LITTLE, BROWN £16.99 £15.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

The Horses of St Mark's by Charles Freeman

A two thousand-year canter to Venice

I suppose it could sensibly be claimed (I'm going to claim it, anyway) that the Golden Horses of St Mark's in Venice are the most headily romantic of all mankind's artifacts. Nobody knows who made them, or where, or when, or why. Their recorded history resonates with triumph and pathos. For eight centuries they stood on their loggia outside the Basilica San Marco as the most theatrical of all national ikons. They are works of art of such mingled grace and compassion, such magic in fact, that down the centuries millions of people have taken them to their hearts. It is not just that they are beautiful. They really do seem transcendental.

Scholars and academics have inevitably unloaded their learning upon the backs of these charismatic creatures, and in 1973 those twin anaesthetists of the age, science and conservation, put the stallions to sleep by declaring them vulnerable to pollution, stabling them in a dark room within the confines of their Basilica, and erecting in their stead four dullard understudies.

It would be misleading to say that Charles Freeman has seized the chance to tell their story once again. He does not sound the seizing kind. He is an ancient historian by trade, and passion is not among his tools. It takes a Goethe to fancy the golden horses stepping off their plinths, or a Ruskin to write of them "blazing in their breadth of golden strength". No, his is a less Promethian technique. If ever a volume demanded a splash of style and colour, it is such a book: yet the people at Little, Brown have given him pale letter-press, timid design and not a single colour picture, unless you count the splendid Canaletto of the jacket. It is enough to make a cart-horse cry.

Let alone the human author, for if this book hardly makes the heart soar, it really is the horses' ultimate biography. There have been several books about them, but none before has tried to set their story in profile, as it were, against the historical background of their several domiciles. Their lives have been poignantly nomadic. They were born either in Greece or in Rome, or perhaps in Byzantium. They were looted by the Venetians from Constantinople in 1204 and taken to Venice. In 1798, when the Venetian Republic fell to Napoleon, they went to Paris, and appeared on top of the Arc de Carrousel. After Waterloo they were returned to Venice, but in both the world wars they retreated into sanctuary - in 1917 to Rome, where they sheltered for a time within the Castel Sant'Angelo, in 1942 to the Abbey of Praglia, outside Padua.

These various exiles Freeman describes in detail, and very interestingly. He says that he originally meant to write a book simply about Venice, but was persuaded otherwise by his agent: it was advice well taken, because what he tells us about the horses and their travels is far livelier than his lengthy chapters of more general history. Wherever they went, the horses were greeted with wonder, and whenever they returned to Venice they aroused the most passionate emotions of welcome and relief. What a greeting they will get when (science having now decided that they weren't suffering from pollution after all) they finally return one day to their proper place on the basilica's facade!

Of course Freeman has to deal with matters of provenance and technique, but I tended to skip those parts. I happily accept Freeman's own sensibly tentative suggestions that the horses were made by Greek craftsmen in Constantinople no earlier than the second century AD. But I really don't care anyway. Freeman does a decent and honourable job in tracing their story, but to my mind the way the animals incline their heads so tenderly one towards another, the thoughtful look in their eyes and the soft clouding of their breaths on winter mornings - all these things make it apparent to me that they were never actually made by anybody, but simply came into being as darlings of God.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick