Looking for the Tetrarchs: Venice & Antiquity, and the antiquity of Venice’s History

©Seetal Kalsi, 2015

I have just finished my degree in Ancient HIstory, and after having studied the Tetrarchy (‘rule of four’) in my third year of university,  seeing the statue of the four Tetrarchs was at the top of my list of ‘things to see’. So I took some time off working at the EM15 Pavillion to hunt them down. However, finding the statue of the Tetrarchs in Venice proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. As far as directions went – I had just scribbled down ‘Piazza San Marco’ and expected to see them surrounded by picture-taking tourists, so I could identify where they were – yet, no such luck. As it turns out, the statue is found tucked away near the original entrance to the Doge’s Palace (the Porta della Carta) . The platform they rest on offers a seat to a visitor to Piazza San Marco with a view of the square as well as the beautiful old entrance. Yet, here lies the rub, after visiting Piazza San Marco almost daily in our two week stay in Venice, never once did we see anyone who knew the significance of whom they were sitting next to/on whilst chomping down on a panino. A large part of Venice’s, indeed Italy’s, appeal lies in the ability to walk wherever with no set plan or aim and find history around the corner. But this does mean that a great deal of what there is to see in Venice remains invisible to most tourists, with deeper levels of meaning, and deeper levels of history only accessible to the few. The tetrarchs are a case in point.

©Seetal Kalsi, 2015

The tetrarchy are historically significant because the initiator of the ‘rule of four’ – Diocletian, changed the way the Roman Empire was ruled. Diocletian was aware that the empire had grown far too large to be governed by one man alone when confronted by the failures of the emperors of the third century. Diocletian instead chose three other men, based on merit rather than relation to himself, to rule alongside him. The empire was to be split into east and west; both ruled by two emperors, a junior ‘Caesar’ and a senior ‘Augustus’. Modern historians view this maverick leadership innovation as immensely significant as it brought an end to the Third Century Crisis and moved the Empire into a period of recovery.
It is believed that this statue depicts the four rulers: Diocletian, his co-Augustus Maximian and the two Caesars: Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. The Tetrarchs are carved out of porphyry, a purple stone kept only for imperial use (purple material was symbolic of the emperorship). It is strikingly obvious that the four mirror each other very closely, in fact you would be hard pressed to identify who was who in this grouping as no individual features are apparent; their military dress is uniform and they are all of equal size. It appears there was an intentional effort to suppress any individuality amongst the emperors, presenting them instead as one body. The four emperors are shown to have adopted similar postures; all are in identical military dress with left hands grasping their swords and right arms around their co-ruler’s shoulders. This appears to me to have intended to convey the message that the strength of their rule was in their unity and solidarity. Similarity in their representation was intended to suggest equality of the rulers, which was basic to political philosophy, and was chiefly used to protect the Tetrarchs from usurpation attempts that often resulted from a perception of weakness of the current rulers. Therefore Imperial portraiture was utilised to communicate to the masses, most of whom would never see or encounter the emperors at all, the strength and unity of the four rulers. Indeed the panegyrist Mamertinus comment confirms how contemporaries who wrote of Diocletian and Maximianus perceived this unity: ‘It is precisely because of your similarity (similitudo) that you continually increase in concord’.
It seems pertinent at this point to question why exactly we find a statue of Roman Emperors in Venice, rather than in Constantinople from where this statue originates. Venice was originally founded in A.D. 421, and over the centuries, and especially following the Conquest of Constantinople in 1204, there came a massive appropriation- some say looting!- of Byzantine art. It could be suggested that this was an act of ‘self-fashioning’, or, as Patricia Fortini Brown argues in her book Venice and Antiquity, an act of appropriating and borrowing a past that was more akin, and in keeping with the history on the mainland. It also signals an attempt by Venice to claim superiority over Constantinople, and as one city was on the wane, the other rose to become ‘Queen of the Adriatic’. And this meant in some cases literally taking the signifiers of rule and transplanting them (think of the famous Quadriga, the Horses, for example). In a sense it is apparent from the creation of this façade of a history that there was a desire to form an identity that was in-line with the mainland, i.e. that Venice too had ‘classical foundations’.

Interestingly, self-identity in Venice has seemingly evolved away from invoking a classical past –  having witnessed for myself that nobody amongst the many tourists flocking to Piazza San Marco knew the significance of these historical heavyweights, leads me to believe that Venice no longer looks to define herself through these fabricated classical foundations. Nor is Venice famous any more as the world’s largest exporter of boats, as it was during the Crusades. Instead, it appears that Venice would be hard-pressed to define herself outside of a tourist destination – which is not intrinsically a bad thing, although most disgruntled Venetian natives would disagree with me.

Seetal Kalsi


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