The Horses on St Mark’s Basilica’s Terrace: Replicas or Art Works?

Jun 5, 2020art, famous characters, history, sculpture0 comments

 

In 1982 on the balcony of St Mark’s church four brand new horses in gilded bronze replaced four horses that had been there for centuries. It was the result of a long, complicated work stemming from the urgent need to replace the ancient quadriga.

Even if not everyone agrees, some say the ancient horses are already 1800 years old. In the early 1970s the sulphuric pollution in the air was attacking them in depth. It was calculated that every time it heavily rained, the thin gold leaf decorating the copper they are made of — correct, not bronze as tin or lead are present in very tiny percentage — was peeling off at the rate of 10 square centimetres.

St Mark’s Basilica, the ancient Quadriga, detail of the heads, Venice

St Mark’s Basilica, the ancient Quadriga, detail of the heads, Venice

 

The ancient quadriga

Taken from Constantinople, head of the Roman Eastern Empire, during the sack in 1204 and brought to Venice, the four horses in gilded copper became a symbol of Venice and its power. In 1797 they were looted by General Bonaparte and located in front of the Louvre Museum on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris, till 1815 when that same general, by then Emperor Napoleon, lost everything.

Ready to use rifles to shoot against Parisians uprising to keep them in Paris, the Hapsburg army helped our “monument man”, Antonio Canova, bring the horses back to Venice with other spoils and placed them on the balcony where they stood till 1977.

The Battaglia Fine Art Foundry in Milan

The company in charge for the replicas was the Battaglia Fine Art Foundry (Fonderia Artistica Battaglia) in Milan. The company still exists: https://www.fonderiabattaglia.com and since 1913 it has excelled in the lost-wax casting manufacture.

On the terrace of St Mark’s Basilica, Battaglia Fine Art Foundry in Milan, detail of the hoof of one of the horses’ replicas, 1978, Venice

On the terrace of St Mark’s Basilica, Battaglia Fine Art Foundry in Milan, detail of the hoof of one of the horses’ replicas, 1978, Venice

They were very kind to reply to my questions and send me all the information they had. Unfortunately, none of the people who worked on those replicas is still there to tell us their story. And apparently foundry workers seem to keep little trace of their work in the archives.

How the Battaglia foundry workers made the replicas

Even if it was not possible to talk to the foundry workers, it is pretty clear that what they did was not easy. If you want to make a good replica, you need to know very well what you are making a replica of. So, how were the horses’ heads and legs originally positioned? And the collars? Find yourself the differences between this mosaic piece likely dated back to 1265 on the facade of St Mark’s church and the painting by Gentile Bellini in 1496 at the Accademia Galleries:

Door of St Alipio, Façade of St Mark’s Basilica, ca. 1265, Mosaics’ detail, Venice

Door of St Alipio, Façade of St Mark’s Basilica, ca. 1265, Mosaics’ detail, Venice

 

Gentile Bellini, Procession in St Mark’s square during Corpus Domini festivity, 1496, Accademia Galleries, Venice

Gentile Bellini, Procession in St Mark’s square during Corpus Domini festivity, 1496, Accademia Galleries, Venice

Nowadays technologies for lost-wax sculpture have improved and foundry workers may use 3D scanners or a special silicon rubber, which help achieve a very detailed replica of metal statues. In the 1970s instead, the technique used was very similar to what artists were using centuries ago. Artists of the kind of Benvenuto Cellini or even the ones that created the most celebrated Riace Bronzes, otherwise called Riace Warriors.

Foundry workers at Battaglia started making a plaster cast. But as they could not start from a mould, they had to pin down fixed points from the ancient work to create the plaster copy. A cage in iron threads and bars was first built and then layers of straw and plaster were applied. With the help of a pantograph, the fixed points were repositioned on the model so to create a geometrically faithful reproduction. Using a special liquid gelatine (now replaced by silicon rubber) to create a hollow model, wax was then cast making sure the thickness would be the same of the final bronze statue.

More details in lost-wax casting manufacture

To be more precise, here are the basic steps.

First, in order to create a model in wax, the model was covered in clay. On top of the clay two shells in plaster were created. Then, clay was carefully removed and the two shells were merged together with the model inside. Third, liquid gelatine was cast where clay used to be. Once gelatine hardened, a 5-millimetre thick layer of red coloured wax was placed within the gelatine-made mould.

It took days to prepare the moulds melting the wax. And finally bronze could be cast where wax had been. Just like when you make a bell, the moulds were put under the ground so to resist the high metallostatic pressure of melted bronze.

One of the modern horses in bronze standing on the terrace of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

One of the modern horses in bronze standing on the terrace of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Which ones do you prefer? The replicas of the four horses or the ancient ones?

Replicas are the one slightly different from the others, and they don’t faithfully report what incidentally changed the ancient statues. They are made of an alloy of copper, tin, zinc and traces of lead. Intentionally not gilded all over as the ancient ones.

Contrasting with the Bell Tower, one of the modern horses in bronze standing on the terrace of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Contrasting with the Bell Tower, one of the modern horses in bronze standing on the terrace of St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Wow. It may be that your emotions, looking at the replicas, are different from what you feel like when you look at the ancient sculptures. Maybe you will find the horses standing outside less refined. But first they sacrifice themselves so you can enjoy the ancient ones. Second, they are hand-made and are for sure the result of Italian excellence, not just in technology, but in artistic sensitivity, too.

Luisella Romeo
Best Venice Guides
www.seevenice.it

Translations: Deutsch Italiano