Four millennia of equestrian civilization 
on display (part 1)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Many important pieces of the Giannelli Collection of ancient bits are displayed for the first time in the exhibition Il Cavallo: 4.000 anni di storia, open until August 19, 2018, in the Züst Art Gallery near Lugano, Switzerland

In an era that has reduced the art market to a roulette table, which is approached with the same unscrupulous hunger for gains by the wolves of Wall Street, there is something heroic in the patient and fierce research that has allowed Claudio Giannelli to collect, over a few decades, what is probably the most important and complete collection of ancient bits in the world. Because, unlike the billionaires who make their offers in art auctions on the telephone, often without knowing exactly what they are buying, Giannelli has accumulated the finest pieces of this specific sector of the antique trade market by the means of his exceptional expertise, refined through years of study and corroborated by his experience as a rider and as a judge for the International Equestrian Federation.

The splendid exhibitionIl Cavallo: 4.000 anni di storia, is set up in the Pinacoteca Züst, near Lugano (Switzerland) and is curated by Claudio Giannelli himself, together with Alessandra Brambilla. In addition to objects which are rare, interesting and often of dazzling beauty, those who visit this exhibition will surely appreciate the passion and the depth of culture witnessed in the collection. I already had the opportunity to write about the Giannelli Collection, both when the exhibition in Travagliato (BS) was held in 2015, and on the occasion of the publication of the wonderful book Equs Frenatus. However, the new exhibition at Rancate (Mendrisio) gives me the opportunity to talk about some really extraordinary pieces that are displayed there for the first time. The novelties concerned, in particular, the archaeological field, are so significant and numerous to require me to divide this article into two parts.

The first room is dedicated to books and antique prints of equestrian topic,
with an 18th century wooden rocking horse in the center

But before describing the most notable pieces on display, the refined setting of the exhibition, which is on two floors, deserves a mention. The first floor is a sort of introduction, with the first room dedicated to a fascinating kaleidoscope of books and antique prints of equestrian subjects. In the center of the room, there is a splendid wooden rocking horse of the 18th century which reproduces, with incredible minuteness, the animal’s anatomical details and harness. In the showcases, in a scenographic and only apparent disorder, the editions of famous horse riding treatises are displayed, such as, for example, a rare pocket edition (to be taken perhaps in the arena), of Federico Grisone’s Ordini di cavalcare.

Georg Philipp Rugendas (1666 – 1742), Manege
Giannelli Collection

On the walls, there are the splendid plates illustrating famous books: from Pluvinel’s treatise, to that of the Duke of Newcastle, from the prints of Stefano Della Bella and Giovanni Stradano, to the beautiful illustrations dedicated to the art of riding in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. In particular, there are two magnificent drawings on china by Georg Philipp Rugendas (1666 – 1742) and a beautiful battle scene by Jacques Courtois, known as “le Bourguignon” (“the Burgundian”, in French, 1621 – 1676).

Jacques Courtois, known as “le Bourguignon” (1621 – 1676), Battle
Giannelli Collection

In the adjacent room, a rich collection of paintings of equestrian subjects testifies the evolution of the equine breeds in the period between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the progressive affirmation of the English thoroughbred. Among these pictures, a painting by Claude Vernet (1758 – 1836), a French painter who painted military and genre paintings and was mainly famous for the representation of horses, is especially noteworthy. The painting is characterized by the exceptional vividness of the sketch and by the subtlety with which the opalescence of the mantle of a splendid gray is made.

Claude Vernet (1758 – 1836), Grey horse
Giannelli Collection

The second floor is, instead, entirely dedicated to the collection of ancient bits. The first piece to deserve special attention is a very rare horse necklace, in gold and turquoise, datable between the seventh and fifth centuries BC. These kind of necklaces were part of the precious and elaborate harnesses with which the Scythians, who lived in the Central Asian steppes east of the Black Sea, barded the horses that were then sacrificed on the occasion of the death of high-ranking figures and buried with them in the typical mound tombs (kurgan). Each horse could wear up to four necklaces, which were held in place and supported by a kind of tie rod applied to the mane. The one in the Giannelli Collection is decorated with a series of small human faces, with pieces of turquoise and pendants.

Horse necklace, in gold and turquoise
Seventh- fifth century BC.
Giannelli Collection

The necklace is decorated with human faces and pendants
Giannelli Collection

Another piece which is truly unique is a frontplate in gilded metal and turquoise, completed by a panache holder (which was placed on the horse’s nape), a bit with cheekpieces separated from the mouthpiece and a series of harness decorations (headstall, reins, breast collar and crupper). This, also, is a Scythian outfit dating back to a period between the seventh and the fifth centuries BC and presumably all the parts come from the same burial site.

Scythian parure composed of a frontplate in gilded metal,
completed by a panache holder, a bit with cheekpieces
and a series of harness decorations
Seventh – Fifth century BC
Giannelli Collection

Detail of the frontplate, composed of sheets of gilded metal,
articulated so as to adapt to the profile of the horse’s forehead.
Note the panache holder (on top), which was placed
on the horse’s nape
Giannelli Collection

It should be noted that the first Scythic bits (of which the exhibition offers a great variety of specimens) had cheekpieces separated from the mouthpiece, to which they were fastened by leather strips which, being perishable, are not preserved. The oldest specimens had bone cheekpieces. Later, the cheekpieces were made of bronze, as were the mouthpieces. They were often decorated with geometric patterns, or with animal figures (protomes).

Scythic bits.The oldest specimens had bone cheekpieces.
Later, the cheekpieces were made of bronze
Seventh century BC
Giannelli Collection

Some of them are real stylization masterpieces, as shown in the cheekpieces of a bronze bit, probably coming from the area of central-Asian steppes, or from ancient Persia, dating back to an era between the 10th and 7th centuries BC. They represent a stylized horse in the position of the so-called “flying gallop”.

Bronze bit dating back to a period between the Tenth
and the Seventh century BC, with cheekpieces representing
a stylized horse in the position of the so-called “flying gallop”
Giannelli Collection

The specimens of bits from Luristan are also extremely fascinating. Without a doubt, Claudio Giannelli owns the richest and most spectacular collection of these bronze bits, produced by a mysterious civilization flourished in a region straddling the area between the current Iraq and the north-western Iran, from1000 to 650 BC. These bits have extraordinarily elaborate cheekpieces. They are true works of art which were exhumed with the dead and, which perhaps, had an unknown ritual meaning. The simplest were decorated with geometric patterns, or with real, or fantastic animals. Particularly suggestive are those depicting the so-called “Lord of the animals” (“Maitre des Animaux”): a human figure, or part human and part animal, depicted while dominating two animals symmetrically arranged on each side of him.  Among the many displayed in the exhibition, the two which are perhaps most notable are, first, the one in which a figure, half man and half ibex, holds two panthers.

Bronze bit, decorated with the so-called
“Lord of the Animals”, here represented as a figure,
half man and half ibex, holding two panthers on his sides
Luristan, Tenth – Sixth century BC
Giannelli Collection

And another in which a sort of sphinx, with three female heads, surmounted by showy headpieces, or horns, with large earrings and four legs, looms over two figures, one masculine and the other one feminine. This last one is showing her sex.

