them. Thanks for bringing it to our view.

  5. Interesting history but here in Saratoga the live horses are running and people from all over the world are here to celebrate. Breakfast at the track where you can see them all work out while having a substantial meal. Can’t beat it!