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.
Captains of Venetian ships were bidden to bring exceptional and rare objects to the cathedral as votive offerings to ensure success in business and victories in war. Consequently, San Marco evolved into a magnificent, lavish, and resplendent vision of Byzantine art. Of the gifts presented, the horses were without doubt the most extraordinary, as evidenced by their position of honor.
Seven feet high, weighing a ton apiece, the statues are formed of bronze containing more than 97 percent copper and gilded with gold leaf. The fusion was doubtlessly an extremely difficult process.
During the many years before and after their arrival in Venice, a certain amount of corrosion formed. The situation worsened considerably with recent industrial pollution. Finally, the sculptures demanded immediate attention; the bonds uniting the metals were disintegrating, and with each rain, gold was being washed off.
Taken to the laboratory of San Marco, they underwent the latest scientific restoration and cleaning. The gold patina, now anchored, glistens.
The outcome was so splendid, the valiant steeds so remarkably beautiful, the officials decided to permit a grand tour. First one went to London, New York, Mexico City, and Paris. Back in Venice, it joined the three others for a jaunt to Milan and West Berlin. Not bad for horses that have spent most of eight centuries adorning a basilica!
Only once before did the sculptures leave Italy; taken to Paris by Napoleon as a prize of victory, they graced for a while the Arch of Triumph of the Carrousel at the Tuileries. In 1815 they were returned to Venice.
Contemporary sensibility holds art of the past to be our irreplaceable cultural heritage, its conservation for future generations a must. The necessity constitutes a spiny decision for the Venetians, proud to have these illustrious statues embellishing the beloved piazza. However, the responsibility has been recognized and accepted. Exact replicas are being placed on the basilica and the originals will be protected in a climatized hall.
Yet learning's many advances have not deciphered the mystery of who made the gold bronzes of San Marco, or when. They remain astonishing vestiges of a lost world.