Friday, July 15, 2011

The Horses of St. Marks: A Story of Triumph in Byzantium, Paris and Venice

By Charles Freeman, Overlook, 298 pages.

Freeman follows the journey of 4 bronze horses, an ancient quadriga, as they went from empire to empire, from Rome to Constantinople, Venice, Paris, then back to Venice. Readers get a sense of the unity of European culture, as the ancient Greco-Roman world dissolved into the Greek Byzantine empire in the east and into Venice and other bits and pieces in the Latin West.

Europe's Christianization did not alter the ancient pagan heritage, as that achievement was Christianized yet appreciated for its own worth. This demonstrates that Christianity is itself the great humanist movement of history. Truly great human achievements are celebrated by Christian society.

The quadriga was a group of 4 horses that pulled a chariot, though if the horses were 4 across, the 2 outer animals were for show, as they had no pulling power.

The 4 horses, set in Constantinople by Emperor Constantine, saw the slow Christianization of the empire even as the Byzantines clung tenaciously to the old Roman ceremonies, such as the vision of the emperor as closer to God than anyone else.

The horses witnessed the rise and slow decay of the Byzantine empire, including one of the lowest points, the Fourth Crusade in 1204, when the Latin Crusaders sacked Constantinople, led by a Doge (leader of Venice) who had manipulated the Crusade for his own revenge on the Byzantines for a past wrong.

The horses, along with much other booty, were brought to Venice and eventually placed by St. Mark's in the central Piazza, where they more or less stayed for centuries. This was the high-water of Venice and its adventurism and trade in the eastern Mediterranean.

Before the rounding of the Cape of Good Horn in 1496, this trade route was the way for eastern spices and other goods to make their way to Europe. Venice had gotten rich off this trade, as the Byzantines had turned their backs on commercialism.

The author links the horses, in their vitality, with the optimistic energy of medieval-renaissance Venice, one of the most powerful European states until the end of the sixteenth-century. Venice's success represented the first expansion of Europe, this one to the east.

Freeman details the growth of cities, trade, and culture, showing how they are all intertwined with religion. Latin Christianity never hindered progress, whether scientific or economic, and was often at the forefront of new and improved things. The religion's vitality can be seen in the Renaissance, in which Venice played a vital role, as with the artist Titian.

Trade, ancient culture, Roman Christianity, and hope in the future: Venice and its quadriga symbolize the assertiveness of the West before Western culture lost its masculinity and optimism. Throughout this book one has the sense that Western Europe, unlike Byzantine and further east, was always onwards and upwards.

The 4 horses represent the deeper spirit of Western civilization, of which Christianity has been the center for more than 15 centuries. Indirectly, then, the ancient, pagan horses symbolize the faith of the West.

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