Bronze bit with decorated cheekpieces, representing a sort
a sort of three-headed sphinx. Notice the two anthropomorphic
carachters on which the main figure looms
Luristan, Tenth – Sixth century BC
Giannelli Collection

Remaining in the Bronze Age, among the different ancient Greek bits, stands out a particular type of Mycenaean bit, which is among the oldest known bronze bits and it is believed to date back to the 14th century BC.

Mycenaean bronze bit
Fourteenth century BC
Giannelli Collection

An Etruscan bit, of the so-called Villanovan period (from the ninth to the seventh century BC), is really surprising and interesting. It is a jointed snaffle with cheekpieces in the shape of a large horse, adorned on the sides (above, below and in front) by other stylized little horses. The peculiarity of this bit is that it does not have the typical green patina, due to the bronze oxidation. So it shows the color that ancient bits really had at the time in which they were used. They were bright as if they were gilded. This explains why many ancient authors talk of golden bits, but they have never been found by archaeologists.  The particular brightness of this unusual specimen is probably due to the abrasion of the sand of a stream on the bottom of which it had remained for millennia.

Villanovan bit, which has exceptionally preserved
the original bronze’s shine
Ninth – Seventh century BC
Giannelli Collection

to be continued ->

Horses that looked like flame!

Francesco Mochi, Equestrian Monument to Alessandro Farnese Piazza dei Cavalli, Piacenza (1612)

Francesco Mochi, Equestrian Monument to Alessandro Farnese
Piazza dei Cavalli, Piacenza (1612)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In 1565, a large equestrian feast was held in Lisbon to celebrate the marriage of Alessandro Farnese with Maria of Portugal. A chronicle of the period testifies of the extraordinary qualities of the Lusitano horses and riders, who profoundly impressed the Italian dignitaries who were in the Portuguese capital

Until the catastrophic earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that destroyed the city of Lisbon in 1755, the Paço da Ribeira, the royal palace, stood in the place where now stands the great Praça do Comérçio, one of the most famous and characteristic places in the Portuguese capital. So much so that, although nothing remains of the building destroyed by the earthquake, the square is still familiarly known as Terriero do Paço, the palace square. The building was built around 1500 and stood perpendicular to the river. It overlooked a large square, similar in size to the current one, where the great public events of the city were held. On May 28, 1565, that large esplanade offered a magnificent spectacle to the bystanders. For days, carpenters, upholsterers and decorators had worked non-stop to set up the boxes along the side of the square which opened onto the river Tagus, which at that point is so wide that it looked like the ocean. The carpenters had built wide and solid wooden steps, partly covered with canopies, which were then covered with fine fabrics and decorated with allegorical paintings. Even the facade of the building had been decorated with pomp. A brightly colored cloth hung from every window and the window sills were decorated with cushions and ribbons. Two weeks earlier, in the royal chapel, the Spanish ambassador Alonso de Tovar had married Maria d’Aviz, nephew of King Manuel I, in the name and on behalf of Alessandro Farnese, son of the Duke of Parma and Piacenza, Ottavio, and Margherita of Austria, half-sister of the king of Spain, Philip II, and governor of the Netherlands. After the first celebrations at the court, now the time had come for the public celebration of the wedding, which united the Portuguese princess to the scion of one of the first families in Italy, linked by kinship, but also by a relationship of fear and suspicion, to the very powerful Spanish crown. And like in any public feast in those years, aimed to celebrate the power of aristocracy, horses played a leading role on that memorable day.

Lisbon as it was in the sixteenth century Georg Braun and Franz Hogenber, Civitates orbis terrarum (1572-1612)

Lisbon as it was in the sixteenth century
Georg Braun and Franz Hogenber, Civitates orbis terrarum (1572-1612)

We know of those events thanks to the direct testimony of Francesco De Marchi, a singular scholarly figure and adventurer, in the service of Margaret of Austria for more than forty years and part of the Italian delegation that went to Portugal to escort the princess to Brussels, where her young husband was waiting for her. In the aftermath of the wedding celebrations (which were held by proxy in Portugal and, months later, in person in the Belgian capital), De Marchi composed a detailed chronicle entitled Narratione particolare delle gran feste e trionfi fatti in Portogallo e Fiandra nello sposalitio dell’illustrissimo sig. Alessandro Farnese e donna Maria del Portogallo (Detailed narration of the great feasts and triumphs made in Portugal and Flanders in the marriage of the very illustrious Sir Alessandro Farnese and lady Maria of Portugal), printed in Bologna in 1566. His account gives us a very vivid picture of the skill of the Portuguese riders, of the extraordinary value of their horses and of the pomp and refinement of the harnesses with which they were harnessed.

Detail of the Royal Palace of Lisbon. The square on which the equestrian feast was held was on the right side of the building

Detail of the Royal Palace of Lisbon.
The square on which the equestrian feast was held was on the right side of the building

As typical in the Iberian tradition, the feast began with a grandiose toirada, a bullfight. At first, the animals were faced by gentlemen on horseback, who proved to be very skilled riders. However, what deeply impressed De Marchi were the amazing qualities of the horses, which were so richly harnessed and so perfectly trained, that they looked as if they were animated by a kind of human understanding.

At the beginning of the feast there were fights with seventeen wild bulls, which were terrible and ferocious animals. The first fighters were on horseback, and all of them were Knights and esteemed gentlemen. They fought on richly harnessed jennets, holding an assagai with two irons [i.e. with a two iron spikes at both ends] in each hand, and they killed the bulls with so much skill and dexterity and attitude that it was one of the beautiful and worthy things that could be seen, because not only the riders did very well, but the horses were so alive and quick to dodge the charges of the bulls, that they looked like flame and they showed that they had something like a human judgment (DE MARCHI, p. 3).

Jan Van de Straet, Venationes Ferarum (bullfighting) etching by Phillips Galle, 1578 (or later) British Museum - London

Jan Van de Straet, Venationes Ferarum (bullfighting)
etching by Phillips Galle, 1578 (or later)
British Museum – London

Yet, despite the riders’ ability and the liveliness of the horses, two of them were injured, though not seriously. The fights on horseback were then followed by those on foot, in which the bulls were confronted with sword and cape. The Portuguese gentlemen proved to be very expert also in this kind of struggle:

because as the bull comes towards them, they throw the cape over his horns and so, as the beast is momentarily blinded, they easily dodge him and give him a big stab, either on the head, or on the nose, or on the front legs, and because the swords are very sharp the bystanders immediately see the sign (DE MARCHI, p. 3).

However, despite their skill, some of the bullfighters were overwhelmed and saved only because the bulls were immediately distracted by the assistants and the unfortunates were promptly rescued.

