Chapter 72

Chapter 72
Robert Langdon was transfixed.
The Horses of St. Mark's!
These four magnificent horses-with their regal necks and bold collars-had sparked in Langdon a sudden and unexpected memory, one he now realized held the explanation of a critical element of the mysterious poem printed on Dante's death mask.
Langdon had once attended a celebrity wedding reception at New Hampshire's historic Runnymede Farm-home to Kentucky Derby winner Dancer's Image. As part of the lavish entertainment, the guests were treated to a performance by the prominent equine theatrical troupe Behind the Mask-a stunning spectacle in which riders performed in dazzling Venetian costumes with their faces hidden behind volto intero masks. The troupe's jet-black Friesian mounts were the largest horses Langdon had ever seen. Colossal in stature, these stunning animals thundered across the field in a blur of rippling muscles, feathered hooves, and three-foot manes flowing wildly behind their long, graceful necks.
The beauty of these creatures left such an impression on Langdon that upon returning home, he researched them online, discovering the breed had once been a favorite of medieval kings for use as warhorses and had been brought back from the brink of extinction in recent years. Originally known as Equus robustus, the breed's modern name, Friesian, was a tribute to their homeland of Friesland, the Dutch province that was the birthplace of the brilliant graphic artist M. C. Escher.
As it turned out, the powerful bodies of the early Friesian horses had inspired the robust aesthetic of the Horses of St. Mark's in Venice. According to the Web site, the Horses of St. Mark's were so beautiful that they had become "history's most frequently stolen pieces of art."
Langdon had always believed that this dubious honor belonged to the Ghent Altarpiece and paid a quick visit to the ARCA Web site to confirm his theory. The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art offered no definitive ranking, but they did offer a concise history of the sculptures' troubled life as a target of pillage and plunder .
The four copper horses had been cast in the fourth century by an unknown Greek sculptor on the island of Chios, where they remained until Theodosius II whisked them off to Constantinople for display at the Hippodrome. Then, during the Fourth Crusade, when Venetian forces sacked Constantinople, the ruling doge demanded the four precious statues be transported via ship all the way back to Venice, a nearly impossible feat because of their size and weight. The horses arrived in Venice in 1254, and were installed in front of the facade of St. Mark's Cathedral.
More than half a millennium later, in 1797, Napoleon conquered Venice and took the horses for himself. They were transported to Paris and prominently displayed atop the Arc de Triomphe. Finally, in 1815, following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and his exile, the horses were winched down from the Arc de Triomphe and shipped on a barge back to Venice, where they were reinstalled on the front balcony of St. Mark's Basilica.
Although Langdon had been fairly familiar with the history of the horses, the ARCA site contained a passage that startled him.
The decorative collars were added to the horses' necks in 1204 by the Venetians to conceal where the heads had been severed to facilitate their transportation by ship from Constantinople to Venice.
The doge ordered the heads cut off the Horses of St. Mark's? It seemed unthinkable to Langdon.
"Robert?!" Sienna's voice was calling.
Langdon emerged from his thoughts, turning to see Sienna pushing her way through the crowd with Ferris close at her side.
"The horses in the poem!" Langdon shouted excitedly. "I figured it out!"
"What?" Sienna looked confused.
"We're looking for a treacherous doge who severed the heads from horses!"
"The poem isn't referring to live horses." Langdon pointed high on the facade of St. Mark's, where a shaft of bright sun was illuminating the four copper statues. "It's referring to those horses!"


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