As you enter the Piazza di San Marco, one of the most iconic buildings in the square is the Basilica di San Marco. It is one of the oldest and most iconic churches in Venice and served as the seat of power for the Catholic Church for hundreds of years. If you look up at the exterior front of the building, you will notice 4 horses standing proudly out front. Did you know they’ve been there for only about 40 years? No I didn’t miss type. Keep reading to find out why.
Where Did the Horses Come From?
The horses on top of today’s San Marco are not the original ones, but rather copies of the originals. The original horses were removed from the exterior in 1980s and live inside the church today. Like so many ancient monuments, the horses were sadly beginning to face extensive damage due to pollution.
Prior to their removal, the horses were said to have originally been created in Ancient Rome. History tells us the horses most likely adorned the top of the Hippodrome where ancient chariot racers raced one another in hopes of winning fame and glory. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the statues were moved to the Eastern Roman Empire capitol of Constantinople (present day Istanbul).
During the Fourth Crusade in the 1200s, the statutes were seen as prizes of war. The powerful Venezian Empire claimed them as treasures for their church and took them to Venice. The horses were then placed onto the facade of the Basilica of San Marco for the first time.
When Napoleon came to power and began looking for his own treasure to place in France’s capital of Paris, he claimed the 4 horses in 1797. They were removed a second time from the church and carried away. Have you noticed that these horses look extremely similar to the ones placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe? These horses were copied but a sculptor!
After losing the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon feel from power and the horses were once again returned to Venice. They returned to their place of honor and remained so until the 1980s permanent removal.
Are the Original Horses Out On Display Today?
Yes! Once you enter the Basilica of San Marco, a stairway with a small sign labeled “horses” pointing to a steep stone staircase you that seemingly leads up to a small gift shop. Most tourists turn around when they are asked if they want to buy a ticket. When I was in Venice, the cost was about 5 Euros. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
After entering the turnstile, one of the first things you have the option to do, if stand outside among the copies of the horses. If it’s early, there are not too many tourists out. You are in for one of the best views in the city of the square (the best is still the Bell Tower of San Marco, in my opinion). Looking down at the crowds, you could spend all day enjoying the architecture and vibe of the atmosphere.
Entering inside, you will see many signs asking you not to take any photos. The magnificent horses stand inside the church larger than life. They are green and scratched up, but this was done on purpose. The original horses were made out of copper and over time, have turned green. The scratched were made so the sunlight could reflect off the statues and they could be seen as golden.
I was intrigued by the collars or harnesses each horse wore. Upon reading about them, I learned that they were put there in the 1200s to hide where the heads were cut off! In order to transport the horses from Constantinople to Venice, the horses needed to be transported in pieces! You would never know based on how well they look today!
The area behind the horses has some other beautifully displayed information about the history of the church as well as medieval art work to see. You are able to look down into the church and fully appreciate the view from above. It’s a lot to take in. I wish I could have taken photos inside.
When you finish your time inside, I recommend taking one last look outside again before you head back into the gift shop and down the stairs to the exit. You may want to consider walking through the church again after seeing the horses as it may put a new perspective on the interior of San Marco for you.
The horses of the church are part of the history of Italy’s ancient past. It’s hard to fathom how much these horses have seen overtime, but it’s nice that they are preserved today inside for future generations to enjoy. If you aren’t able to see them in person, look at the replicas that stand outside today. Until next time, happy travels!