Equestrian statues are not as common as winged lions. And yet they happen to mark pivotal historical events in Venice, although in different and sometimes “embarrassing” ways.
The quadriga of St Mark’s basilica: four horses without a man
Symbolically transforming St Mark’s square into a Roman circus, an arena for chariot racing, the Quadriga of St Mark’s basilica has no longer its charioteer, but you won’t feel him missing. Triumphantly standing on the terrace of St Mark’s church, the original horses were then replaced in 1977-82 and safely positioned in the basilica’s museum.
These four splendid statues in gilded copper were looted from the hippodrome in Constantinople in 1204 when Doge Enrico Dandolo diverted the Fourth Crusade from its initial goal and led it to conquer and plunder Constantinople instead. They seem to be inspired by horses of ancient Persia. According to most historians, they date back to the end of the 2nd century or beginning of the 3rd century AD. The moon-like shape of the eye, the cut of the mane, the ears’ fur are all elements helping experts tell us they are “just” 1800 years old.
But why horses on the balcony of a church?
St Mark’s church was a government building, being the chapel of the Doge’s palace. Therefore, covering it with ancient vestigia re-enforced the (fake) myth of the Roman origins of Venice, linked to Byzantium and its glorious past. The triumphal arch above highlighted the domineering power of Venice. Some also see some religious significance, the victory of christianity. However, what prevailed in the end was the political message as well as the attempt to forget these iconic monuments are linked to a tragic event in medieval history. Certainly not an example of political correctness!
Equestrian statues in Renaissance Padua and Venice
One had to wait almost 900 years before metal founders were able to cast equestrian monuments in bronze since Emperor Justinian’s era. It is even more noteworthy that the first ones would be made in Padua and Venice —at a time when Padua lay under the Venetian State.
Gattamelata by the Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua
Donatello in Padua was the first one who in 1477-1453, inspired by the statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, reintroduced the grandeur of classical equestrian portraiture with the statue of Erasmo da Narni, aka Gattamelata, a military hero serving the Venetian State.
Bartolomeo Colleoni in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice
A few years later, Andrea del Verrocchio (or rather Alessandro Leopardi as you can read in a previous post I wrote) repeated the enterprise in Venice. They portrayed the mercenary general Bartolomeo Colleoni, who had left a bequest to the Venetian State for the statue. It took around twenty years after his death to see the monument placed on a marble pedestal in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in 1496. I love the attention to the muscular power of the horse and its movement contrasting with the condottiero’s rigid attitude, holding the baton of command and, wearing an ostentatious suit of armour, ready for war.
Both statues were erected at a time when the Venetian army led very aggressive military campaigns across the Italian peninsula and they reflect that belligerent spirit. It is quite ironic to note that, in a few years, Venice would be forced to change its ambitions. No longer a military power, but rather the advocate of diplomacy and neutrality, namely the Serenissima.
Why Colleoni’s equestrian statue stands in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo
In his will, Colleoni had requested the equestrian statue to be placed in St Mark’s square. His desire remained unattended as no one in Venice would have loved the statue of a mercenary to stand in the political heart of Venice where even the Doges were portrayed on their knees. Taking advantage of the fact Colleoni had forgotten to mention St Mark’s church, the Venetian State considered the space opposite the St Mark’s Brotherhood in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo would also do. And got his family’s bequest, as well.
Colleoni was not the only one that was refused to be portrayed in a heroic manner in St Mark’s square. A much more illustrious victim would arrive three hundred years later: the first King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II.
Equestrian statues of Victor Emmanuel II in Italy and in Venice
Victor Emmanuel II loved horses and loved horse riding.
In Rome you find his statue at the Vittoriano, in Milan in Piazza del Duomo, in Naples it stood in Piazza del Municipio (then moved in 2010 to Piazza Bovio), in Verona at Piazza Bra, in Florence in Piazza Vittorio Veneto and in Turin, his home, in Largo Vittorio Emanuele II. In Venice… well, for a while they considered setting it in St Mark’s square. Then they placed it in Riva degli Schiavoni, now surrounded by stands selling cheap and vulgar souvenirs.
Ettore Ferrari’s statue following the rhetorical language such a monument implied, tells the story of Venice’s struggle for liberation. It mentions Manin and Tommaseo who led the first revolution in 1848. It shows the votes of the Veneto citizens —well, just men as women were excluded from voting— asking to be part of Italy in 1866 after the third Independence War. Female allegories standing for Venice and Italy accompany the gigantic statue of the king, holding his sword.
In Venice one simply calls it “il monumento”, as if there were no other, but apparently forgetting who that guy on the horse is. Actually, tourist launches used to dock in front and the equestrian statue of the first King of Italy was simply described “the man on the horse”. Simple landmark so that tourists could remember where to find the boat again, at the end of their rushed visit to Venice.
The Angel of the City by Marino Marini at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice (1948)
Peggy Guggenheim placed The Angel of the City by Marino Marini right on the terrace of her palazzo on the Grand Canal, where she meant to house her modern art collection. He is completely naked and stands by the water entrance of this neoclassical building, whose architecture was left unfinished throughout the centuries, as ancient ruins.
Details of Marini’s sculpture facing the Grand Canal
Here this strange creature warns all visitors crossing the threshold that they are going to enter a different world.
Marini’s work echoes ancient Etruscan art, but it is exquisitely modern in stripping down a bronze equestrian statue to its essentials. Angels don’t have sex, but this one does. He shows his erotic excitement, revolving upwards his round face, holding his open mouth, as if gasping for rain or sun. Marini’s angel has no wings, but nipples, hair covering his skin, veins in relief swollen with blood. His horse is also portrayed in ecstasy, wide open eyes, a tense mouth showing its teeth, a strained neck, rigid legs.
Peggy’s equestrian statue shocked Venice. No looted art, no military aggressiveness, no rhetoric. A genuine guardian angel on his horse, recovering all the energy to protect an art collection that would bring another twist in Venetian history.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy