Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Four Tetrarchs

Near St. Mark’s Basilica stands a group of four men. They are unmoving, gazing out at the square with wide eyes. But they are not frozen in awe, struck by the beauty of the landscape before them; they are a single statue, one slab consisting of four bodies. The statue of the “Four Tetrarchs” (also called the “The Tetrarchs”) sits on the south-west corner of the basilica near the former grand entrance to the Doge’s Palace, also known as the Porta della Carta. Before I further describe this work, I’d like to share a story: I have been watching this site for several weeks and have seldom seen tourists looking at the work, much less using it as a photo op. However, when I was here taking pictures the sculpture for my blog, I realized that suddenly many visitors stopped and gazed upon my piece. Some stopped only for a moment, looking first at my camera and then at the sculpture, but nonetheless I noticed a drastic difference in the tourist activity surrounding the work during my visit. I found this humorous and a fine example of the collective tourism that is so popular in our modern era. Many times, people stop and look at what they believe they are supposed to. They must have thought “If someone is eagerly snapping away photograph after photograph of a statue in the Piazza, it must be important!”

The sculpture is crafted from red Egyptian porphyry, a tough purple stone composed of large crystals. The color purple is commonly associated with royalty and throughout history porphyry was typically used for imperial objects and greatly admired for its beauty (Wikipedia). This Roman sculpture is dated to the 4th century and was taken from Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade when Venice conquered Byzantium. In his book “Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations,” Donald M. Nicol describes the Piazza San Marco as the “monument for Venetian taste for Byzantine art” (183). Venice was strongly influenced by Byzantine art, as the mosaics decorating basilica suggest. Many of the spoils of war from the Fourth Crusade decorate the square, one of the most famous examples being the four gilded bronze horses on the balcony of the basilica (Nicol). Venice had a complex relationship with Byzantium- first as a part of the Byzantine Empire, later as an important ally and trading partner, and finally as a conqueror of the city.

“The Tetrarchs” is a depiction of the four rulers of the Roman Empire near the end of its existence, who are shown huddling together during the Barbarian invasion. The tetrarchy was first established by Emperor Diocletian in 293 CE to help manage the vast size of the empire. This four emperor political structure split the Empire into four parts, giving each ruler a different area to govern. The Eastern and Western sections of the Empire were each ruled by a pair of emperors, an Augustus and a Caesar. The Augustus was the official ruler, while the Caesar was selected as a sort of “leader in training” that essentially had the same powers and was mostly a self-regulating body. Diocletian declared himself as the Augustus of the Eastern half and ruled over Italy, while Maximian was selected as the Augustus in the West. Diocletian chose Galerius as his Caesar and stationed him in Illyricum, while Maximian selected Julius Constantius, the father of Constantine the Great, as his Caesar and ruler of Gaul. The four emperors ruled until 304 CE, when the tetrarchy was transformed with Galerius and Constantius now serving as Augusti. The tetrarchy continued as a ruling plan until 313 CE, when internal corruption and conflict caused the system to break down. Later, Constantine revived the tetrarchy when he divided his empire among his three sons (Barnes). Perhaps the downfall of the tetrarchy can be best described by a quote from our reading, “Empire.” In their essay, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri describe an empire as a “…global concert under the direction of a single conductor, a unitary power that maintains the social peace and produces its ethical truths” (10). Although the tetrarchy placed great importance on being united as one solitary power throughout its existence, perhaps the problem was simply that they did not have one single director to lead them.

The sculpture has sparked several debates concerning the identity of the four figures. During the 19th century, scholars began to investigate the possible identity of these men. The majority concluded that these were the four rulers of the initial tetrarchy created in 293 CE. However, in the 20th century this debate was revisited and it was decided that while this sculpture was certainly a portrayal of a group of tetrarchs, it is possible that they represent the later tetrarchy composed of Constantine and his three sons (Museo San Marco).

Stylistically, “The Tetrarchs” is characteristic of sculpture of the late Roman period. The abstraction of the forms, squatness of the figures and the wide, staring eyes are all qualities of late Roman sculpture. The focus on symbolism over realism and personalization is another common feature of sculpture at the time. The body language of the figures, grasping onto one another in a tight embrace, symbolizes their unity. Their lack of individualized features signifies their interdependence and the equality of their rule. As a tetrarchy, they can only exist as a unit- one cannot have a tetrarchy without four rulers. Therefore, the figures are created from a single slab of porphyry, molded together and joined with stone, unable to exist independently. The sculpture is unconcerned with anatomical proportions and instead focuses on the symbolic nature of the piece. The dress of the figures is typical of the period, complete with flat Pannonian hats and military tunics (Rees). Each figure grips an eagle-headed sword in his left hand, representing their military power and strength. The attachment of the sculptor to the basilica is intriguing, as the figures seem to emerge out of the church into the air (or one could argue, blend into its walls).

The perspective of the viewer is also interesting, as the viewer is placed into the position of the barbarian invader. The tetrarchs’ fearful eyes stare at you as they huddle together. The significance of the sculpture’s location near the grand entrance of the Doge’s Palace indicates a superiority over these figures. The statue’s location served as a reminder of Venice’s power and strength to conquer and overcome enemies, as they later did in Byzantium. The sculpture also served as a reminder to Venice to avoid the fallacies of the past. In “Space, Power and Knowledge,” Michel Foucault discusses the “ideology of the return,” or the desire to return to the glory of the past. Foucault argues that history, riddled with problems and conflicts of its own, stands as a “defense” against this desire and “preserves us from returning” (166). “The Tetrarchs” serves as a tangible reminder of the problems of the Roman Empire- a culture greatly esteemed by the Venetian government. Venice looked to Classical Rome as a model for their government, establishing their own similar republic. “The Tetrarchs” is positioned next to the home of the Venetian government to remind the city that the past is not perfect and serve as a model for the future. Therefore, the statue also acts as a heterotopia for the Venetians. The work reflects Venice’s relationship with both the classical Roman Empire and Byzantium, and in doing so helps us to better understand the values of the Venetian culture.

It is important to note how the tetrarchs were displayed in other forms of art of the period. One of the most famous examples of the group, along with this particular work, is a relief on a column in the Biblioteca Apostolica in the Vatican (Rees). The relief displays the two Augusti of the original tetrarchy, Diocletian and Maximian, grasping one another in the same way as the men here. They are wearing the same military armor and also lack individualized features. The tetrarchy were actually represented as identical in all of their official portraits, including the coinage used in the Empire at the time- the names inscribed on the coins served as the sole indicators of each figure’s identity (Wikipedia).

The sculpture of the tetrarchs truly transcends time, providing a reflection of the past through the glory of the Roman Empire, the conquering of Constantinople, and the legacy of the tetrarchs’. The transcendent nature of the statue can best be described by a quote from “Empire-” “Empire exhausts historical time, suspends history, and summons the past and future within its own ethical order. In other words, Empire presents its order as permanent, eternal, and necessary” (11).

Barnes, Timothy David (1981). Constantine and Eusebius . Harvard University Press.
Museo San Marco website:
Nicol, Donald M. (1988). Byzantium and Venice: A Study in Diplomatic and Cultural Relations. Cambridge University Press.
Rees, Rodger (2004). Diocletian and theTetrarchy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd.


  1. I am going to Venice and the trtrarchs are on my bucket list. how do i find them? is it required pay admission or go in somewhere?

  2. Kudos to Stephanie for excellent scholarship and writing. Thank you for posting this. We just returned from Venice and I enjoyed your blog immensely.