Plunder, war, Napoleon and the Horses of San Marco

Horses of San Marco (ancient Greek or Roman, likely Imperial Rome), 4th century B.C.E. to 4th century C.E., copper alloy, 235 x 250 cm each (Basilica of San Marco, Venice), an ARCHES video

Additional resources:

The Four Horses Rest Inside St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice after Being Plundered from Constantinople in the 13th century (from ARCA, Association for Research into Crimes against art)

Patricia Mainardi, “Assuring the Empire of the Future: The 1798 Fête de la Liberté,” Art Journal, vol. 48 (2014), pp. 155-163

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] For thousands of years, during times of war, art has been seized by the victor and used as trophies of their victory.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:13] The idea of “to the victor go the spoils;” this goes back thousands of years.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] One of the most fascinating examples of this are the four horses that have come to be known as the “Horses of San Marco.” These horses served as war booty at least twice, maybe even three times.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] This makes them a great case study for talking about works of art seized during times of war.

Dr. Zucker: [0:38] Let’s go see them. We’re in the Basilica of St. Mark in Venice. The church is itself a jewel, but it contains real treasures as well.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] Up on the second floor now are four horses. These were in Constantinople, and when they were brought here to Venice, they were put outside this cathedral, but today, copies are there.

Dr. Zucker: [0:59] The detail on the horses is magnificent, the understanding of the horses’ movement.

Dr. Harris: [1:03] You can see their veins, their muscles, rippling under their skin.

Dr. Zucker: [1:08] Look at the way that their heads turn in relationship to each other. Originally, they would have been gilded. They would have gleamed with gold.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] And pulled a chariot.

Dr. Zucker: [1:16] From the beginning, they were associated with the idea of conquest, of empire, of the emperor, of victory. Let’s just quickly review the story of the horses. We think that the horses may go all the way back to Ancient Greece. In fact, there’s a tradition that states that they were produced by the famous Hellenistic sculptor Lysippos.

[1:34] Now, we don’t know that for certain, but it’s a story that’s long been attached to these horses.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] Well, and that’s because of their incredible beauty that one immediately associated them with one of the greatest ancient Greek Hellenistic sculptors. They may also date from a slightly later period from ancient Rome.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] By the early 13th century, however, we’re on firmer footing. We know that the horses were in Constantinople until at least 1204. This was a year that Western European crusaders attacked the city of Constantinople.

Dr. Harris: [2:02] The crusaders intended to liberate Jerusalem, but instead they attacked Christians in Constantinople in order to pay off a debt to the Venetians.

Dr. Zucker: [2:11] And brought the horses as well as a lot of other treasure back to Venice.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] Now, the horses remained in Venice for more than 500 years.

Dr. Zucker: [2:20] We’re in Paris at the Musée du Louvre, looking out at a triumphal arch that was built by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Dr. Harris: [2:27] If we look closely at that triumphal arch, we’ll see copies of the Horses of San Marco. Now, we should say that the original horses once stood here. We’ll get to that story.

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] In the late 18th century, a young French general, Napoleon Bonaparte, was leading brilliant military campaigns across Europe.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] Now, this is shortly after the French Revolution, when France has overturned the monarchy, and so we have a new period emerging.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] The French Revolutionary Army took unprecedented amounts of art and manuscripts from across Europe.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] Napoleon even brought experts with him on his military campaigns to help him identify works of art that he could bring back to Paris. The idea was to make Paris the new Rome, the cultural capital of Europe.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] The seizing of artwork was actually written into the treaties that the defeated rulers were forced to sign with Napoleon.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] There was this veneer of legality, but what Napoleon was doing was what victorious generals had always done, which is the idea of “to the victor go the spoils.” As the conquering general, you have a right, traditionally, to spoils, to the artwork of the defeated country.