Francisco Goya, Charles V spearing a bull in the ring at Valladolid, during the celebrations for the birth of his son Philip II (1814 - 1816) Museo del Prado - Madrid

Francisco Goya, Charles V spearing a bull in the ring at Valladolid,
during the celebrations for the birth of his son Philip II (1814 – 1816)
Museo del Prado – Madrid

After the bullfight, the feast continued with the “game of reeds” and with a “carousel joust”. These were two kinds of chivalric trials which were very popular at that time. For some time now, the old and brutal tournaments, a legacy of medieval knightly culture, had almost everywhere been replaced by less bloody equestrian games, which required a more sophisticated equitation, allowing the qualities of the riders to shine without exposing them to mortal risks. This trend was spreading more and more after the death of the King of France Henry II, in 1559, as a result of an accident in the joust that was disputed during the celebrations for the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth with Philip II of Spain. The game of reeds and the carousel joust were mainly practiced in the Iberian peninsula and in the European territories under Spanish rule. In Portugal, for example, these types of equestrian games continued to be played until the end of the eighteenth century, as shown by two splendid plates of the monumental Portuguese equestrian treatise by Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberal e Nobre Arte da Cavallaria (1790). Spaniards and Portuguese had probably borrowed these chivalric trials from the Arab early rulers of the Iberian peninsula, as testified by the habit of playing them while wearing Moorish costumes.

The game of reeds and the carousel joust continued to be practiced in Portugal until the end of the eighteenth century (Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberal and Nobre Arte da Cavalleria, 1790)

The game of reeds and the carousel joust continued
to be played in Portugal until the end of the eighteenth century
(Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberal and Nobre Arte da Cavalleria, 1790)

In the game of reeds, the teams lined up on the opposite sides of the field. Then a first group of riders cantered towards the opposing team and threw reeds at them, as if they were javelins. Often these fictitious weapons had sticky tips, which would stick to the opponent’s cuirass. At that point, those who were assailed began to counterattack, chasing the others, who turned towards their friends’ rank. When, in turn, the pursuers arrived in the opposing field, they threw their darts. The carousel joust had a similar dynamics, but the riders chased each other, throwing clay projectiles, which the adversaries had to dodge with rapid changes of direction of their horses, or protecting themselves and their animals with small shields, generally made of leather.

As it was usual at the time, that day the chivalric trials were preceded by a solemn pageant of over a thousand people and hundreds of splendid and richly harnessed horses:

Four companies of knights entered the square on beautiful jennet horses. Each company was made of sixteen riders, which together totaled sixty-four horses. [here follows the list of the leaders of each company]. The other fifteen riders of each company were all gentlemen, dressed in yellow and black satin Moorish livery; the harness of the horses were in the gineta style and they were made of silver and gold, with golden and white damask steel stirrups, and they wore spurs of the same style. The horses’ breastplates and cruppers were full of silver rings and the horses had collars with silver and gold bells, great silk and gold bows, and gilded bridles and bits, with lined saddles decorated in gold in the Moorish style, which was something so beautiful and rare that you could not desire more. As a sign of luxury and grandeur, in front of the chiefs of each company six large Andalusian and Granada horses were led by hand. Not only were they big and beautiful, but they danced like as if they did not even touch the ground. They were harnessed with the so called giaizzi [i.e. with the Portuguese harness called “jaez”], which were so rich and beautiful that each horse could be estimated at great amount of money; because their harnesses were made of wrought gold and silver and of silk and gold yarns and also of damask steel and silver embossed with gold and the leathers were embroidered with gold and silk, and it is certain that these horses were so rare that no painter, however good he could be, could portray any horse of such beauty and adornment just through his imagination (DE MARCHI, pp. 3r-3v).

The game of reeds was widespread in Spain and Portugal, but also in the Spanish domains in Italy (Juan de La Corte, Fiesta in the Plaza Mayor de Madrid, Museo Municipal, Madrid, 1623)

The game of reeds was widespread in Spain and Portugal,
but also in the Spanish domains in Italy
(Juan de La Corte, Fiesta in the Plaza Mayor de Madrid, Museo Municipal, Madrid, 1623)

As usual, the knights were dressed in Moorish costumes, their heads covered with turbans adorned with precious stones, and they carried small leather shields. Each of them was accompanied by eight grooms and eight pages. So a thousand and twenty-four people took part in the initial parade, which, after having crossed the square, divided into two opposing groups. Then, two pairs of knights departed from the opposing fronts:

they chased each other, throwing their reeds with so much ferocity that they looked like darts; but because of the continuous exercise of the knights and thanks to the agility and skill of the horses who were accustomed to the game, when they were about to be hit, they elegantly protected themselves and the horse with their leather shield, thus succeeding in dodging the dart. Then they turned the horse, as if they were sitting on a chair, and in a moment they came back (DE MARCHI, p. 3v).

Carousel joust Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberal e Nobre Arte da Cavallaria (1790)

Carousel joust
Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberal e Nobre Arte da Cavallaria (1790)

After the first two pairs, the exercise was repeated by four knights on each side, then by six and then by eight, and ten, until they all ran together chasing each other. During the game, the horses and the horsemen proved to be so skilled that the author says that it would be impossible to emulate them elsewhere, because it would be impossibile to find horses and riders so perfectly trained:

I do not believe that one can so easily do the same elsewhere, both because of the lack of horses and harnesses, but also because men must be trained for a very long time, otherwise they would not have the grace and the nimbleness they have in this country” (DE MARCHI, p. 4r).

During the simulated combat the riders showed off their skills, making authentic virtuoso exercises:

there were some who threw a reed in the air in front of themselves, as fast as an arrow, and then they chased it by running at full speed with their horse, so fast that before it fell on the ground they took it back. There were others who, running at the same speed, lifted a reed from the ground, taking it with their hands. And others who threw their reeds into the air towards the sky, in a way that it looked like a lightning bolt that pierced the clouds” (DE MARCHI, p. 4r).

De Marchi reports the daring performances of the Portuguese riders (Galvao de Andrade, Arte de Cavalaria de gineta e estardiota, 1678)

De Marchi reports the daring performances of the Portuguese riders
(Galvao de Andrade, Arte de Cavalaria de gineta e estardiota, 1678)

The following carousel joust was similar to the previous game of the reeds, except that the knights were using raw clay projectiles, filled with coal, the size of a small orange. If  one of the knights was hit, the shell broke and the coal that filled it, stained his clothes. But De Marchi says it happened rarely, given the skill with which the participants knew how to dodge the shots. The carousel joust concluded the celebrations which, with typically courtly exaggeration, De Marchi considers

for the decorations, the banquets, the dances, the music, the ferocity of the bulls, the agility of the horses and of the riders and for the beauty of their harnesses and their liveries, for the good fights on foot and on horseback … the greatest [feast] known among those made in Portugal for hundreds of years” (DE MARCHI, p. 4r).

