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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices