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The Horses of San Marco and the Quadriga of the Lord.

Michael Jacoff. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. 64 pls. + xvii + 164 pp. $35.

It has long been recognized that the richly decorated facades of the church of San Marco serve an ideological agenda, celebrating the power and wealth of Venice and glorifying her relationship to her protector, St. Mark. Michael Jacoff's clear and convincing study is, however, ready to challenge this basic assumption. Returning to the problem of the San Marco facades, he identifies the limits of earlier interpretative strategies and offers an alternative approach to the church's exterior program that demonstrates its highly complex nature.

Central to Jacoff's thesis are the four life-size antique bronze horses that became part of San Marco's prominent west side during the thirteenth century. The primary impetus for the restructuring of the facade was, of course, Venice's victory over Byzantium in 1204. The horses, brought back from Constantinople and subsequently made to occupy a dominant position overlooking the piazza were, therefore, a clear statement of the supremacy of the Serenissima. Jacoff maintains, however, that their placement was also affected by another important consideration: the notion of the Quadriga Domini.

During the Middle Ages, the quadriga was the subject of a well-known interpretatio christiana that likened the evangelists (or their Gospels) to a four-horse chariot team, spreading the message of Christ with energy and speed. While the mere presence of the horses cannot be viewed as incontrovertible evidence for the Quadriga Do mini, the works with which they were originally juxtaposed do strongly suggest that such a reference was intended. As Jacoff points out, the immediate background against which the horses were seen was not always comprised of a vast window, but rather, once contained reliefs representing Christ and the four evangelists. Together, these elements would have been a vivid reminder of the chariot of the Lord. Even without an inscription explaining or alluding to the Quadriga Domini, any viewer would have recognized that these components made direct reference to what had become a medieval commonplace. Jacoff is quick to note, however, that in its place on the west facade of San Marco such a composition "should not be read as an abstract doctrinal statement about the Evangelists. For the Venetians, it had a strong immediacy and it would have been seen as a specific and emphatic reminder of Mark's importance as a member of this select group." (42-43) Thus, the saint's privileged status was not only made clear through his placement at Christ's immediate right in the reliefs, but was further emphasized in the accompanying mosaics depicting his life and fate of his relics. As Jacoff demonstrates, these images complimented the Quadriga Domini group and, in fact, formed part of a unified agenda to glorify the Serenissima's patron saint. He contends that "the former sets forth Venice's unique bond to Mark, while the latter proclaims his importance as one of the four authors who carried the word of God to the world" (47-48).

Jacoff makes clear, however, that the decision to place the horses on the west facade was not based on a single factor. Of significance too, was the fact that the horses were a symbol both of the power and grandeur of Imperial Rome and of Venice herself. Asserting that the horses "can now be seen to epitomize the inextricable blending of the sacred and the secular that pervades so much of the adornment of San Marco" (110), Jacoff offers a provocative interpretation of one the icons of Western culture and in the process, increases our understanding of the reuse of Roman statuary.
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Carabell, Paula
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Words:591
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