Recently, the duke Ottavio Farnese and Francesco De Marchi (behind him) have been identified in the two figures of the Double male portrait (1556), of Maso da San Friano, preserved in the Capodimonte Museum, in Naples

Recently, the duke Ottavio Farnese and Francesco De Marchi
(behind him) have been identified in the two figures
of the Double male portrait (1556), of Maso da San Friano,
preserved in the Capodimonte Museum, in Naples

Before concluding our article, it is perhaps worthwhile to spend a few more words on some of the historical figures that have been mentioned. Beginning with Margaret of Austria (1522-1586), who was that “Madama” (i.e. “Milady” in Italian) from which the palace that today is the seat of the Italian Senate, takes its name. It is in fact know as Palazzo Madama. Margherita inherited the palace from her first husband, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici. She married him in 1536, but he was killed by his cousin Lorenzino, the following year. “Madama”, as the Romans called her confidentially, moved to Rome in 1538, to marry, very reluctantly, Ottavio Farnese, nephew of Pope Paul III. She was seventeen while he was only fifteen. It took a while for the two to consummate the marriage and this caused a lot of conjectures and rumors. After seven years, on August 27, 1545, Margherita finally gave birth to twins, Carlo and Alessandro, who were solemnly baptized in the Basilica of Sant’Eustachio, a few steps from the maternal palace. Carlo died as an infant, while Alessandro (1545-1592) grew up and became one of the most important leaders and politicians of his time. He was educated in Italy until the age of ten, then he was sent to the court of the King of Spain, Philip II. Here he was supposed to continue his education, but above all he was there to guarantee, as a hostage, the loyalty to the Spanish crown of his father, Ottavio, who had a tendency to change alliances with considerable ease. When it came to marrying him, Philip II denied permission for his marriage with one of the daughters of the Duke of Urbino, to avoid a too close bond between two powerful Italian families who could create problems on the peninsula, and gave him a Portuguese princess, considering the kinship thus acquired less dangerous for the interests of the Kingdom of Spain. Finally, the author of the report, Francesco De Marchi (1504-1576). Although self-taught, he was not only a scholar, a military architect and an artillery expert, but also a courtier, a horse and dance instructor, an adventurer who escaped pirates off the coast of Ponza, a shipwrecked man at the mouth of the Tiber. In 1535, protected by a rudimentary diving suit, he dived in the lake of Nemi, near Rome, in search of the ships of Caligula, which were actually in the lake and they were recovered only in 1929-30, to be then destroyed in a fire in 1944. He accomplished his last adventure at the age of sixty-nine when, in 1573, he was one of the first men to climb to the top of the Gran Sasso.

(This is the text of the lecture I gave in September 9, 2017, during the Festival Italiano del Cavallo Puro Sangue Lusitano, at Tenuta Malaspina (Ornago) MB – Italy)

left: Portrait of Alessandro Farnese, attributed to Sofonisba Anguissola, around 1560 (National Gallery of Ireland). Right: Portrait of Maria d'Aviz, Anthonis Mor school, second half of the 16th century (Pinacoteca Stuard, Parma)

left: Portrait of Alessandro Farnese,
attributed to Sofonisba Anguissola, around 1560 (National Gallery of Ireland).
Right: Portrait of Maria d’Aviz,
Anthonis Mor’s school, second half of the 16th century (Pinacoteca Stuard, Parma)


Francesco DE MARCHI, Narratione particolare delle gran feste e trionfi fatti in Portogallo e Fiandra nello sposalitio dell’illustrissimo sig. Alessandro Farnese e donna Maria del Portogallo, Bologna, Appresso Alessandro Benacci, 1566.

Giuseppe BERTINI, Le nozze di Alessandro Farnese. Feste alle corti di Lisbona e di Bruxelles, Milano, Skira, 1997.

Frontispiece of De Marchi's book

Frontispiece of De Marchi’s book

Dom Duarte’s travel

Galvao de Andrade, Arte de Cavalaria de gineta e estardaiota, 1678

Galvao de Andrade, Arte de Cavalaria de gineta e estardaiota, 1678

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

When in 1820, José Xavier Dias da Silva discovered that a large in folio volume kept in the Royal Library of Paris contained two manuscripts, hitherto unknown, of King Edward I of Portugal (1391-1438), he did not immediately realize that he had revealed an inestimable treasure of world equestrian literature. In that codex, bound in morocco leather, it, in fact, contained the oldest book about horseback riding that has been handed down to us, after that of Xenophon. Until then, the primacy was attributed to Gli ordini di cavalcare (The Rules of riding), the treatise that the Neapolitan gentleman Federico Grisone published in Naples in 1550. Da Silva’s discovery showed, instead, that more than a century before the eleventh king of Portugal and Algarve and second lord of Ceuta, also known as Edoardo the Philosopher, or the eloquent, for his passion for humanities, wrote a work dedicated “to the art of riding with any kind of saddle”, entitled Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sella. In the Parisian manuscript, the equestrian treatise was preceded by another work by the sovereign’s hand: O leal Conselheiro, in which the Portuguese ruler expounded philosophical considerations and patterns of behavior.

An original work

Not only is the book by Dom Duarte the first book devoted entirely to equitation written in modern times, but it is also a very original work that, instead of focusing on equestrian technique, deepens the psychology of the rider, offering at the same time a very interesting overview of equestrian practices in the late Middle Ages. This peculiarity makes this book, in the beautiful definition given by the Portuguese scholar Carlos Henriques Pereira, “the first page in history of psychology applied to equestrian sports and probably to sport’s pedagogy in general” (PEREIRA, 2009, p. 141).

Edward I of Portugal was born in 1391 and he died of plague in 1438 (Bernardo de Brito, Elogios dos Reis de Portugal com os mais verdadeiros retratos que se puderaõ achar, 1603)

Edward I of Portugal was born in 1391
and he died of plague in 1438
(Bernardo de Brito, Elogios dos Reis de Portugal
com os mais verdadeiros retratos
que se puderaõ achar, 1603)

First of all, the author lists and analyzes the advantages, that at the time, were derived from being a skilled rider: it gives social prestige, it infuses courage, it cheers the spirit, it is useful in war and for hunting. Moreover, a good rider is always ready to go to his sovereign’s rescue and this can bring him much honor and many benefits.

I am sure , writes Dom Duarte, that all knights and squires should want very strongly to excel in the art of riding, as they will be well esteemed because of such skill (DOM DUARTE, p. 6).

The rider must have three requirements to excel: first the will, then the economic means to buy good horses and to then take proper care of them, and finally the knowledge, which allows him to choose the best animals and to enhance their merits and correct their defects.

For Dom Duarte, the first virtue of a rider  is the ability to keep himself firmly in the saddle, under any circumstances (Galvao de Andrade, Arte de Cavalaria de gineta e estardiota, 1678)

For Dom Duarte, the first virtue of a rider
is the ability to keep himself firmly in the saddle, under any circumstances
(Galvao de Andrade, Arte de Cavalaria de gineta e estardiota, 1678)

According to Dom Duarte, the most important quality that distinguishes a good rider is the ability to keep himself firmly in the saddle, under any circumstances. Immediately after, however, comes the talent to not to be afraid of falling, maintaining an adequate confidence in himself and in the animal, on any ground where he is riding. This self-confidence can and must be acquired through a process of spiritual maturation of the rider, in fact:

although it is commonly said that we cannot change our nature, I believe that man can reform themselves immensely, under God, correcting their shortcomings and increasing their virtues (DOM DUARTE, p. 45).

