The horses of Saint Mark, a set of four bronze horses, are one of the emblems of Venice, but few tourists know the history behind them. To anybody interested in delving deeper into the past of this fascinating city, I recommend Roger Crowley’s City of Fortune: How Venice Won and Lost an Empire. For a history book it’s very readable and it has got it all: heroes and villains, acts of great bravery and cowardice.
But back to the horses: they used to be displayed at the hippodrome in Constantinople, but after the sack of the (Christian) city by the (Christian) Fourth Crusade, Enrico Dandolo, the doge of Venice sent them back as part of his loot. He must have been quite a character, nearly eighty and completely blind, but he still took an active part in the siege of Constantinople. He and his crusade were also excommunicated by the Pope before they even left the Adriatic!
This was the time that La Serenissima won the beginnings of its empire from the Byzantines, yet also planted the seeds of its downfall by creating a power vacuum that the Ottomans later stepped into. The book charts the rise of the city, but also shows the forces that eventually led to its fall.
Not knowing a lot about the period or the area beforehand, I found it interesting to read about this merchant nation that pioneered a lot of ‘capitalistic’ inventions: the idea of profit not honour or glory as prime national goal, citizens that were strictly equal before the law, fitting ships out on an assembly line and even the first tourism. Ferrying pilgrims to the Holy Land was a lucrative business!
We have to thank the Venetians for bringing new ideas and books from the East that fuelled the Renaissance, but their ships of course also carried the rats that brought the plague with them to Europe. In the end feuds with their neighbours, especially Genoa, while ignoring their common enemy, the Ottomans, plus the discovery of new routes around Africa and the New World spelled the end of their empire.
Roger Crowley tells a good story and he knows his stuff. The horses, by the way, were later looted by Napoleon and briefly graced a triumphal arch in Paris. However, after his defeat they were returned.
To Venice, not Constantinople…