Daily Dose of Europe: Venice’s Bronze Horses

I can’t wait to go back to Venice when this is all over. And when I do, I’ll look up at the balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica, where four bronze horses will nod their heads in greeting.

The coronavirus can derail our travel plans…but it can’t stop our travel dreams. And I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. One of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. And I’m currently featuring 10 of my favorites — including this one.

Stepping lively in pairs and with smiles on their faces, these four bronze horses exude a spirited exuberance. They long stood in the most prominent spot in the city of Venice — above the main door of St. Mark’s Basilica, overlooking St. Mark’s Square. (Replicas still stand there today.)

The horses are old — much older even than Venice. They’re likely from Greece and made in the fourth century BC. Originally they were part of a larger ensemble shown pulling a chariot, Ben-Hur style.

The realism is remarkable: the halters around their necks, the bulging veins in their faces, their chest muscles, and the creases in their necks as they rear back. With flashing eyes, flaring nostrils, erect ears, and open mouths, they’re the picture of equestrian energy.

They are clearly teammates. Each raises its hoof at the same time and same height. They cock their heads to the side, seemingly communicating with their brothers with equine ESP.

These bronze statues are rare survivors of that remarkable ancient technology known as the lost-wax method. They were not hammered into shape by metalsmiths, but cast — made by pouring molten bronze into clay molds. Each horse weighs nearly a ton. During the Dark Ages, barbarians melted most metal masterpieces down for re-use, but these survived. Originally gilded, they still have some streaks of gold leaf. Long gone are the ruby pupils that made their fiery eyes glisten in the sun.

Their expressive faces seem to say, “Oh boy, Wilbur, have we done some travelin’.” That’s because megalomaniacs through the ages have coveted these horses not only for their artistic value, but because they symbolize Apollo, the god of the sun…and symbol of power.

Legend says they were made in Greece during the time of Alexander the Great. They were then taken by Nero to Rome. Constantine brought them to his new capital in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to adorn the chariot racecourse. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians stole them. They placed them on the balcony of St. Mark’s Basilica from where the doge would speak to his people — the horses providing a powerful backdrop. Six centuries later, Napoleon conquered Venice and took the horses. They stood atop a triumphal arch in Paris until Napoleon fell and they were returned to their “rightful” home in Venice.

In the 1970s, the horses made their shortest and final journey. With the threat of oxidation from polluted air, they were replaced by modern copies. The originals galloped for cover inside the church, where they are displayed today.

For all their travel, this fearsome foursome still seems fresh. They’re more than just art. They stand as a testament to how each civilization conquers the previous one, assimilates the best elements from it, and builds upon it. And when visitors come to Venice today and admire these horses, they’re looking at a lot of history.

This is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for “St. Mark”.