The first way to overcome fear, says Duarte, is knowledge:

In riding, like in all the things we want to do, if fear makes us unable to do it well we should, first of all, learn how to do it better; and if we know how to do it well, we will have the aforementioned presumption which, in itself, normally causes most or all the fear to vanish (DOM DUARTE, p. 45)

Dom Duarte is the first one to write about the "a la gineta" riding style (Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, 1602)

Dom Duarte is the first one to write
about the “a la gineta” riding style
(Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, 1602)

The “a la brida” and the “a la gineta” style of riding

As for the equestrian technique, Dom Duarte indicates different ways of riding, substantially opposing the different techniques of the so-called “a la brida” style, in which the rider mounts keeping his legs extended, and the so-called “a la gineta” technique, characterized instead by the the fact that the rider mounted with shorter stirrups and bent legs.

The “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry and was characterized by the use of long stirrups. Dom Duarte distinguished two different methods:  the first one consisted of riding deeply seated, keeping the feet forward; the second, in contrast, consisted of riding standing up in the stirrups, never sitting on the saddle. To facilitate this second method, the stirrups were fastened to each other with a strap under the horse’s belly in order to prevent them from separating. According to Dom Duarte, the method of standing while riding was older and required the rider to keep his legs perfectly straight under him. Both of these techniques were used to facilitate the knight in handling the lance.

The other technique described by Dom Duarte is the so-called "a la brida" style (Pierre de la Noue, La Cavalerie Française et Italienne, 1620)

The other technique described by Dom Duarte
is the so-called “a la brida” style
(Pierre de la Noue, La Cavalerie Française et Italienne, 1620)

In contrast, in the “a la gineta” style the stirrups were shorter, allowing the rider a more direct and precise contact of the “lower aids” with the horse’s sides. According to Dom Duarte, this style required the rider to sit “in the middle of the saddle”, not using the support of the pommel and the cantle, keeping the feet firmly resting on the stirrups, with the heels slightly down. The bits that were used with this riding technique were identical to those still in use in North Africa, while the saddles, also clearly of Arabic origin, were quite similar to the “silla vaquera” still used in Spain. Riding “a la gineta” was also the basic technique of bullfighting on horseback. The short stirrups allowed the rider to make fast stops and departures, as well as sudden changes of direction, which are essential in the fight with the bull.

Dom Duarte’s book and Italy

After discovery of Dom Duarte’s manuscripts, the scholars have continued to wonder about which path it has followed to finally arrive at the Royal Library (now National) in Paris. The oldest attestations of the volume in France place it in the Library of Blois, in the mid-sixteenth century, property of the Dukes of Orléans. In 1544, this collection of books merged into the Royal Library established by Francis I (1494-1547) in  Fontainbleau, then transferred to Paris, at the end of the reign of Charles IX (1560-1574).

According to Dom Duarte, he best way to overcome the fear of falling is knowledge (Galvao de Andrade, Arte de Cavalaria de gineta e estardiota, 1678)

According to Dom Duarte, he best way to overcome the fear of falling is knowledge
(Galvao de Andrade, Arte de Cavalaria de gineta e estardiota, 1678)

The scholars now consider it to be almost certain that there was only one copy of the work of the Portuguese king. It was probably brought to Spain by the widow of Duarte, Leonor of Aragon (1400/2-1445), when she left the Kingdom of Portugal in 1440. The hypothesis now more credited is that the manuscript later became the possession of Leonor’s brothers, the infants of Aragon, Henrique and Joao, because she sold it to them (which is probable, given her economic situation), or because they inherited it at her death. Now belonging to the Aragonese court, the manuscript then passed to the Library of the Aragonese Kings in Naples. This is demonstrated by the presence, in the lower right corner of the last written sheet of the text, of a brand that is present on other manuscripts that certainly belonged to the Aragonese library of Naples. The Neapolitan collection of books, which gathered the precious collections created by Alfonso I (1435-1458) and Ferdinando I (1458-1494), who were both passionate bibliophiles, passed then to Blois probably after the ephemeral conquest of Naples by Charles VIII (February 1495), or perhaps after the sale made to Louis XII (1462-1515) by Isabella, widow of the last Aragonese king of Naples, Frederick I, who died in exile in France in 1504. So, the first treatise about horseback riding written in modern times, passed from Portugal to Spain, then stopped in Naples and went on to France, joining in an ideal, as well as material, itinerary with other nations that have contributed further to the development of the European equestrian culture, between the fifteenth and the eighteenth century.

(This article was published in Italian in the first issue of Lusitano Magazine, Journal of the Italian Association of Lusitano Breeders)

The bits that were used with this riding technique were identical to those still in use in North Africa (Pedro Fernandez de Andrade, Libro de la Gineta de Espana, 1599)

The bits that were used with this riding technique
were identical to those still in use in North Africa
(Pedro Fernandez de Andrade, Libro de la Gineta de Espana, 1599)


CASTRO, Maria H. L., “Leal Conselheiro”: itinerário do manuscrito, “Penélope”, Lisboa, n. 16, 1995. p. 109-124.

DOM DUARTE The Royal Book of Jousting, Horsemanship and Knightly Combat. A translation into English of King’Dom Duarte’s 1438 Treatise Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela, by Antonio Franco Preto, ed. by S. Mulhberger, Higland Village, The  Chivalry Bookshelf,  2005 (there is now  a more recent English translation of by Jeffrey L. Forgeng, The Book of Horsemanship by Duarte I of Portugal, Boydell Press, 2016. You can find on line the  1854 Portuguese edition, by following this link, Leal conselheiro, o qual fez Dom Duarte: seguido do Livro da ensinanca de bem cavalgar toda sella).

PEREIRA, Carlos Henriques, Le traité du roi D. Duarte: l’équitation portugaise a l’aube de la Reinassance, in AA. VV. , Les Arts de l’équitation dans l’Europe de la Reinassance. VIIe colloque de l’Ecole nationale d’équitation au Chateau d’Oiron (4 et 5 octobre 2002), Arles, Actes Sud, 2009, pp. 140 – 150.

Equestrian traditions of the Roman Carnival during the Renaissance

Il gioco dell'anello era molto praticato sin dal Rinascimento Bartolomeo Pinelli, Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1822

The ring joust was widely practiced since the Renaissance
from Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1822

di Giovanni Battista Tomassini

This is the text of the lecture I gave on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, during the final symposium of the 9th edition of the Roman Carnival. I am especially grateful to the Associazione Carnevale Romano for inviting me, once again, to the beautiful Biblioteca Angelica to tell the stories of this great collective ritual of the city of Rome. For more information: and

On Thursday, February 24, 1536, about a year and a half after the election of Pope Paul III, the people of Rome started, once again, to celebrate the Carnival after many years, during which in the city disfigured by the Sack of 1527, there had been very little to celebrate. On that day, all the municipal authorities gathered at the Campidoglio (where the Roman Senate had its seat): the Senator of the Roman people, the Conservatori, the Caporioni and the Priors, the Mayors, the Constables, and the representatives of the Guilds. All of them wore their most elegant clothes and were armed with the weapons of the town militia. As one of the few civic events in the Holy City, the Carnival pageant was, in fact, an opportunity to show the military pride of the city and was exploited by the aristocracy to show off the signs of its wealth and power. For this reason, the horses and the other attributes of chivalric dignity, such as the more luxurious weapons and clothes, played a leading role in the event.

