Wedged into a corner where the Basilica San Marco adjoins the Palazzo Ducale is a compact piece of sculpture that were it not for its colouring would probably garner little attention, yet it has great significance as both art and history.
It depicts four identical men, with embracing pairs facing in different directions, making it a suitable choice for its corner siting. It’s also made of porphyry, a highly durable stone, which is lucky given the knocks that such a corner will accrue.
As a piece of art, it marks a transition from the classical style seen in many Roman and Greek antiquities; the poised and highly muscular statuary that inspired the Renaissance, to something simpler and more stylised.
Its historical significance is more apparent when you know that the subject matter is the Tetrarchs; tetrarchy being a Greek word meaning the rule of four, and these particular individual were the rulers of the Roman Empire at the end of the third century. The empire had grown so large at that point that attacks were coming on multiple fronts, a problem which Diocletian addressed by splitting the empire in half; appointing an emperor and deputy for the West Empire (operating from Milan and other western cities) and the East Empire (from Antioch, Nicomedia etc). Although reunited shortly afterwards by Constantine the Great, these would become the templates for the Carolingian and Byzantine Empires.
What is the statue doing in Venice on a Byzantine inspired basilica? It was looted during the Fourth Crusade. Unfortunately the crusaders were a little careless and left the heel of one of the tetrarchs behind. It’s now in a museum in Istanbul.