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Spoils of war, the sack of Constantinople

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

In the early 1200s knights from all over Europe came to Venice to meet the doge in charge, Enrico Dandolo, in order to organize a new religious expedition to free Jerusalem from the Muslims.

The doge made an agreement with the crusaders that in return for passage by boat to Jerusalem, they would have first stopped on the way at Constantinople.

With this ploy the fourth crusade never reached its real destination and ended with the sack of Constantinople.

The final result was the transport to Venice of a huge booty of spoils of war including columns, slabs of marble and other famous treasures such as the triumphal quadriga and the tetrarchs.

The reuse of this material can be admired, as the most striking example, in St. Mark’s church.

On its main façade there were once four bronze-copper gilded horses, now kept in its museum. For a long time they were thought to be from the late imperial Roman period but some scholars consider them Greek originals from the third century BC.

They were removed from the hippodrome of Constantinople and were placed on St. Mark’s Loggia as a sign of victory and independence. When Napoleon took them to Paris in the 1800s, Venice was no longer an independent city.state.

Another example of stolen monument fragments are the tetrarchs fixed to a corner of the façade of St. Mark’s church. The sculptural group, in Egyptian red porphyry marble, dates back to the 4th century AD, and they are meant to depict the two Caesars and the two Augustus, members of the first tetrarchy at the time of Diocletian. At that time being the Roman Empire too big it was divided into four parts and each one was assigned to one of them.

The most famous reuse of pieces put together in one whole is the so-called Pala d’Oro, the golden altarpiece, considered one of the most famous still-existing refined works of Byzantine enamels. Dotted with nearly 2000 thousands gems and jewels, it develops two major themes: the life of Jesus and the life of St. Mark. It was just used during important religious festivities and celebrations and turned toward the audience on those occasions. Then it was turned back to its former position.

Walking around in the city it is possible to admire other fragments of spolia but it is really nothing compared to what is preserved in this great and stunning church.

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