Cavaliere con costume e bardatura "alla romana" da parata. Libro dei disegni di Filippo Ursoni, 1554 Royal and Albert Hall Museum - Londra

Knight “alla romana”
The design book of Filippo Ursoni, 1554
Royal and Albert Hall Museum – Londra

The pageant moved toward the “Campo in Agone”, that is to say towards Piazza Navona, according to a strict order of precedence. After the representatives of the Rioni (i.e. the Wards, or city districts) there were the so-called Giocatori (the Players), namely the champions of the Wards themselves who were going to take part in the knightly trials during the afternoon and in the following days. There were eight for each Ward, each of them was accompanied by eight grooms. Among them, we read in an anonymous account of the time, addressed to Girolamo Orsini d’Aragona, Duke of Bracciano::

“two of them were riding beautiful horses and were dressed in the ancient style, with beautiful helmets and many gems, pearls, chains and other beautiful ornaments, on their chest and head, among which there was one in particular whose gold and precious stones it was said that valued at more than thirty thousand scudi” (FORCELLA, 1885, pp. 22-23).

This description gives us an idea of the magnificence associated with the presence of horses in the parade, which was evident both because of the precious ornaments (thirty thousand scudi for only one piece of jewelry) and because of the beauty and the value of the animals themselves. It should then be noted that the Statutes of the City of Rome of 1360-1363, specified that the Giocatori (Players) belonged to the social category of the so-called cavallarocti, i.e. those who could contribute to the urban militia with a mount. They, therefore, came from the corporations of the major arts and from the baronial aristocracy, which is to say, from the richer social strata of the Roman society.

Corsiero d'Italia con bardatura "alla leggera" Filippo Ursoni, 1554 Royal and Albert Hall Museum - Londra

Italian courser “lightly” harnessed
The design book of Filippo Ursoni, 1554
Royal and Albert Hall Museum – Londra

The following description of the Caporioni emphasizes even more the quality of the horses participating in the parade on which the Caporioni were mounted:

“on beautiful lightly harnessed horses, three by three, with their pages also proceeding three by tree, on horseback, dressed in their livery and armed with lances and shields of the two Caporioni” (FORCELLA, 1885, p. 23).

In this case, the horses were “lightly” harnessed, that is to say, they were unarmored and without the other protection typical of the steeds of the so-called “men at arms”.

Cavallo armato e "uomo d'arme", entrambi protetti da armatura metallica. Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, 1602

Armed horse and “man at arms”,
both protected by a metal armor
Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, 1602

The Caporioni Prior and the Conservatore ended the first part of the parade. Thirteen allegorical chariots followed them, one for each Rione (Ward). They celebrated the victory of the Roman consul Paulo Emilio, the winner in the second century AD, of the third Macedonian war. His story is told in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and his name was considered allusive to the name of the Pope (Paul III). Other authorities and high-ranking personalities, finally, ended the parade. All of them were mounting “big beautiful harnessed horses.” Giuliano Cesarini, Gonfalonier of Rome, came as the last one, with a splendid dress and mounted on a “beautiful horse”, as equally beautiful specimens were those mounted by his retinue.

The pageant arrived at the Castel Sant’Angelo where the Pope awaited and where a concert was held in his honor. Then the parade went back to Piazza Navona, where the participants drew up in good order. A ring joust then began. This was a kind of knightly trial in which the riders had to insert the tip of their lance in a ring suspended by a ribbon, while cantering at full speed. It was very popular at that time and it is still practiced today in many parts of the world, as for example, during the Oristano Carnival, in Sardinia. In this case, riders dressed with suggestive masks, must seize a star with a central ring, with the tip of their sword. In one of his plates, Bartolomeo Pinelli has handed down to us a variant of this kind of joust, practiced in the surroundings of Rome at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The ring was suspended under a vat filled with water. In this case, if the rider missed his target and bumped the vat with the lance, the water poured down on him and his horse (see the picture at the beginning of this article).

La Corsa della Stella

The Sartiglia at Oristano
Picture from website, by Domenico Corraine

The martial and chivalrous character of these demonstrations is underlined in the Nuptiali, a key text for the memory of the Roman festivals, written by Marco Antonio Altieri, in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. In particular, he underlines the virtues shown by the Roman aristocracy on the Campo di Agone, “practicing the manly principles” (ALTIERI, 1873, p. 26), i.e. doing the knightly exercises. He also highlights the appearance of “an infinite number of valiant gentlemen, on their harnessed horses” (ALTIERI, 1873, p. 114) during the pageants from the Campidoglio to Piazza Navona, on the Thursday before Lent.

The next day, Friday, February 25, 1536, a real encierro was held in Rome. The Caporioni ordered their Constables to lead thirteen ferocious bulls, one for each Ward, through the city streets. On Saturday, these animals were displayed on the Piazza del Campidoglio. This practice is not surprising. At the time, in fact, bullfighting was wide spread, not only in Rome, but also in many other areas of Italy. Bullfights are well documented, for example, in Naples, particularly favored by the Spanish viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo (1484-1553), who had a real passion for them and he personally took part in them. There were bullfights also in Tuscany. According to Benedetto Croce, those held in 1584 in Siena and Florence during the visit of Prince Vincenzo Gonzaga, heir to the throne of Mantua, were particularly memorable. The fact that the herdsmen conducted the bulls through the city streets was normal, considering the lack of other means of transport at the time. It was for centuries the only way also to bring the animals to the slaughterhouse, as we see in one of the plates of Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli (Different costumes invented and engraved by Bartolomeo Pinelli), dated 1822.

Buoi condotti dai mandriani attraverso le vie di Roma Bartolomeo Pinelli, Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1822

Bulls lead by herdsmen through the streets of Rome
from Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1822

On Sunday, February 27, they all finally gathered at the Campo di Testaccio, to the south of the city and on the left side of the river Tevere. Here the Giocatori (Players) preceded the Caporioni,

“dressed and armed like the previous Thursday. Once on the square, that is to say the Campo di Testaccio, the Players began a beautiful tournament, running across the square, two by two, then four at a time, so that they never rested.” (FORCELLA, 1885, p. 30).

In this case also, the “tournament” consisted of ring jousts. During the tournament, the Conservatori prepared six carriages covered with red cloth, each carrying a cage containing a live pig. Then three “palios”, i.e. three pieces of fine cloth, were exposed: one of gold brocade lined with ermine, one of crimson velvet, lined with green taffeta, the third of blue damask. Afterwards, there were three horse races: that of the barbs, that of the jennets and that of the mares. In the palio, the horses competed riderless, that is to say, without jockeys. The barbs were the lightest and fastest horses at the time, mainly of oriental blood. Jennets were, rather, the precious Spanish horses: small, agile and spirited.

Le tauromachie si svolgevano in un'area delimitata ai piedi del Monte di Testaccio Etienne Du Pérac, La festa di Testaccio del 1545, incisione. British Museum - Londra

The bullfights were held in a designated area at the foot of Monte Testaccio
Etienne Du Pérac, La festa di Testaccio del 1545, engraving,

At the foot of Monte Testaccio, an area of the field was designated by tying together wagons and erecting boxes and stands, creating a sort of big arena. The chariots with the pigs were then run downhill from the Monte and the bulls were released in the arena. The hunt then began. A cruel rite, halfway between the corrida de toros and the Coliseum’s venatio (hunt in Latin). At this stage, the horses were playing a major role, since the bullfight was mainly fought on horseback.

