'He strikes the eye with a shock'

"How the horse dominated the mind of the early races, especially of the Mediterranean! You were a lord if you had a horse. Far back, far back in our dark soul the horse prances. . . . The horse, the horse! The symbol of surging potency and power of movement, of action in man," wrote D. H. Lawrence in "Apocalypse."

The domesticated horse first appeared in the Mediterranean around the second millenium. The Greeks believed that the horse was a gift of Poseidon, the god of the sea. As Lawrence's rhapsodic prose suggests, the horse staked out in man's psyche a position of mythic significance and figured in history, legend, and literature, not merely as a means of locomotion but as a supernatural force. Even Broadway acknowledges the horse -- cf. "Equus" and "Strider."

If one were to single out the epitome of equanimity, the horse currently installed in the Lehman wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art would certainly win the prize, or at least a quarter of it. He and three nearly identical steeds are the fabled four horses of San Marco, which from their perch on the loggia of the basilica of San Marco have embodied for Venice since 1204 a symbol of triumph and glory. Prior to that time nothing is known of the horses except that they were attached to an ancient bronze quadriga or four-horse chariot. In modern times they have become the four horses of the apocalypse, victims of the air pollution that shrouds Venice.

Perhaps the only felicitous consequence of the pollution is this exhibition, "The Horses of San Marco," which comprises one of the horses and approximately 100 related paintings, sculptures, drawings, reliefs, mosaics, medallions, and ceramics primarily from the classical period and the Renaissance, could take place. Paolo Viti, director of cultural relations for Olivetti, which sponsored the show, lamented, "The pollution in this century has destroyed more of the horses than the sea air in seven centuries." To restore them and protect them from further damage the horses have been taken down from the loggia to shelter indoors -- a variation on locking the barn door after the horse is stolen -- and will be replaced with reproductions.

The horse that is the raison d'etre for this exhibition stands in the rotunda facing the entrance to the Lehman wing where Ingres's pristine portrait of the Princess de Broglie normally hangs. He strikes the eye with a shock, an apparition from antiquity. Unmounted, he is no mere extension of his rider, as are so many horses in art, but an incarnation of grace, elegance, and dignity -- the ultimate in horsepower.

One hoof delicately raised, the head cocked to one side, the lips parted, he seems caught in motion, animated like an Eadweard Muybridge photograph, even though, according to Augusto Azzaroli who wrote one of the several catalog essays pertaining to the horses, "no actual movement of a walking horse reproduces at any moment the exact position of the Venetian horses' limbs."

The horses of San Marco are idealizations not only of the horse's physical attributes but of his aura, which is one of an ineffable wisdom emanating from those eloquent eyes. Even the ancients seemed to recognize that these horses were special, for they are the only bronze horses from antiquity, along with the famous Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, to be found "under the sun, " according to Mr. Viti. All the others, except those which escaped by burial underground, were melted down because the bronze was so valuable.

Adding to their mystique is the mystery of their origin. Like the Trojan horse, they carry their secret inside them. Scholars attribute the quadriga to Greece or Rome anywhere between the fourth century B.C. and the fourth century A.D. Our first definite information about the horses is not until 1204 when Doge Enrico Dandolo, leader of the Venetians during the Fourth Crusade, seized the horses from the hippodrome in Constantinople, the ancient racecourse next to Santa Sophia, and brought them back to Venice as booty. There they were installed on a specially constructed loggia between the two central arches of the basilica facade.

They remained inviolate until 1797 when yet another horse thief, Napoleon Bonaparte by name, rustled them off to Paris from whence they returned in 1815. They have been removed three times in this century, however, not for purposes of plunder but protection from the two world wars and now from pollution.

In comparing them horse with his peers in this exhibition, it is easy even for the untutored eye to detect resemblances -- with the "colossal" bronze head from first- or second-century Rome, for example -- but more impressively, his stubborn uniqueness. Such peculiarities as his composition, an unusually high proportion of copper (98 percent), and his gilt hide scored with deep scratches like a hatched drawing only compound the confusion. The most popular theory about the scoring is that it was intended to reduce the horse's blinding dazzle in the sunlight.

To be fair, one horse does not an exhibition make, and there are others who place in this show, notably Caligula's horse whom the mad emperor named after him and supposedly made a senator, and the reconstruction of the bronze statue of the Emperor Nerva on horseback. The horse's pinched, elongated head echoes his master's, but the twisted mouth, the vacant eyes, and the gnarled forelock suggest a wild woodland sprite. Also captivating are Leonardo's drawings of horses from the Royal Collection at Windsor, the Attic paintings on amphora which distill the horse's lyric grace and attempt to reproduce his movement, the winged, gold lion of San Marco -- that glittering, glowering symbol of the Venetian Republic, who nearly steals the show from the horse.

This exhibition, which appeared previously in Venice and London, will continue through June 1. A complementary show organized by the Met, "Views of Venice," which consists of 50 etchings, engravings, and drawings by Canaletto, Whistler, and Sargent among others, will run through April 6.

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