1815: The Return of the horses of St. Mark in Venice

Commented by: Matilde Cartolari


This painting by the Venetian painter Vincenzo Chilone (1768-1840) represents the Return of the horses of St. Mark in Venice in 1815 (Venice, private collection, oil on canvas, 59 x 84 cm). The bronze horses that decorated the façade of Saint-Mark’s church in Venice were taken to Paris after Napoleon’s conquest in 1797 and returned to their original location following his defeat in 1815.


The bronze horses of Saint-Mark’s church in Venice have a long story of appropriations and dispossessions. Taken as war-booty from Constantinople in 1204, they embodied the power of the Venetian Republic for more than five centuries, before being moved to Paris after the French conquest. Their return to Venice in 1815 was celebrated as an act of munificence and generosity by the restored Austrian government.


Vincenzo Chilone’s painting represents the official ceremony organized in Venice by the Austrian government to welcome the return of the bronze horses of Saint-Mark’s in 1815. The horses are placed in the central axis of the painting, on a wooden platform in front of the main door of Saint-Mark’s church. Above the central archway, an ingenious system formed by two cranes is ready to lift the horses onto the top of the loggia. The authorities observe the ceremony from the smaller loggia adjoining the bell tower on the right, while the crowd is standing below in an orderly fashion and partially seated on the terraces disposed along the right perimeter of the piazza, in a sort of ephemeral theatre built for the occasion.

The solemnity of the ceremony immediately recalls the historical importance of the horses, whose origins date back long before the 19th century. According to the legend, they were made in Greece during the Classical era and transferred to Rome as a gift to the Emperor Nero. Constantine the Great allegedly moved the horses to Constantinople, where the Venetian army looted them during the Fourth Crusade (1204). A few decades after their arrival in Venice, they were installed on the upper loggia of the façade of St. Mark’s Basilica, above the central archway surmounting the main entrance of the building.

Such prominent display on the piazza, which served as the supreme stage for public ceremonials, made the horses a symbol of triumph, splendor and legitimate power of the Venetian Republic. Their legendary provenance testified a process of translatio imperii, namely a symbolic translation of power from antiquity (Greece, Rome and Constantinople/Byzantium) to the present glory of the Venetian Republic. The popularity of the horses grew over the centuries thanks to prints, paintings and accounts given by foreign visitors describing the city and its magnificent artworks.

The iconic status of the bronzes linked them tightly to the destiny of the city itself. After the conquest of Venice in 1797, the Napoleonic troops confiscated the horses and took them to Paris. Once again, their displacement acquired a great symbolical value. The revolutionary ideology legitimated Napoleon’s looting by connecting it to a process of political liberation and democratization of cultural heritage. The arrival of the horses in France, presented as a haven of unchallenged freedom, and thus a more suitable home for these masterpieces, marked a new chapter in their glorious history. As a result, the renowned horses of Saint-Mark’s came to decorate the Arc du Carrousel, a newly built triumphal arch celebrating Napoleon’s military achievements, situated in front of the Tuileries palace (Napoleon’s residence at that time), close to the Louvre.

Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 triggered a process of political restoration accompanied by the claims for the restitution of artworks by those countries that had been dispossessed. The former Republic of Venice would not however recover its independence, conquered by the French in 1797, Napoléon had passed the city to Austrian domination, in exchange for Belgium. However, in 1805, it became part of the Kingdom of Italy of which Napoléon had himself crowned as king. After 1815, Venice and its surrounding territory was re-assigned to the Austrian government, and it was Austria that negotiated the return of its masterpieces. After eighteen years of absence, the Venetian citizens could finally welcome the return of their beloved horses on December 13th, 1815.

Scholarship traditionally described Vincenzo Chilone’s painting as a faithful representation of the ceremony arranged by the Austrian government to celebrate the restitution of the horses. The painting would therefore represent the moment preceding the lifting of the statues to their original position, as narrated by the numerous accounts and poems eternalizing the event. Chilone emphasizes the solemnity of the moment rather than its performativity: static order prevails over movement, and even the soldiers dragging the platform bearing the horses are apparently frozen in their effort. Rather than the enthusiastic welcome of the populace, we immediately perceive the perfect and rational arrangement of the ceremony granted by the Austrian government, whose flags wave prominently on the edge of St. Mark’s loggia and on the right side of the painting.

Upon closer observation, however, we realize that the horses are not the only protagonists of the image. Following the diagonal lines formed by the soldiers in their stiff perspectival rendering, the painter leads our gaze to a view of the lagoon in the background. We notice, then, the presence of a second bronze statue, the winged lion symbolizing St. Mark, standing on a wooden platform surrounded by soldiers. As well as the horses, the lion waits to be lifted back to its original location, which was on top of the column that can be seen on the piazza. The lion, a widely known emblem of Venetian domination, had been confiscated by the French in 1797 together with the horses, but its return took place over one year afterwards, in April 1816.

Despite its seemingly neutral and precise rendering, the painting is in fact a fictitious recreation that merges two different moments in time by representing them in the same space. Such anachronism is the key to fully understanding Chilone’s painting by shifting its meaning from the narrative to the allegorical dimension. The painter does not intend to describe an historical event, but rather to celebrate the political power that allowed the restitutions. By returning to Venice the signs of its political domination, the Austrian government intended to heal the historical trauma that the loss of freedom had created in Venetian collective memory. The lion and the horses, as images of restored dignity and reinstated greatness, reconciled the city with its own history and underlined a rhetorical continuity between the Republic and the Austrian domination. The image expresses the munificent protection of the city’s new rulers allowing Venice to finally reembrace its most valuable symbols.

By transforming a public celebration into an image of hierarchy, authority and peaceful order, Chilone’s painting is a remarkable example of how the displacement of cultural assets and its rhetorical representation could serve as instruments of political legitimization.


Giuseppe Borsato, The arrival of the bronze horses on St. Mark’s Piazzetta, 1817. Oil on canvas (65 x 92 cm). Private collection.

Giuseppe Borsato, The ceremony for the return of the bronze horses in Venice on December 13th, 1815, 1815. Black chalk, pen, grey ink watered in grey (224 x 328 mm). Private collection.

Giuseppe Borsato, The arrival of the bronze horses on St. Mark’s Piazzetta, 1818. Etching (398 x 543 mm). Venice: Museo Correr, Gabinetto dei Disegni e Stampe (P.D. 1428).

Anonymous, Apotheosis of Francis I for the restitution of the Horses to Venice, 1815. Etching (271 x 363 mm). Venice: Museo Correr, Gabinetto dei Disegni e Stampe (P.D. 1428 bis).


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Cite this article as:
1815: The Return of the horses of St. Mark in Venice, commented by 
Matilde Cartolari, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/1815-the-return-of-the-horses-of-st-mark-in-venice, published 16/05/2018.
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