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"Now, in the Hippodrome there was a tower which stood opposite the spectators; beneath it were the starting posts which opened into the racecourse through parallel arches and above which were fixed four gilt-bronze horses, their necks somewhat curved as if they eyed each other as they raced round the last lap."
Nicetas Choniates, Annals (CXIX)
At least three teams of horses have been identified with those on the façade of San Marco in Venice, all mentioned by the Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai ("Brief Historical Notes"), an early eighth-century chronicle of the monuments of Constantinople. There were "four horses, shining with gold" at the Neolaia (V); "four fiery horses, driven headlong beside two statues" at the Milion (XXXVIII), and "four gilt horses that stand above the Hippodrome" (LXXXIV) brought from the island of Chios by Theodosius II (AD 408-450). Nicetas Choniates also relates the story of a man, dressed in a long and flowing white robe "like the sails of a ship," who sought to fly through the Hippodrome. He "stood on the tower as though at a starting post" and, flapping his arms like a bird, fell to his death. Nicetas speaks of the tower.
"Now, in the Hippodrome there was a tower which stood opposite the spectators; beneath it were the starting posts which opened into the racecourse through parallel arches and above were fixed four gilt-bronze horses, their necks somewhat curved as if they eyed each other as they raced round the last lap" (CIX-CXX).
It may be, too, that such quadriga already were in place when Constantine founded the city in AD 330, either commissoned by Septimius Severus to commemorate his rebuilding of the earlier Byzantium or already there when he besieged it in AD 196, during which the inhabitants "would hurl down upon them the stones from the theatres and whole bronze horses and statues of bronze" (Dio, LXXV.12.4).
Cameron and Herrin argue that the horses of St. Mark's are those that stood over the starting gates of the Hippodrome, a symbol of the races that took place there. Chios was among the many cities that provided statuary for the Hippodrome and, after an earthquake in AD 447, it is likely that Theodosius erected new statues. They are not associated with a chariot and driver, as were the group at the Neolaia (which might be the section where the young men sat in the Hippodrome) and the horses of the Milion, a four-sided arch or tetrapylon. Rather, they seem to have represented the racing activity of the Hippodrome, itself.
Freeman disagrees. Although most ancient statuary was cast in bronze (an alloy of copper and tin), the horses of St. Mark's are almost pure copper, with lead and tin comprising only two percent of the total. Although copper has a higher melting point than bronze and so is more difficult to work, the metal can be gilded, which must have been the intention when the horses originally were cast. The long legs and short backs also suggest that they were to be viewed from below, as they would be from a triumphal arch. To Freeman, this suggests an imperial commission by Septimius Severus, especially since the date of the horses is thought to be the second or third century AD. It seems, too, that the half-moon cut in the eyes to create a gleam (a lunula) was not known before this time. For Freeman, the horses of St. Mark's are those of the Milion, the two figures at the side possibly Severus' sons Caracalla and Geta. Chios is dismissed as not having enjoyed any special privileges after a visit by Tiberius in the first century AD, as are the horses at the Neolaia, which are associated with a chariot when there is no evidence of a yoke having been attached to the collars of the Venetian horses. Vlad and Toniato also wonder how Chios came to possess such magnificent horses and suspect, as well, that those of the Neolaia and the Milion may be the same, placed at different locations over time (Cameron and Herrin disagree).
The immediate objection to Freeman's attribution, of course, is that the horses of the Milion also are associated with a chariot (that of Zeus Helios) and are described as being "driven headlong," hardly the posture of the horses prancing above. (The only example of a galloping horse from antiquity is a fragment of the head and forelegs, together with a statue of Nerva, c.96 AD, found at Miseno and now in the Museo Nationale in Naples.)
Now sequestered in the Museo Marciano, after being removed from the loggia and restored between 1974-1981, the horses are not shown to best advantage. Copies now take their place above the central arch on the façade.
References: The Horses of St Mark's (2005) by Charles Freeman; Constantinople in the Early Eighth Century: The Parastaseis Syntomoi Chronikai (1984) translated by Averil Cameron and Judith Herrin; O City of Byzantium, Annals of Niketas Choniates (1984) translated by Harry J. Magoulias; "The Origins and Documentary Sources of the Horses of San Marco" (1980) by Licia Borrelli Vlad and Anna Guidi Toniato, The Horses of San Marco Venice [Exhibition catalog] translated by John and Valerie Wilton-Ely; "Antique Statuary and the Byzantine Beholder" (1963) by Cyril Mango, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 17, 55-75.
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