On 17 July 1204 the Venetian naval fleet broke through the sea wall fortifications of Constantinople, setting the city on fire and marking the conclusion of an episode of the Fourth Crusade .

By Jean Marie Carey

On 17 July 1204 the Venetian naval fleet broke through the sea wall fortifications of Constantinople, setting the city on fire and marking the conclusion of an episode of the Fourth Crusade. The armed invasion convened by Pope Innocent III from 1202 had as its aim the conquering of Jerusalem. In an effort to gain access to trade routes as well as military advantage, the Western European crusaders instead became sidetracked, engaged in a battle with the capital city of the Eastern Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. 

Condemned even at the time for its scale of violence, pillaging, and desecration, the Sack of Constantinople(now Istanbul) created an uneasy milestone at the intersection of art and history. Some of the most beloved monuments in contemporary Venice are spolia from Byzantium, while others artworks commemorating the event are canonical masterworks.

The Four Horses of St. Mark’s Basilica, also called the Triumphal Quadriga, are antiquities originally from 4th Century Rome. The statue group was displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. In order to ship the horses to Venice, their heads were severed, and the collars were added to obscure where they had been cut. The horses were installed on the terrace of the façade of St. Mark’s in 1254. The Venetians themselves saw the horses looted by Napoleon in 1787; they were returned in 1815. The originals are now housed inside the Basilica, replaced by more durable copies on the façade.

The porphyry sculpture of the Four Tetrarchs, c. 305 (Diocletian, Maximianus, Galerius and Constantius), inimitably associated with Venice, was taken from the Philadelphion palace and was also relocated to St. Mark’s Basilica.

The Republic of Venice continued as a naval power through the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, the city’s unique architecture and ambiance owing much to contact with the Mideast and its neighbors along the Adriatic.


Byzantine Bowl, 9th century; mountings, 10th century; reworked 15th century. The Treasury of San Marco, Venice. Photo from the Scala Archives, New York City.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Capture of Constantinople in 1204, c.1580-1605, currently in the Great Council Hall, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Four Horses of St. Mark‘s Basilica,Piazza San Marco, Venice. Photo from the Scala Archives, New York City.

Topographical Map of Constantinople in the Byzantine Period. From Wikimedia Commons.

La Conquête de Constantinople, MS. Laud Misc. 587, Geoffroi de Villehardouin, Venice. c. 1330. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, England.

The “Rubens” Vase, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, Nr. 42562. Carried off as treasure after the sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade in 1619, the vase was purchased by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs (Diocletian, Maximianus, Galerius and Constantius, c. 305), St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading

The Dumbarton Oaks Papers

The University of Chicago’s The Sack of Constantinople

Jonathan Phillips, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople. New York: Viking, 2004.


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