The Quadriga – War Booty in Venice’s Piazza San Marco
By Liana Bellon
Accenti, Issue 20 (2010)
Introduction: 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 Enrico Dandolo and, given their ancient Roman origins, they reinforced the glory of the Venetian Republic.