Bullfights, or as they were called at the time, “bulls hunting” was so popular that in 1500, during the papacy of Alexander VI (1431-1503), the son of the pope, Cesare Borgia, fought a bullfight in an arena that was set, no less, than on Saint Peter’s Square, on the day of the feast of St. John (June, 24). The same event took place two years later when, during the celebrations for the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d’Este, on December 31, 1502 a horse race and a bullfight were held in St. Peter’s Square. The tradition to hold bullfights in the Vatican continued even with the pontificate of Julius II (1443-1513). On Shrove Tuesday of 1510, for example, there were horse races in the Vatican and a bullfight in the Belvedere courtyard. However, many contemporaries considered bullfighting in the Vatican as an excess of worldliness in the heart of Christianity, as for example, Erasmus of Rotterdam who expressed his indignation in his Responsio ad Petri Cursii defensionem (1535).

I tori venivano liberati sul Monte Testaccio e irrompevano nell'arena correndo lungo la discesa Hendrick Van Cleve III, Mons Testaceus, , Festa a Testaccio, incisione di Philipp Galle, 1557-1612 (c.).

The bulls were released on Monte Testaccio and swarmed into the arena running down the slope
Hendrick Van Cleve III, Mons Testaceus, engraving by Philipp Galle, 1557-1612 (c.).

The “Games of Testaccio” ended with Pope Paul III, with a final massacre in 1545. Subsequently, the axis of the Roman Carnival returned in the Via Lata, now Via del Corso, where Pope Paul II already moved it in 1465. On 1 November 1567, Pope Pius V (1504-172) published the apostolic constitution De salute, with which he forbade bullfights and condemned animal cruelty by man, but unfortunately without any real effect.

I stop here. From these few examples, you can easily understand the central role that the chivalrous dimension held in the context of the Roman Carnival. A feature that the Carnival in Rome maintained into later centuries, in which it was characterized, for better or for worse, by the famous Race of the Barbs, that went from Piazza del Popolo to Palazzo Venezia.

A bullfight in front of the Palazzo Farnese, Hendrick Van Cleve III, engraving by Philipp Galle, 1557-1612

A bullfight in front of the Palazzo Farnese, in Rome
Hendrick Van Cleve III, engraving by Philipp Galle, 1557-1612


ALTIERI, Marco Antonio, Li nuptiali, pubblicati da Enrico Narducci, Roma Tip. C. Bartoli, 1873.

CROCE, Benedetto, La Spagna nella vita italiana durante la Rinascenza, 2a ed. riveduta, Bari, Laterza, 1922.

FORCELLA, Vincenzo, Tornei e giostre, ingressi trionfali e feste carnevalesche in Roma sotto Paolo III, Roma, Tip. Artigianelli, 1885.

GUARINO, Raimondo, Carnevale e festa civica nei Ludi di Testaccio, “Roma moderna e contemporanea”, XX, 2012, 2, pp. 475-497.

L’History talk alla Biblioteca Angelica nelle immagini di Barbara Roppo e Robbi Huner

11 - Biblioteca Angelica 312 - Biblioteca Angelica 413 - Biblioteca Angelica14 - Biblioteca Angelica 215 - Biblioteca Angelica16 - Biblioteca Angelica 2

19 - Biblioteca Angelica 217 - Biblioteca Angelica 218 - Biblioteca Angelica 2

A riding academy in Sicily during the Renaissance: the Congregazione dei Cavalieri d’Armi

Le splendide tavole de Le guerre festive (Palermo, 1680), mostrano il lusso delle armi e delle bardature impiegate nelle giostre che si tenevano in Sicilia tra il XVI e il XVII secolo

The beautiful plates of Le guerre festive (Palermo, 1680) 
show the luxury of weapons and harnesses used in Sicily 
 between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

di Giovanni Battista Tomassini

At dawn on Friday, May 18, 1565, the sentinels of the Knights of Malta saw on the horizon, the sails of the Turkish fleet, commanded by Admiral Piyale Paşa. The fleet consisted of approximately one hundred and seventy vessels: galleys, galleass and galliot, eight large transport mahon and dozens of smaller boats, carrying supplies and horses. The Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), was launching an attack on the Christian stronghold at the center of the Mediterranean with one of the largest armies hitherto ever seen. The news of the siege threw Europe into dismay and caused a real panic in nearby Sicily. The siege lasted nearly four months, but in the end, the brave resistance of the Maltese knights got the better of the powerful Ottoman army, which was rejected back into the sea, after suffering heavy losses.

Armatura da Giostra Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli

Jousting armor
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Nevertheless, in Sicily the final victory of the Christians did not dispel the widespread feeling of an impending threat. It seemed urgent to form a militia ready to repel possible assaults on the coasts and to uphold the honor of the Sicilians, rivaling in value with the Spanish rulers. It was, therefore, with this purpose that soon after the siege of Malta, the viceroy of Sicily, García Álvarez de Toledo y Osorio (1514-1577), founded, an equestrian academy in Palermo in which the nobles could practice horsemanship and military disciplines, but also study mathematics, geography and navigation. The academy was named Congregazione dei Cavalieri d’Armi (Congregation of the Knights of Arms) and San Sebastian became its patron saint, while the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (the Admiral’s Bridge) was chosen as its emblem. The Admiral’s Bridge is a twelve arches bridge dating from Norman times, which at that time, was on the eastern borders of the city of Palermo (today it is visible from Corso dei Mille). It was probably chosen as a symbol of the city’s glorious past and because its name (“Admiral’s”) evoked one of the top military positions of the Norman army. The Latin sentence Et suos hic habet Oratios (“And here it has its Horatius”) was the academy’s motto. It referred to Horatius Cocles, the Roman hero who (in 508 BC) defended the Sublicio Bridge, blocking by himself the Etruscan army, led by Porsenna, which was marching towards Rome. The sentence means that, like Rome, «also Palermo had its Cocles, virtuous and brave men in arms able to defend the city from any danger» (BILE, 2011, p. 30).

Il Ponte dell'Ammriaglio a Palermo venne scelto come emblema della Congregazione

The Admiral’s Bridge was chosen as emblem of the Congregation

A public ceremony held on San Sebastian’s Day sanctioned the establishment of the Congregation. A pageant of the knights traveled through the streets of the city following the blessing of the academy standard:

January 20, 1567 – The day of Saint Sebastian the standard of the Academy’s knights was blessed and in the evening, the knights, completely armed with cold steel, escorted it throughout the city, holding torches. The illustrious Marquis of Avola was the Academy’s general, Baron Fiumesalato the counselor and Mr. Carlo Marchisi the standard-bearer. (PARUTA – PALMERINO, 1869, p. 27)

That same day, the knights gave the first public demonstration of their skills in a joust, organized at the Pian della Marina (now Piazza Marina, at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, in Palermo). At that time, jousts and carousels represented the main occasions for the nobles to demonstrate their skills in martial exercises in times of peace. In this sense, jousts and pageants played an essential political and social role. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the growing strategic importance of firearms and the military role of the infantry had, in fact, drastically reduced the role of cavalry and fed into the nobility, “the frustration that comes from being nominally knights but with little chance, if not in carousels and tournaments, to prove themselves to the world” (Antonelli, 1997, p. 194).

