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Four Tetrachs

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Back in Venice there is so much to see and almost every corner has its story to tell. As you walk across the Piazza San Marco – Napoleon is said to have described it as the most beautiful salon in Europe – turn right at the Basilica San Marco and at the corner look down to your left. There you will see a group of characters sculpted from a purple rock.

Ancient Romans prized the colour purple; it was the imperial colour because the dye was so difficult to obtain and so also with the purple rock which is called porphyry. It comes from a single quarry in Egypt whose location was lost after the 5th century AD. So what is it doing in Venice? Well, the Venetians were certainly no angels and in 1203 they succeeded in diverting the fourth crusade away from Muslim Palestine and instead sacked Christian – but very rich – Constantinople. It is believed these statues are part of the booty the Venetians carried away from the city.

But what do they represent? Well, no one knows for certain but it seems most likely that they represent the Tetrarchy set up by the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century. Diocletian had come to the conclusion that the empire was simply too large and cumbersome to be successfully run by one emperor. His solution was to split the empire in two and have each half run by one Augustus supported by a deputy Caesar. In essence, this was a good idea but not all good ideas work and this one failed – consequently, the empire was reunited shortly after under Constantine the Great.  

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