The Quadriga – War Booty in Venice’s Piazza San Marco

Objects plundered by conquering armies go by many names: war trophies, spoils of war, war booty, and, in art historical discourse, spolia. Walking through any Italian city with an eye to the history of public statuary, we can discover the often dramatic lives of what are now meeting spots for an evening passeggiata. As we linger, waiting for our companion, we might appreciate knowing the stories these objects can still tell.

In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, Western European armies sacked Constantinople, bringing about the fall of the Byzantine Empire. As a result of the conquest, the Republic of Venice acquired a number of war spoils, many of which were incorporated into the design of the Piazza San Marco. One of these, the set of bronze horses prancing on the façade of the Basilica di San Marco, dates from antiquity and has had its biography written a number of times. (Arjun Appadurai develops the concept of objects having ‘lives’ and biographies that can be traced.) What follows is for those seeking to be their own cicerone, or guide, while in Venice, with particular emphasis on the Medieval and Renaissance lives of this war trophy.

​Statues commemorating celebrated figures have always been verboten in Venice’s piazza. However, in keeping with accepted codes of conduct in place since antiquity, war booty was often used to decorate the square. By the mid-thirteenth century, the Quadriga, the four life-size bronze horses, appear in local Venetian chronicles and travellers’ tales. The war spoils legitimized the success of the controversial Fourth Crusade, masterminded by Doge EnricoDandolo and, given their ancient Roman origins, they reinforced the glory of the Venetian Republic.

However, since meaning is not fixed but fluid, war spoils at times act as lodestones, accruing meanings that state authorities cannot control. Nevertheless, the horses have retained their ancient connotations of triumph, as emphasized in the literature provided by the Museo di San Marco in Venice, which highlights that the four horses have always been “a symbol of the legacy and continuity of the imperial power of Byzantium.” Envisioning itself as linked to Byzantium and to the earlier Roman Empire, Venice appreciated these connotations.

Venice’s imperial aspirations and the Fourth Crusade

Ostensibly, the goal of the Fourth Crusade was to conquer Jerusalem, which was under Muslim rule. Instead, in 1204, the Western European crusaders attacked the Eastern Orthodox city of Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, despite the fact that Constantinople had been the capital of Christian civilization for nine centuries. The siege of Constantinople and the subsequent pillage, including the burning of the Library, confirmed the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. During the three-day pillage, many of the bronze statues in the hippodrome were melted down and turned into coins. However, the leaders of the Venetian contingent seemed more inclined to preserve rather than destroy Byzantine art. In 1205, Marino Zeno, the newly-elected Venetian podestà, or magistrate, in Constantinople, shipped the bronze horses and other spoils to Venice. His gift of war spoils was not without motive: he may have been appeasing the Venetian Republic and curbing suspicions he was usurping power.

After the fall of Constantinople, Venice acquired a maritime empire as a result of its success during the crusade. Marino Zeno, elected to represent Venetian interests in Constantinople, could no longer refer to himself as “lord of three-eights of the Roman Empire.” Although Zeno ruled in Constantinople until 1207, the moniker dominator quartae partis et dimidie Imperii Romanie was now reserved for Doge Pietro Ziani. Within a year, Zeno, the man who had orchestrated the bronze horses’ arrival in Venice, was demoted. The horses, like the man who had sent them, were also demoted, so to speak. Once in an illustrious spot atop Constantinople’s imperial hippodrome, they spent their first fifty-six years in Venice shuttered in the city’s shipyard, the Arsenale, awaiting either the furnace or the dust heap of history.

The Quadriga’s life

Carbon dating tells us the horses, which are the only surviving example of an antique quadriga, or horse cart, were produced in the ancient Roman Empire, in the second century C.E., possibly on the Greek island of Chios. When taken to Constantinople in the fifth century, the horses symbolized the grandeur of the Byzantine Empire. For over eight hundred years, the prancing horses oversaw imperial horse races. While confined to the Arsenale after being brought to Venice as war trophies, the Quadriga caught the eye of Florentine ambassadors. Francesco Sansovino records that the Florentines, recognizing the beauty of the horses, had insisted they be released from their limbo and placed by the basilica. By the mid-1200s the Council of Ten began to restrict the power of the doge. As a result, the installation of the horses may have compensated for this decrease in power.

