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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living