Dr. Zucker: [3:37] While this was a common practice since ancient times, there have been important voices against looting, or at least profligate looting; for example, Cicero.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] But what emerges during this period is a new understanding of works of art and their place as booty during wartime.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] One of the reasons for that is that Napoleon seized the most important art in Europe for one location: for the museum we’re standing in, the Louvre. He seized, for example, the “Laocoön,” the “Dying Gaul;” some of the most famous paintings, Rubens’ “Descent from the Cross.”

Dr. Harris: [4:09] The “Apollo Belvedere,” which was seen as perhaps the greatest ancient sculpture of all time. Keep in mind that what Napoleon intended to do was to create an encyclopedic museum — a museum where works of art from all the nations of Europe could be seen.

Dr. Zucker: [4:25] But he was also intending that this museum be a statement of his military brilliance and a testament to the brilliance and power of France.

Dr. Harris: [4:33] Having the most important works of art from Europe in your capital made you the leader of Europe. We may not think of works of art as having that kind of power anymore, but they did in the 18th and 19th century. Let’s recapture for a moment the tremendous excitement that existed in Paris when the works of art finally made their way to the Louvre.

Dr. Zucker: [4:56] A grand procession into the city of Paris was organized to celebrate this triumph. Interestingly, the only works of art to be uncrated and to be displayed in this procession were the Horses of San Marco.

Dr. Harris: [5:08] To celebrate his military victories, Napoleon commissioned the very arch we’re standing and looking at from the Louvre, and he had the Horses from San Marco placed on top of this arch, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.

Dr. Zucker: [5:22] Of course, seizing works of art created enormous despair throughout Europe, but even in France, there were dissenting voices.

Dr. Harris: [5:28] There was a petition from several dozen artists, including the great painter Jacques-Louis David, protesting Napoleon’s seizure of works of art.

[5:37] Now of course Napoleon is defeated in 1815. Immediately, the countries that had works of art stolen from them began to demand their return. Now, it’s not traditional to send back works of art in this case.

Dr. Zucker: [5:51] The Duke of Wellington, the general who was most responsible for defeating Napoleon, came from Great Britain, which had had no works of art stolen by France. He looked on the great treasures that had been amassed at the Louvre, and decided to do something extraordinary. He decided to return the works to their countries of origin.

Dr. Harris: [6:09] He could have said that those works now belong to Britain. In fact, there were members of the government who considered, at least, selecting some of them to bring back to England. In the end, about half of them were returned to their country of origin.

Dr. Zucker: [6:23] Wellington even took the extraordinary step of paying for the cost of repatriating works to the Vatican, since the Pope didn’t have the money on hand to do it himself.

Dr. Harris: [6:32] What’s really fascinating is that since not all of the works were returned, some of them are here still in the Louvre today.

Dr. Zucker: [6:40] For example, works by artists like Cimabue and Giotto.

Dr. Harris: [6:43] This is a good reminder that when we walk through museums, there are complicated and often fascinating stories behind the way that a work of art came to a museum.

Dr. Zucker: [6:54] It’s interesting to think about what a museum decides to display on the plaque beside the painting and what it decides to leave off.

Dr. Harris: [7:01] Now, we want to end with a quote from an architectural theorist who began to think through the legal and ethical issues of removing works of art from their place of origin.

[7:13] He wrote, “The museum which is Rome is also composed fully as much of places, of sites, of mountains, of quarries, of ancient roads, of the placing of ruined towers, of geographical relationships, of the inner connections of all of these objects to each other, of memories, of local traditions, of still prevailing customs, of parallels and comparisons, which can only be made in the country itself.”

[7:42] That’s such a lovely argument for repatriating works of art to their country of origin.

Dr. Zucker: [7:49] The Horses of San Marco were repatriated, but they were repatriated back to Venice, where they had been for hundreds of years, even if it wasn’t their original home.

[7:58] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Plunder, war, Napoleon and the Horses of San Marco," in Smarthistory, March 15, 2018, accessed June 14, 2024,