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Steeds of a lost age

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Superbly modeled, expertly cast, the four gold-bronze horses of Venice's Basilica of San Marco are amazing. True glorifications of reality, they appear to be living animals somehow transmuted into metal.

The enigma of their early existence encourages such a feeling. No record of the sculptures exists prior to 1204. That year, Doge Enrico Dandolo, the admiral directing the Venetian fleet in the Fourth Crusade, found them in Constantinople , probably on a tower of the Hippodrome, and sent the group to Venice along with other booty of war.

Everything preceding that event is a matter for archaeologists and art historians, who in the ensuing 780 years have been unable to agree on place of origin, artist, or purpose. Conjectures vary from Greek (in which case the horses may be 2,400 years old) to Roman (and perhaps only a mere 1,600 years of age).

Little is around for comparison. Old writings and bas-reliefs testify to the existence in antiquity of several quadrigae (chariots drawn by four horses abreast). But, as sculpture in the round, none has come down to us intact.

The San Marco group possesses intrinsic aesthetic values. Charm emanates from them; form and power are skillfully portrayed, details delicately observed. Life quivers in each muscle, each nerve. Possibly animals are more intriguing free of the dominating physical presence of man. Alone, the horse looms as symbol of force, of energy contained by reason, the very ideal of the human spirit.

In the vast Piazza San Marco, all events of importance to the citizenry take place. From the balcony over the entrance arch of the basilica, the bronzes have witnessed the expansion, consolidation, and fall of the Republic of Venice. For centuries, Venice was ''Queen of the Adriatic,'' conqueror of distant lands, rich in trade and affairs, thanks to close political and commercial ties with the Orient.

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