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.