Four Horses of St Mark

Situated on the Loggia di Cavelli, the Four Horses of St Mark, or Quadriga; can be seen above the main Great Archway, of the Basilica.

In the Piazza, the “Cavalli di San Marco” are almost as iconic of Venice as the Winged Lion.

A quadriga (Latin: quadri – four, and iugum – yoke) is a chariot drawn by four horses abreast (the Roman Empire’s equivalent of Ancient Greek tethrippon).  The word quadriga can refer to the chariot alone, the four horses without it, or the combination.  It was raced in the Ancient Olympic Games and other contests and is represented as the chariot of gods and heroes, on Greek vases and in bas-relief sculptures.  The quadriga was adopted in ancient Roman chariot racing.  Quadrigas were emblems of triumph and “ Victory or Fame” and often depicted by a triumphant woman driving.  In classical mythology, the quadriga is the “Chariot of the Gods”; Apollo was depicted driving his quadriga across the heavens, delivering daylight and dispersing the night.

However, the group you see externally on the Loggia di Cavalli are really copies; the originals are kept in the Basilica inside the Museo Marciano, to avoid further deterioration, mainly from pollution.  The museum is accessed via the main arched entrance; just to the right is a narrow stone and rather steep stairway, leading up to the museum.

A small entrance fee, gives access to many treasures, including the original bronze horses, the only such group surviving from antiquity in the world.  You can also gain access to the external Loggia di Cavalli; a great place for photographing the external horses, panoramic views over the Piazza and the tourists below.



Four Horses of St Mark – History.


The bright bronze quadriga came to Venice during the reign of Doge Enrico Dandolo, as part of the rich war plunder gathered by the Venetians.  After the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, at the end of the 4th Crusade; they were brought back together with other works of inestimable value, many of which are still housed in the Treasury.

The horses were probably set in the facade under Doge Ranieri Zeno (1253-1268).  The mosaic decorating the lunette on the Portal of St. Alipius, (c 1265), already shows the horses on the facade and they remained in this position for many centuries.  Many Venetian artists celebrated them, most notably with the great canvas of Gentile Bellini, the “Solemn Procession in St. Mark’s Square”, dated 1496.


Petrarch was the first to wonder about their origin, but it was only during the Renaissance that they were initially attributed to the great Greek sculptors Phidias, Praxiteles and Lysippus.

In the 18th century, G. G. Winckelmann the founder of modern archaeology, made further research into historical sources and also various aspects of the fabric of the horses themselves.  There was also a hypothesis, that the work was Roman and not Greek; but this attribution has been the subject of debate until modern times.

After five centuries Napoleon in December 1797, had the four horses removed and transferred to Paris to crown the Arc du Carrousel and they were also subjected to various additions.

With the fall of Napoleon, Antonio Canova was engaged to repossess stolen works and bring them back to Italy.  On 13th December 1815, in the presence of Franz I of Austria, the new sovereign of Venice; the horses were returned to the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica.  However, because of considerable damage and deterioration of the quadriga, they were taken to the Arsenal for restoration.

Other interventions were required in subsequent years and the quadriga was twice more lowered down from above the great arch; to safeguard it during the following two world wars.

Around the 1960’s the Central Restoration Institute, noting their precarious condition, carried out a series of technical surveys; gathering data regarding their history and morphology.  They concluded that for future preservation, the horses needed to be kept in controlled conditioned inside and a copy was commissioned and placed in their historic position on the facade.

The original quadriga, subject to modern scientific analysis; led to reinterpretation of the work.

The sculptures were cast in several parts (head, trunk, hooves and tail), by the method known as “indirect”; a particularly difficult form of casting, as seen from the hundreds of plugs of the most varied shapes that fill the defects in the work.

The alloy is surprisingly almost totally copper, which for casting requires a far higher temperature than ordinary bronze.  It was a very rare, if not actually unique case for statuary of this size; but carried out with view to application of the gilding.

Originally it was probably double gilding, with leaf and mercury; the latter a technique especially widespread in the middle period of the Roman empire. The excessive brightness of the gold was dulled by the artist with dense hatching in the zones most exposed to the light.

Engraved on the hooves and halters are Roman numerals, whose true function has never been clarified.  With no elements that might lead to absolute dating, expert opinions still range between the 5th century BC and the 4th century AD.  There are however, certain features such as the use of mercury in casting, the shape of the eyes, the manes and the ears and the complex form of the plugs used for repairs carried out before gilding; would suggest the Roman period, the epoch of Septimus Severus. The artists during that period still followed the great Hellenic tradition.



Modern sculptural quadrigas found worldwide, are based on the bronze four Horses of Saint Mark, the only quadriga to survive from the classical world; or on the “Triumphal Quadriga”, a set of equine Roman or Greek sculptures.


L to R: detail from Sarcophagus of Stilicho  c. 385 AD – Apollo as Sun God, Sarcofago matti  c. 220 AD – Marcus Aurelius, Roman triumph 176. AD


L to R: Quadriga, Quitadella Park, Barcelona – Quadriga dell’ Unita, Vittoriano, Rome – Quadriga, Wellington Arch, London




See my other History and Architecture blog posts

San Marco – District and Attractions


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