What is a quadriga?

by Kristin Berkery

Chariot racing is believed to be the first Olympic sport in ancient Rome, as well as the only sport in the original Olympiad that was not performed in the nude. To simplify control for the driver, only two-horse chariots, called bigas, were used in battle. However, chariots featuring more than two horses were often found in competition.

One of the most common teams used in ancient chariot racing was the quadriga, or four-horse chariot. The quadriga is often found in artwork on vases, friezes (bas relief sculptures on the fronts of ancient buildings), and as statues adorning bridges or arches. Ancient Romans believed the sun was the god Apollo driving a quadriga across the sky each day.

The oldest surviving quadriga, the Triumphal Quadriga, stood at the Hippodrome of Constantinople and may be around 1,700 years old. Although it’s called a quadriga, it does not include a chariot and driver. It was moved to St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice in the 13th century, where it remained until Napoleon ordered that it be sent to Paris to stand at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel near the Louvre for about 15 years.

The ancient Triumphal Quadriga displayed inside the museum of St. Mark's Basilica.

After Napoleon’s defeat it was returned to St. Mark’s Basilica until the 1980s, when air pollution was taking its toll on the ancient sculpture. The original Triumphal Quadriga was moved inside the basilica museum and replaced outside by an exact copy.

The Brandenburg Gate quadriga in Berlin. The Iron Cross near the top is a symbol of Prussian rule. Image by א (Aleph) from the Wikimedia Commons

Many other quadrigas can be found around the world, most of which are based on the Triumphal Quadriga. One of the most famous is on the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which Napoleon also took to Paris around the same time as the Triumphal Quadriga. The Brandenburg quadriga was returned to Berlin after Napoleon’s defeat where it became a symbol of Prussian rule and later the Nazi political machine. Newly renovated, the Brandenburg quadriga can still be seen in its original location.

When the Triumphal Quadriga was returned to Venice in 1815, it was replaced atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel by another similar quadriga with a chariot driven by the angel of peace and flanked by two winged victories.

The quadriga atop the Wellington Arch in London. Photo by ChrisO in the Wikimedia Commons

The Wellington Arch in London is topped by the largest bronze sculpture in Europe, a quadriga created in 1912. It depicts the angel of peace descending into the chariot of war and the horses are being lead by a young boy who was modeled after the son of Lord Michelham, a wealthy philanthropist who funded the sculpture. (Lord Michelham was also famous for having bred the great racing broodmare Plucky Liege, who is said to be found in the pedigree of every great racehorse.)

There is also a quadriga on the front of the Bolshoi Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia; atop the Grand Army Plaza in New York City; above the entrance of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul; and two quadrigas appear on the Wayne County Building in Detroit, Michigan.

The Buddy Bear Quadriga in Berlin. Photo by Dorisrieck

Quadrigas don’t always feature horses. In particular, Germans seem to like using other animals in their chariot statues. The quadriga on the top of the opera house in Dresden features panthers; the Quadriga of the Siegestor in Munich has lions, and the Buddy Bear Quadriga in western Berlin has, you guessed it, bears pulling a chariot driven by another bear.

Below is a video with a pictorial history of the Triumphal Quadriga, also known as the Horses of St. Mark’s.

Leonardo’s Horse: A Dream 500 Years in the Making

Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

Da Vinci’s dream of a 24-foot-tall horse statue took 500 years to become reality.

by Kristin Berkery

American Horse in Grand Rapids, Michigan

The American Horse statue at Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Photo by Michael Reed


Around 1482, the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to create the largest bronze horse statue in the world. Not only did its sheer size make it a tremendous challenge for da Vinci, but the artist was also busy creating The Last Supper and working on a variety of other projects for his patrons.


A 24-foot-tall clay model of the horse statue, named Gran Cavallo, was unveiled in 1493. Over the previous 10 years, da Vinci had been busy collecting 58,000 pounds of tin and copper for the eventual casting of the sculpture, but a French invasion put his plans on hold. The tin and copper were made into cannons and the huge clay model was destroyed in 1499 by French soldiers. Da Vinci fled Milan, reportedly with a broken heart at knowing his great horse would never be made.


One of da Vinci's early sketches of the Gran Cavallo statue.

