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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Athens in Venice: Conquest and Casts

In 1204 four gilded bronze Greek horses (c.4thC BCE) from Constantinople were removed during the fourth crusade of 1204 by crusading Venetians. The conquest and subsequent looting of the Byzantine (and Orthodox) capital by Catholic Crusaders is well known. Replica horses now stand on the main dome above the entrance of St Marks, while the originals are inside and exposed to the gaze of streams of tourists rather than the weather. They are one of the earliest known examples of conquest and looting of art in European history. I have written elsewhere about the 1590s aesthetic and political celebration in the Doges Palace of the catastrophic (for the Byzantines) expedition. As if to underline that conquest equals looting, Napoleon removed the horses to Paris when he conquered Venice in 1797. They were returned after his final exile in 1815 when the Vienna Congress saw the Austrians govern Venice and its provinces.

A large church with cross outside - St marks Venice
Exterior of St Mark's Basilica, Venice.

What is less well known is the removal of two lions from Piraeus and marble from Athens by Francesco Morosini during a Venetian raid on Athens during the Morean War against the Ottoman Empire in 1688. Today the short conquest of Athens by Venice is best known for them blowing up the Parthenon, where the Ottoman garrison on the Acropolis stored their gun powder. Morosini did attempt to take pediment sculpture of the horses and chariot of Poseidon and Athene but they smashed to the floor.

A fortress by water with 4 marble lions and a gate.
Entrance to the Arsenale, Venice

A group of four lions sit by the triumphal arch of the Arsenale of Venice today, the smaller two are older (6thC BCE) and likely to come from the island of Delos, while the two larger ones from Piraeus. The Porta Magna dates from 1460 and uses recycled Greek columns, Byzantine capitals and statuary. The allegorical figures on the railings are from two centuries later and believed to be carved from marble taken from Athens. The Arsenale itself was the site and symbol of the Venetian naval power and ship building, which enabled them to trade and at times control this trade in the Eastern Mediterranean for over six centuries.

dark haired white woman next to a sculpted lion
Next to the lion from Piraeus at the Arsenale in 2006.

When I first visited Venice in 2006, the Porta Magna was shrouded in scaffolding and I could walk right up to these lions. Given the blackened crevices of the lion on my 2006 photo, it looks likely that they have all since been conserved and cleaned as well as the arch. The lions still sit outside the gates but you can

White old woman in front of a sculpted lion
Me in front of a lion (sculpted)

no longer touch them easily. At the time I wrote in my travel journal that it seemed an unlikely setting for these looted felines since, being outside a working naval base, they are almost lost among the other sights of this much visited city. Yet now I see that they are situated perfectly as the Arsenale represents the power of trade, military conquest and plunder.

The lion sitting upright on the left to the entrance has a runic inscription from when Norse mercenaries were defending Athens for the Byzantines in the 11thC CE and the one lying down on the right bears a resemblance to the lion of Cnidus, now in the British Museum. It was a similarity that archaeologist Charles Thomas Newton noticed too, when visiting Venice on his way to be Consul of Rome in 1859.* (He had been told about the lions by his friend and writer John Ruskin, who knew Venice intricately).

Writing to his mentor Antonio Panizzi – Principal Librarian of the British Museum – on 29 October, Newton said that the three lions in front of the Arsenale are the same style of sculpture as the Cnidian lion. He noted that there should be casts made and said he would write to Cole (Henry Cole, then Director of the South Kensington Museum) with a photograph to make the case that they [casts] should be at Crystal Palace and South Kensington:

‘The fact that the Venetian Lion came from Athens makes it more probable that the Cnidian Lion was enacted to commemorate the Athenian Victory of Conon as Colonel Leake and I supposed.’

 Newton later took a cast of one of the lion’s foot, the one which he felt most closely resembled the Cnidian lion, and noted that it was half an inch longer.**

Athens is also represented by casts in Venice. I was taken by surprise to find a cast of a metope from the Parthenon as I entered the basement of the Galleria Dell’ Accademia. It was, I read, a cast from the newly acquired Elgin Collection in the British Museum and given by the Prince Regent to Leopoldo Cicognara, the Director of the Accademia, when he visited London in 1819. Cicognara opened the Accademia up to the public and had one of the most substantial libraries on art, the catalogue of which is now digitised. It included drawings of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum (incidentally the same that is also in the Portico Library Manchester). This cast represents one of many made by the museum after the purchase in 1816 and the gift represents the soft power of the British state based on the hard power of naval military might – arguably much like the Venetians a century or so earlier.


*Letters to A. Panizzi from Charles Thomas Newton. British Library ADD 36720, f. 274

Genoa via Venice, Oct 29 1859.

** Newton, A History II (1863), p. 498.


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