The Horses of Saint Mark (Italian: Cavalli di San Marco), also known as the Triumphal Quadriga, is a set of Byzantine bronze statues of four horses, originally part of a monument depicting a quadriga. This is the only surviving example of a multi-figured antique sculpture — cavalry.
A quadriga (Latin quadri-, four, and iugum, yoke) is a car or chariotdrawn by four horses abreast (the Roman Empire‘s equivalent of Ancient Greektethrippon). It was raced in the Ancient Olympic Games and other contests. It is represented in profile as the chariot of gods and heroes on Greek vases and in bas-relief. The quadriga was adopted in ancient Roman chariot racing. Quadrigas were emblems of triumph; Victory or Fame often are depicted as the triumphant woman driving it. 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.
These horses are very unusual, given that they are made almost entirely in copper. The mixture is about 98% copper, 1% tin and 1% lead. Typically, bronze contains about 10% of tin-and-lead mixtures, although sometimes as high as 20%.3 Copper has a higher melting point than bronze, so when it comes to casting, these large-scale horses are the product of great technical feats.
The sculptures date from classical antiquity and have been implausibly attributed to the 4th century BC Greek sculptor Lysippos. A date in the 2nd or 3rd century AD is considered far more likely; the famous Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (c. 175 AD) provides a point of comparison. However, some scholars do claim the naturalistic rendering of the animals and technical expertise in execution point to a Classical Greek origin. They were probably created to top a triumphal arch or some other grand building, perhaps commissioned by the Emperor Septimus Severus. They may originally have been made for the Eastern capital of Constantinople, and certainly reached there later.
These horses have traveled a lot over the centuries. We know they were located in Constantinople, and probably were located at the hippodrome or the Milion, an imperial building that was located outside the hippodrome but near its starting gates. From Constantinople, the horses then were brought to Venice in the Fourth Crusade of 1204, after Constantinople was sacked.
When the Venetians took Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, they brought back important artefacts to Venice, including four magnificent gilt-bronze Greek or Roman horses. These were installed above the central arch of the west façade of San Marco, the focal point of Venetian life, as symbols of the power of Venice and Venetian pride.
Many Venetian artists celebrated them, most notably with the great canvas of Gentile Bellini, the “Solemn Procession in St. Mark’s Square”, dated 1496 (347 cm × 770 cm).
This is Canaletto's capriccio painting showcasing the four horses from San Marco.
Canaletto - Capriccio - The Horses of San Marco in the Piazzetta
Canaletto has taken down the horses from San Marco and placed them on high pedestals in front of the Basilica. Among the visitors studying the horses is a group of Procurators and Senators on the right, gazing up at them in awe. The date of the painting may be 1743.
The horses were removed from the façade of St. Mark’s in December 1797 by orders of Napoleon, and from there were taken to Paris. While in Paris, the horses decorated the gates of the Tuileries Palace and then later on a triumphal arch (Arc du Carrousel) in the front of the Tuileries, which honored Napoleon's triumphs.
Now this bronze statue group on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Tuileries gardens are a copy of the originals, which were produced by the artist Baron Francois Joseph Bosio in 1828 commemorating the Restoration.
In 1815 the horses were returned to Venice by Captain Dumaresq. He had fought at the Battle of Waterloo and was with the allied forces in Paris where he was selected, by the Emperor of Austria, to take the horses down from the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and return them to St Mark's in Venice.
The horses remained in place over St Mark's until the early 1980s, when the ongoing damage from growing air pollution forced their replacement with exact copies. Since then, the originals have been on display just inside the basilica.
Charles Freeman, The Horses of St. Mark’s: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice
Royal Collection Trust (UK)