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Nearly 500 years later, an American retired airline pilot named Charles C. Dent read the story of “Leonardo’s horse” in a 1977 issue of National Geographic and was inspired to make the enormous statue a reality. His dream was to create the world’s largest bronze horse statue, which he named Il Cavallo, and give it to the city of Milan. He sought donations and advice from various scholars on whether the full-size statue was feasible. In 1982, he established the nonprofit Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse Inc. to ensure the project’s completion.


Dent died in 1994 but the project continued to move forward. A new sculptor, Nina Akamu, was brought in to create a new eight-foot-tall master model in 1997. Billionaire Frederik Meijer (of Meijer supermarket fame) got involved around that time and offered to finance the creation of an identical statue that would remain in the U.S. It was agreed that the copy, called American Horse, would stand in the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Meijer’s financial contribution helped to ensure that the entire project, including the statue to be given to Italy, would be a success.

American Horse in Grand Rapids, Michigan

American Horse
Photo by Michael Reed

The first 24-foot statue was unveiled in Milan, Italy, on September 10, 1999 — exactly 500 years after da Vinci’s first clay sculpture was destroyed by invading French troops. The second horse was presented to the public at Meijer Gardens on October 7, 1999. The only difference between the two sculptures is that the Italian version stands on a marble base.
The project cost about $2.5 million and took 500 years and countless people to come to fruition.
Vital statistics on the American Horse:

  • 24 feet tall at the highest point
  • weighs 15 tons
  • made of silicon bronze, alloy #872
  • engineered to withstand high winds and earthquakes
A 12-foot bronze replica was dedicated to Charles Dent on October 5, 2002, in Dent’s hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania. An eight-foot statue was given to the city of Vinci, Italy, the hometown of Leonardo da Vinci, and another eight-foot statue can be seen at the Sculpture Education Center at Meijer Gardens. An eight-foot fiberglass copy travels around the country to promote the project and the friendship between the U.S. and Italy. Blue M&M Mug & Personalized MY M&M'S
Blue M&M Mug & Personalized MY M&M’S

In all, the project cost about $2.5 million and took 500 years and countless people to come to fruition. The result is the world’s largest horse sculpture and a truly majestic sight. To see photos of all the statues from the Leonardo’s Horse project, visit Travelogue of an Armchair Traveller. Learn about the project’s creation and view a slide show of photos at Da Vinci Science Center.


Whistlejacket, the $18 Million Horse

Mares and Foals Disturbed by an Approaching Storm by George Stubbs

by Kristin Berkery

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs

The Whistlejacket painting by George Stubbs

Most horselovers have seen the iconic Whistlejacket. It’s a unique piece of art for its size — a stunning 9-1/2 feet tall by 8 feet wide — and its lack of background. Some art enthusiasts have surmised that the painting was unfinished and another artist or two were intended to add a background, but the general consensus is that the painting was meant to look just the way it does. The shadows near Whistlejacket’s back hooves seem to indicate that the portrait is finished.

The artist, George Stubbs (1724-1806), was so fascinated by equine physiology that he performed numerous dissections of horses and posed the cadavers in different ways so he could understand how the equine body moves. A close study of Whistlejacket reveals that Stubbs captured the horse’s veins, muscles, and imperfections along with his intensity and athleticism.
Whistlejacket, 1762
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In 1762, Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham and later a two-term British Prime Minister, commissioned Stubbs to create portraits of some of his racehorses, including Whistlejacket. The Rockingham family kept the painting of Whistlejacket until 1997 when the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square in London purchased it for £11 million, or almost $18 million.


Foaled in 1749, Whistlejacket was sired by Mogul, a son of the Godolphin Arabian, and he was also descended from the Byerly Turk and the Bloody-Shouldered Arabian. A successful racehorse, Whistlejacket was famous for having lost only four races in his six-year career. He was a spirited and difficult horse, and one legend says that the real Whistlejacket was furious when he saw the painting in progress.

The Godolphin Arabian by Stubbs

The Godolphin Arabian portrait by Stubbs. The Godolphin Arabian was the grandsire of Whistlejacket.

George Stubbs was well-known for his 18th century paintings of horses and other animals. Even today equine artists study his drawings from The Anatomy of the Horse (1766) to learn about equine physiology. Some of his other famous paintings include the Godolphin Arabian and Horse Attacked by a Lion.

By the way, the name “Whistlejacket” came from an 18th century cold remedy containing gin and sugar syrup.

You can learn more about Whistlejacket at and research the stallion’s sire line at Thoroughbred Bloodlines.