Once the horses were incorporated into the design of the basilica in 1261, public rituals highlighting their presence soon followed. In 1202, at the start of the Fourth Crusade, Venetians had gathered in the Piazza San Marco to send off foreign and local men against a backdrop of war ships and banners. Now, almost sixty years later, the public witnessed the doge’s presentation of himself as a gift to the public in a tradition taken from ancient Rome and Byzantium, against a backdrop of that crusade’s very spoils.

Although no surviving thirteenth-century chronicles mention the horses when referencing the doge’s ritualized public appearance, the poet Petrarch, while in Venice in the 1360s, describes victory tournaments and references the Quadriga as well. Petrarch records that the doge stood “at the very front of the temple above its entrance – the place where those four bronze and gilt horses, the work of some ancient and famous artist unknown to us, stand as if alive. Where he stood on this marble platform, it had been arranged that all should be under his feet.”

Petrarch’s description acknowledges that the prancing horses were re-appropriated, taken out of their “ancient” context, as the poet refers to it, and placed in Venice, but partial knowledge of their previous role as symbols of imperial might and splendour survived. Significantly, the doge, elected by the Grand Council, stood next to horses that have no bridles. The horses are forever in a moment of prancing, eyeing each other as they make for the finish line, and they are unrestricted, a potent visual image appropriated by a Republic that saw itself as independent of the Vatican’s control and as an island state of elected leaders surrounded by a sea of monarchies.

Venetians may not have grasped these state-sanctioned associations, but, consciously or not, they did leave the state its horses and did not invest the equestrian statuary with alternative symbolism. In a city of chroniclers and tall tales, folk narratives about the horses as anything but symbols of triumph are conspicuously absent. For example, in the fifteenth century, travellers recorded a popular tale that Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, vowing to curb Venice’s power, boasted he would use the Piazza San Marco as a stable for his horses. A knight on pilgrimage recounts that Venetians “set up four gilded metal horses as an eternal witness” to the futile boast; the tale has the Republic re-appropriating a negative image of the Piazza as a barn into a positive visual sign of its authoritative rule. Even in this folk tale, the horses are associated with the power of the state and its ability to resist outside threats.

In 1797, when Napoleon’s army arrived in Venice and the Republic’s Council of Ten conceded defeat without a battle, the French pamphleteers charged with shifting public opinion in favour of the French, sensed that the horses were, like the lion of Saint Mark, symbols for the public of the former republic’s grandeur. The horses were personified in French tracts: in these pamphlets, Bellafronte, Bizzaro, Belmoro, and Serpentino, as the horses had been nicknamed earlier, promoted a democratic, rather than imperial, message, but nevertheless were put in the service of celebrating state power, in this case framing what some saw as a French occupation as, instead, a liberation from tyranny.

The horses were then taken to Paris by Napoleon in 1798, repatriated to Venice after Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo, kept safe in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo during World War I and in the Praglia Abbey near Padua during World War II, restored in 1977, and positioned inside the Basilica’s museum in 1982. These originals are well worth a visit, as are the copies set up outside, which can be accessed from the Museo di San Marco inside the basilica. The inner staircase, scalloped by centuries of doges’ footsteps, leads to the loggia from which visitors gain a unique perspective of the Piazza San Marco as they stand where the doges of Venice once stood, among the triumphant horses, to address crowds gathered below.

To know only the original location of war booty is to know only a portion of its biography. The plunder brought back to Venice prompted stories that have become part of the objects’ history. These narratives have survived, as a result of the city’s chroniclers and its tourists’ writings, and attest to the fact that Medieval and Renaissance Venetians engaged with public statuary, with war booty that formed part of their civic identities.

Liana Bellon teaches in the Department of English at Dawson College in Montreal and is writing a doctoral dissertation on souvenir images of Venice. She can be reached at

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 20.

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