I first came across this statue over 40 years ago on my first trip to Venice and remember being so struck by it that I took a photograph of it with my primitive camera. That picture disappeared a long time ago, but on a more recent trip I was drawn back to try and capture the statue again.
It depicts a critical moment in Byzantine history, the point in the late third century when Diocletian split the Roman empire into eastern and western halves, each half with its own senior and junior emperor.This fatal split was to lead to centuries of bitter clashes, as successive emperors and upstarts sought to gain control of the whole empire.
The statue is not particularly well executed, but the colour of the stone from which it is carved makes it stand out from its more restrained setting. It is made out of porphyry, a rare stone, which no doubt due to its colour and scarcity was used for imperial sculpture. The split in the empire seems to be depicted by the wall that separates the two sets of emperors and, at some point, the left foot of the right hand figure has been replaced in a completely different stone.
What I find poignant about it is that it was taken, along with many other treasures, from Byzantium by the Venetians during the sacking of the city in 1204 in the Fourth Crusade. Many of those treasures were kept in the Tesoro in St Mark’s until in their turn they were looted by Napoleon and taken to Paris. The statue of the Tetrarchs sits embedded into the wall between St Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace, while Haghia Sofia in Istanbul still holds the simple tomb marker of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge who instigated the Fourth Crusade and turned it against Byzantium.. Why did they put the Tetrarchs here though?