The bright bronze quadriga came to Venice as part of the rich war plunder gathered by the Venetians, under doge Enrico Dandolo, after the conquest of Constantinople at the end of the 4th Crusade in 1204, together with other works of inestimable value, many of which are still housed in the Treasury.
The horses were probably set in the faï¿½ade when Ranieri Zeno was doge (1253- 1268). The mosaic decorating the lunette on the portal of St. Alipius, datable to around 1265, already shows the horses on the faï¿½ade in the position in which they were to remain over the centuries, celebrated by many Venetian artists beginning with the great canvas by Gentile Bellini, the solemn Procession in St. Mark’s Square (1496).
Petrarch was the first to wonder about their origin but it was only in the Renaissance that the horses’ creator was sought and they were attributed to the great Greek sculptors Phidias, Praxiteles and lastly Lysippus.
Closer reading of the sources and the various aspects of the group came about only in the 18th century, thanks chiefly to G. G. Winckelmann, the founder of modern archaeology. There was also the hypothesis that the work was not Greek but Roman and this attribution was to be debated right down to our own times.
In December 1797, after five centuries, Napoleon had the four horses removed from the faï¿½ade and transferred to Paris to crown the Arc du Carrousel. The quadriga was subjected to various additions. With the fall of Napoleon Antonio Canova was engaged to repossess stolen works and bring them back to Italy.
On 13th December 1815 in the presence of Franz I of Austria, the new sovereign of Venice, the horses were returned to the faï¿½ade of St. Mark’s. But the precious quadriga in gilded bronze, the only one to have come down from antiquity, had undergone considerable damage so before resuming its place it was taken to the Arsenale for restoration. Other interventions were required in subsequent years and the quadriga was twice more lowered from the great arch of St. Mark’s to safeguard it during the two world wars.
Around the sixties the horses underwent a series of technical surveys by the Central Restoration Institute during which their precarious condition was noted, but precious data was gathered regarding their history and morphology. However it was deemed indispensable for future preservation to keep them in the and to put a copy on the arch outside.
Scientific analyses led to across the board interpretation of the work.
The sculptures were cast in several parts (head, trunk, hooves, tail) with the method known as indirect, which is to say by means of concave plugs, obtained from a form, in which wax was spread which during casting was replaced by the metal, a particularly difficult operation in this case, as seen from the hundreds of plugs of the most varied shapes that fill the defects in the casting. In fact the alloy is almost totally copper which, for casting, requires a far higher temperature than ordinary bronze: a very rare if not actually unique case for statuary of this size, but carried out with view to application of the gilding. Originally it was probably double gilding, with leaf and mercury, the latter a technique especially widespread in the middle period of the Roman empire. The excessive brightness of the gold was dulled by the artist with dense hatching in the zones most exposed to the light.
Engraved on the hooves and halters are Roman numerals whose true function has never been clarified.
The autopsy during the last restoration revealed no elements that might lead to absolute dating. Perplexity continues and – unique in the history of antique art – scholars’ opinions still range between the 5th century BC and the 4th century AD. However certain features such as the use of mercury in casting, the shape of the eyes, the manes and the ears, and the complex form of the plugs used for repairs carried out before gilding would suggest the Roman period, the epoch of Septimus Severus, in the context of a school of Greco-Oriental artists who were still mindful of and repositories of the great Hellenic tradition.