by Liese Piper
[student, Rome Sketchbook course, Spring 2012]
A common feature in many monuments in Rome is the horse. Horses are frequently found in monuments celebrating great figures in history or with fountains. A statue of a rider on horseback is known as an equestrian statue, from the latin equus, horse, or eques, rider or knight. In the piazza of the Capitoline hill, the Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue (a copy, the original is in the nearby museum) is considered the prototype for renaissance equestrian statues. The form of rider on horseback was not a new concept and has been represented in Ancient Greece and Egypt as well. It is meant to convey the power and qualities of the subject through it's impressive appearance. In America, there are urban legends about the positioning of the hooves on the statue represtenting how the rider died, but this is not true for all statues and certainly not true for statues before the 19th century in Italy.
Another use of horses in Rome is commonly in fountains. This may seem odd at first because horses are generally not creatures who live in water, but the association of horse and water is connected to ancient mythology.
Water was seen as a boundary between worlds, and horses were vessels able to carry man over boundaries. Therefore, horses were also seen as a connection between life and death. An example of this in literature can be found in the Iliad by Homer, which describes Hector's horses as having "eyes that had the stare of the Gorgon", and illustrates another connection between death and horses. The horses were so fierce that they had death in their eyes as they went into battle. Horses became a connection in the world, across rivers and between life and death. As dangerous instruments of warfare, horses would also be associated with death in this manner. Horses are also closely connected to the God of water, Neptune (Poseidon in greek mythology) as he is saind to have created the first horse as a perfect form to impress and woo Demeter. This explains their appearance in the Bernini Four Rivers fountain in Piazza Navona, and the Trevi fountain, as well as various other fountains throughout Rome.
More portrayals of the horse in Rome are the quadriga on top of the Monument to Victor Emanuel II. The winged personifications of Victory have wings, and so they use chariots as a symbol of power rather than a form of transport. Similarly Helios, the sun god, drives a horse-drawn chariot. Horses represent beauty and power, which can only be tamed by a special kind of person, and the equestrian statue is intended to project this specialness.