Just outside Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice is where I first noticed them. I could hardly believe my eyes. Could this actually be the Portrait of the Four Tetrachs? No, the sculpture must have been some kind of reproduction. Surely, the public would not be allowed so close to such a historic antiquity. Tourists devouring gelato were almost leaning on the sculpture. They seemed utterly oblivious to what was right beside them. No one other than me was taking photos of the sculpture. And getting a photo was not easy, as milling tourists wandered past. It was hard to blame the masses for their ignorance, there was so much else to see in and around the Piazza San Marco. The Gothic infused spires of the basilica caught the eye as they shot skyward, an architectural fantasia. Then there was the thick, rangy shadow cast by the towering Campanile. And the otherworldly symmetry of the Doge’s palace was barely a stone’s throw away. With all this architecture, all this culture, all this civilization why should anyone notice a little four foot three inch tall sculpture consisting of two pairs of long forgotten Roman emperors embracing each other. When something as historically important as the Portrait of the Four Tetrachs is dwarfed by the surrounding magnificence, it tells you something about the greatness of Venice. Nonetheless, the sculpture is worth studying in its own right. It provides not only a commentary on a failed Roman political experiment, but also on the history of Venice itself.
Who were the Tetrachs, what does this sculpture represent and why was something nine hundred years past its prime brought to Venice? The Tetrachs came about quite simply because of the creation of a system of leadership known as the Tetrachy. Prepare yourself, because that’s about the only simple thing that can be said for this experiment in dual leadership. By the late 3rd century, the Roman Empire was trying to recover from a crisis that had lasted for fifty years. By one account there were forty-nine emperors (or at least that many who proclaimed themselves as such) between the years 235 to 284 AD. Many of these were pretenders struggling to gain the throne and an almost certain death sentence that went with it.
The crisis finally subsided with the accession to the throne of the Emperor Diocletian. His rule, which would last for twenty-one years, provided a stabilizing influence for the empire. Just two years after coming to power, in the year 286, Diocletian decided to appoint a co-Emperor, Maximian. This was done in order to try and get a handle on an empire that stretched from the deserts of Syria to the moors of northern Britain. It was extremely difficult for any one emperor to handle all its problems, especially if there were wars on two fronts, spread hundreds if not thousands of miles apart. Furthermore, in case of disaster or treachery there would now be a legitimate successor to the throne as Diocletian did not have a son. Diocletian was to handle the Eastern portion of the empire, while Maximian was placed in charge of the West.
In 293 AD Diocletian expanded this idea with the creation of the Tetrarchy or rule of four. There would not only be two senior emperors, who were known as Augusti, but there would now also be two junior emperors as well with each known as a Caesar. Diocletian chose Galerius and Constantius Chlorus respectively for the east and west. This was seen as a workable system at the time, mainly because Diocletian was well respected by all the other emperors. In 305 Diocletian and Galerius retired and the two Caesars rose to Augusti, the choices for junior emperors cut out Constantius’ son Constantine from the succession. The soldiers Constantine was leading at the time proclaimed him emperor. Before long, there were several others claimants for the throne as well. To make a long story short, the whole thing descended into chaos. Multiple civil wars ensued, with the upshot that Constantine would finally emerge triumphant. In 313, just twenty years after it started, the Tetrarchy was abolished. Diocletian’s system had failed.
The Tetrarchy was a prominent event in ancient history, but one would not expect it to leave a physical legacy. Yet this unique system also left a unique piece of art which still today transmits the ideas of that time and system. The Portrait of the Tetrarchs is a history lesson sculpted in stone. First there is the stone itself, porphyry. It came from Egypt where it had been used in sculpture by empires since the time of the great Pharaohs. The stone which is a dark purple was known as the color of royalty. The material is not fragile or easily eroded unlike the Tetrarchy it represents. The sculpture was a consciously symbolic effort to show the Tetrarchy as an ideal that would stand the test of time.
The representations of the emperors on the Portrait of the Tetrarchs are nearly identical, to the point that with the exception of the beards worn by the senior emperor of each pair, there is no difference in them whatsoever. Their dress, posture and expressions are the antithesis of individualism which had heretofore dominated the world of Roman sculpture. The conforming style is a way of showing unity and determination. It represents the Tetrarchs as indivisible from one another. It is a system that exists precisely because of their unity and equality. The most striking feature of the Portrait may well be the four pairs of identical eyes with trance like stares. They communicate an eerie stoicism. It is not so much that they are looking at you; it is more like they are looking through you. Another intriguing aspect of the sculpture is how the representations are the antithesis of the usual classical style. Some commentators have opined that this is because the crisis of the third century had disrupted or destroyed the transmission of classical art styles into the era of the Tetrarchy. There may be some truth in this, but the sculpture also seems to represent a transformation in both style and substance. The portrait shows that a watershed has been crossed, from antiquity to late antiquity.
There is one thing missing though in the experience of viewing the statue in Venice. We can never see the Portrait in its original context. What we do know is that in 1204 the Crusaders sacked Constantinople. During that tragic event, the Venetians did not take part in wanton destruction the way the Crusaders did. Instead, they practiced a modicum of self-restraint. They spent their time clinically removing valuable art and treasures that were then carried back to Venice where it would adorn the city. The Venetians did not just make out like bandits, they were bandits. The sculpture is believed to have been at the entrance to the Philadelphion in Constantinople. The two pairs of emperors were attached to separate, but adjacent columns. How fitting that they were placed at an entrance. It is a show of power, unity and harmony. In Venice they were also placed at an entrance, in this case to the Doge’s Palace. Were they a warning? A form of intimidation? Did the Venetians want to showcase this prize of conquest? Perhaps they wanted to provoke reverence or solemnity? Maybe it was a complex mixture of all of these together. The Portrait certainly communicates power and presence.
What does that tell us about Venice? To some it means that the Venetians, were mere thieves, advancing their empire at the expense of another. Then again, are not all empires guilty of such acts. The Venetians wanted to connect themselves with the traditions of the Roman Empire. They also wanted through theft, imitation or exploitation to co-opt the greatness of Byzantium. Imitation after all is the sincerest form of flattery. And the statue is not the only Byzantine influence one will find in Venice, it is everywhere. When they didn’t steal, they copied. Byzantium lives on in the art and architecture of Venice today, just as the Roman Empire lived on in Byzantium. In a sense all history is an amalgamation for better or worse of the past.
I came into contact with this past in the shadow of St. Mark’s Basilica. This is where I felt the singular presence of these identically sculpted figures. Those emperors, arms around each other, hand to the hilt of their swords, abstract and remote looked right through me at something distant and deeper. Maybe they were looking at their enemies. Maybe they were looking at themselves.