Burgonet, depicting the Roman emperor Trajan Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Burgonet, depicting the Roman emperor Trajan
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

In Sicily, as indeed in the rest of Europe, jousts were very frequent and were very popular shows. So much so that the Senate of the city of Palermo, decided to build an “Aringo”, i.e. an ephemeral wood amphitheater, which could hold up to twenty-five thousand people, with boxes reserved for the vice royal court and the representatives of the Senate. “Every opportunity was good to organize these choreographic shows of arms: the celebration of a victory or of a wedding; a peace or an alliance or another important political event, such as the visit of a king or a prince; but sometimes they were also an occasion to find husbands for maidens, or to allow young riders to stretch their limbs after the inertia of a long winter and keep them in constant exercise and always ready to use weapons “(MANSELLA, 1972, p. 16). These chivalric trials had their peak in the sixteenth century, but they continued to be practiced, with great pomp, even in the next century, as evidenced by the superb plates that illustrate this article and which are from the report devoted by Pietro Maggio to the jousts held in Palermo during the celebrations for the wedding of the King of Spain, Charles II, with Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Orléans, in 1679. The report was published in 1680 under the title Le guerre festive (The festive wars: Palermo, Giuseppe Barbera and Tomaso Rummulo & Orlando).

Shield Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Capodimonte Museum, Naples

On October 10, 1567, with another solemn public ceremony, the Congregation took possession of Palazzo Ajutamicristo, on the borders of the walls of Palermo (now in Via Garibaldi), not far from the Admiral’s Bridge. The pageants was led by Ottavio del Bosco, appointed general of the Congregation, who was escorted by armed pages on horseback, each of them bearing the insignia of his lord. “In the palace, the knights gathered in the morning for mathematics lessons, and during the day to ride horses” (NARBONE, 1851, p. 101). The statutes of the Congregation (Maurizio Vesco has recently published their frontispiece in VESCO, 2016) regulated minutely the tasks, the meetings, the ceremonies and the devotions, and fixed the requirements for the aspirants, as well as how to behave in the presence of the Viceroy. Academics practiced daily for two hours in the riding arena, divided into two classes. The session of the most experienced was open to the public, while the extraneous could not be present for that of the novice riders (see MAYLÄNDER, 1926-30, vol. I, p. 523).

In 1620, the Congregation changed location and moved to another building just in front of the Senate Palace, so that the knights could defend the Senate more effectively and promptly if necessary. In case of an alarm, the knights were required to gather, fully armed, at the Admiral’s Bridge, and each of them had to bring with him a similarly armed companion. The Academy, however, was abolished in 1636.

Dettaglio della rotella da giostra con Orazioo Coclite a cavallo Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli

Details of the shield with Horatius Cocles on horseback
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Soon after the establishment of the Congregation, the academy turned to Lombard armorer, which at the time was among the best in Europe, to supply the knights with war and parade weapons. A few years ago, the deputy manager of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, Umberto Bile (who died in 2013), discovered that the most valuable pieces of Capodimonte’s armory did not belong to Alessandro, or to Ottavio Farnese, as it was believed for at least two centuries, but they went back just to the knights of the Congregation. During the seventeenth century, some of the most valuable weapons of the knights of the Congregation were transferred to the armory of the Castle of Canicattì, where they were stored for about two centuries. After some years, the memory of their origin was lost and they were erroneously considered dating back to Roger I the Norman (around 1031 – 1101). In 1800 Giuseppe Bonanno and Branciforte, prince de la Cattolica, gave to Ferdinand of Bourbon a shield, a sword and a burgonet (helmet), which were considered the weapons belonged to the “Great Count” Roger I, conqueror of Sicily in 1062. Bile demonstrated that they, obviously, were the burgonet, the shield and the sword of extraordinary workmanship, which are the most valuable and famous pieces of Capodimonte’s armory. The iron, embossed, damascened and golden shield depicts Horatius Cocles on horseback, facing the enemies, while the Roman soldiers are demolishing the Sublicio Bridge, to prevent the Etruscan from entering in Rome. It is the same Roman hero summoned by the motto of the Congregation of Palermo. The beauty of such weapons gives us an idea of the magnificent elegance of the knights who drilled in the Sicilian academy.

Graziano Balli Barone di Galattuvo in Pietro Maggio, Le guerre festive, 1680

Graziano Balli Barone di Galattuvo
in Pietro Maggio, Le guerre festive, 1680


ANTONELLI, Raoul, Giostre, tornei, accademie: formazione e rappresentazione del valore cavalleresco, in AA. VV., I Farnese. Corti, guerra e nobiltà in antico regime, a cura di P. Del Negro e C. Mozzarelli, Roma, Bulzoni, 1997, pp. 191-207.

HERNANDO SÁNCHEZ, Carlos José, La gloria del cavallo. Saber ecuestre y cultura caballeresca en el reino de Napóles durante el siglo XVI, in AA. VV. Actas del Congreso Internacional: Felipe II (1527-1598). Europa y la Monarquía Católica (UAM, 20-23 de abril de 1998), coord. J. Martínez Millán, Madrid, Parteluz, 1998, pp. 277-310.

MANSELLA; Giovanni Battista, Le giostre reali di Palermo, a cura di R. La Duca, Palermo, Sellerio, 1972.

MARINO, Salvatore Salomone, La Congregazione dei cavalieri d’armi e le pubbliche giostre in Palermo nel secolo 16°: notizie e documenti, Palermo : Tip. di P. Montaina e Comp. gia del Giornale di Sicilia, 1877.

MAYLANDER, Michele, Storia delle Accademie d’Italia, Bologna-Trieste, Cappelli, 1926-30 (rist. anastatica Bologna, Forni, 1976).

NARBONE, Alessio, Bibliografia sicola sistematica, o apparato metodico alla Storia litteraria della Sicilia, Palermo, stamp. di G. Pedone, 1851.

PARUTA, Filippo – PALMERINO, Niccolò, Diario della città di Palermo 1500-1613, in AA. VV. Diari della città di Palermo dal secolo XVI al XIX pubblicati sui manoscritti della Biblioteca Comunale, a cura di G. Di Marzo, Palermo, Luigi Pedone Lauriel editore, 1869.

VESCO, Maurizio, La Regia Razza di cavalli e le scuderie monumentali nella Sicilia degli Asburgo: il modello “negato” delle Cavallerizze dei Palazzi Reali di Palermo e Messina, in AA. VV., Las Caballerizas Reales y el mundo del caballo, Cordoba, Edicioneslitopress, 2016, pp. 391-428.

Ajutamicristo palace in Palermo was the first seat of the Congregation

Ajutamicristo palace in Palermo was the first seat of the Congregation