Tuesday, 1 January 2019

FATA SUA QUADRIGAE





This time of the year is usually dedicated to retrospection. Typically, you are looking at the past twelve months, at your achievements in that period, your mistakes and disappointments, and make pious pledges to become a better person the following year.

I will attempt to do more than this. Instead of looking back one year, I will try to have a glimpse at most of two thousand years in the past. A vainglorious task you may well think. You have, of course, a right to think so. But so do I have a right to make the attempt, being as old and (hopefully) wise as I am. In addition to getting on, I am also a born Austrian and as such always eager to tell a good story. So here goes:

Last October, I had the pleasure of exhibiting my Stockholm pictures from the book "Stockholm/Brussels ..." at a vernissage in Vienna. I am glad to say that this met with great interest. Especially glad am I to have seen so many old friends and relatives at the gallery. The picture below shows the "grand opening" with representatives for the Swedish Embassy, the "Österreichisch-Schwedische Gesellschaft" and the gallery, all praising me with nice welcomes.

Opening of vernissage with my Stockholm pictures in Vienna, October 2018

Inspired by this warm welcoming, I took, in turn, care to talk at great length around the pictures on the wall. The one on top of this blog has always been my favourite, so I went into considerable detail extemporising on the provenance of the bronze horse taking centre stage therein. Afterwards, a young lady was clearly inspired by the presentation and bought the picture straight away, being the very first to acquire a fine print at the exhibition. Hopefully, I have now wetted your appetite for the story behind this horse, since I simply can't resist to let it unroll.

To be precise, the horse in the picture was not originally conceived as a solitaire. Even now, there are two such sculptures standing on Blasieholm Square, in the centre of Stockholm. But there should actually be four horses standing, since the original was cast as an antique quadriga, a four-in-hand team drawing a racing chariot. And we are not talking about just any old four-in-hand, it is the only quadriga preserved from antiquity. You don't believe me? Well, you only have to visit St Mark's Basilica in Venice to see it in all its gilded glory!

The Quadriga of Saint Mark.  Source: Wikimedia

But how did this quadriga wind up in Venice? You may be surprised to hear that its origin is lost in the dawn of history. Investigations of the sculpture, looking at the way the eyes had been cast and the gilding applied, led experts to the presumption that it must have been forged around the turn of the second century AD. It is most plausible that it had been ordered by Emperor Septimius Severus, to embellish the top of his Triumphal Arch in Rome, in celebration of his sizeable military achievements.

The gilding method, in particular, points to the emperor. It concerns a cumbersome and costly procedure, with the labourers involved being condemned to painful disease and certain death. Who but an emperor could order such work?

Triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome. The Quadriga long gone!
Source: Wikimedia

However that may be, the statue would not have remained in Rome for more than a century. In 330 AD, a new Roman Capital was dedicated in the East, called Constantinople after its founder, Emperor Constantine the Great. Constantine put great efforts into getting this new seat of power up to imperial splendour immediately. To that effect, he pilfered sculptures, memorials, prominent obelisques, etc. from all over the Empire to adorn his "Second Rome".

It is therefore plausible that such a prominent sculpture as Septimius Severus' Quadriga would not have remained unmolested on top of Severus' Triumphal Arch. The rebuilt and enlarged Hippodrome in Constantinople had a four-in-hand to show for it on top the Northern facade, with its start boxes. This most probably is Severus' Quadriga.

Restored overview of ancient Constantinople, with the Hippodrome in centre
The quadriga is just about visible on top of the Northern facade.   Artist: Antoine Helbert

The Quadriga throned on the Hippodrome for a whole 900 years! It took a holy cruisade to remove it. To be precise, the Fourth Cruisade got "confused" and plundered, in 1204 AD, Constantinople instead of conquering Jerusalem! The Venetians, led by Doge Enrico Dandolo, participated in the plunder. Dandolo hastened to have the horses dismounted and shipped to Venice as spoils of conquest. There they were put on the facade of Saint Mark's Basilica and are from then on known as "The Horses of Saint Mark".

You may be led to believe that this is the end of the story. Far from it, several events remain to be told. Granted that another 600 years passed by without incident. But, anno 1797 AD, a modern day emperor was in the making. Napoleon had invaded Italy and now occupied Venice. Like a Septimius Severus reborn, he ordered the Quadriga to be moved to Paris, so that it eventually could crown his very own Triumphal Arch on Place Vendôme, known as the "Arc de Triomphe du Carousel".

Military review in front of the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel.
Quadriga on top.  Artiste: Hippolyte Bellangé

But, as we all know, Napoleon's power and glory came to a timely end, about 15 years after this move. Post the Congress of Vienna, Emperor Francis I of Austria, who by then had become sovereign of Venice, ordered the horses to be returned to Saint Mark. And there they have stayed, with the exception of two shorter deviations, an excursion to Rome in WWI and a visit to Padua in WWII.

The Horses of Saint Mark, now residing within the Basilika, to shelter them from atmospheric influences.  Source: Erich Lessing

This about ends my New Year's Retrospection; even if somewhat longer than usual, it still contains, at the very beginning, a short glimpse at my main achievement during 2018! But what about my New Year's Resolutions? Well, I am a senior citizen by now and understand the limits of my free will. What I am able to accomplish, I will of course pursue; but no pledges from my part about activities that I am well aware to be unable to carry out. Instead, permit me to put forward some pious wishes for the future. They concern the fruit of my creative labour. By this I mean, especially, the best of my Stockholm pictures.

These pictures lead a life rather more precarious than my two photographic books. The latter are safely preserved in the Swedish Royal Library, as long as that venerable institution will persist. But the fine prints I am producing will depend on the "kindness of strangers". Only if there are people gracious enough to acquire them and hang them on their wall will they have a life of their own. All I myself can do is to gift them the potential to last of up to a century, if well taken care of by their owners.

So let me wish the acquirers of my fine prints, in particular of the "Venetian Horse on Blasieholmstorg", a long and fruitful life so that they can cosset this creative child of mine. Let the print bring them an understanding of the almost two thousand years of history behind it. Let it induce them to hand it over to their children and them to their children, so that it can last the life span given to it by its creator.

In this spirit, I would like to wish all the dear readers of this blog

A very Happy New Year!