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

Shield
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

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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

Anglomania (Part 2): Federico Mazzucchelli witness and critic of the “British Fashion”

James Seymour, A Horseman Galloping, uncertain date © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

James Seymour, A Horseman Galloping, uncertain date
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the first part of this article we saw that, in the eighteenth century, a growing interest in the British institutions and culture spread throughout Europe. This trend also involved the equestrian field. “English equitation” became fashionable and interest in horse racing and country riding raised. So much so that in the nineteenth century English clothing, harnesses and horses became de rigueur among the continental enthusiasts.

Since at least the seventeenth century, the different morphological features of English horses and their use in racing and hunting in the countryside stimulated, in England, the evolution of a different way of riding in comparison with the other countries of Europe, where the academic style was still prevalent. The most evident innovation was the introduction of the rising trot, which was exactly called the “English trot”. This came together with a seat with shorter stirrups and a slightly forward position of the upper body. This technique also required different tools: starting from the flat saddle, with low pommel and cantle, and the bridoon, which in many cases was associated with a curb bit with shorter shanks than the one in use in academic riding, attached to a second rein.

Filippo Palizzi, Cavaliere al trotto, datazione incerta La moda inglese portò alla diffusione in tut'Europa del trotto sollevato Galleria dell'Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli

The “English trot” spread in Europe since the second half of the eighteenth century
Filippo Palizzi, Trotting horseman, Eigtheenth century
Galleria dell’Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli

The spreading of this new way of riding in the “English style”, even in continental Europe, ignited lively debates which, in many ways, resembles the diatribes that real, or supposed “innovations” in equestrianism, stir up even today. For example, we can compare it to the dispute that now divides supporters and opponents of so-called “natural horsemanship”. Even in the case of “English riding”, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, practitioners and horse lovers were divided between enthusiasts and absolute opponents. We find an interesting testimony of this controversy in a chapter of Federico Mazzucchelli’s book Scuola equestre (Equestrian School, 1805), entitled Avvertimenti sul modo di cavalcare all’inglese e sulle corse praticate in Inghilterra (Remarks on how to ride in the English style and about the horse races practiced in England).

Mazzucchelli begins his argument noting that this way of riding “which today is very fashionable […] produces many reasons of disagreements and issues. There is no person, even ignorant of horse riding, who has not his particular way of considering it” (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 285). In short, the debate did not involve only experts, but the new fashion was so widespread and popular that even those who were “ignorant of horse riding,” had their own opinion about it. With great, good sense, Mazzucchelli distinguishes between a proper way of “riding in the English style” and a wrong way, which, as unfortunately it often happens, was predominant because it was the easier way.

The same thing happens also in England, where those who are good [riders] are not many, and indeed they can be pointed out among all the others and deservedly exalted. There [in England] the number of riders is infinite, and an easy way, suited to those who have no skills, or who do not want to learn, is widespread. In Europe, this way is fatally believed worthy of imitation, as if it was the best of that school. Instead that is not but the manner of common people, who are ignorant of these interesting gymnastics. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 285)

James Seymour, A Bay Racehorse with Jockey Up, ca 1730 Yale Center for British Art

James Seymour, A Bay Racehorse with Jockey Up, ca 1730
Yale Center for British Art

Mazzucchelli says that the English technique is particularly suited for riding in the countryside and at the races, but it is especially necessary because of the characteristics of English horses. The author does not seem to appreciate them, while he prefers the breeds traditionally used in academic riding, Andalusians and Barbs, but he liked also Arabs. He considers English horses rather unsuited to the typical collected gaits of academic exercises. For this reason he believes

that the education of this quadruped, destined to racing and hunting, will be directed to instruct him to the extended trot in the open field, and supported with long working sessions. The disciplines which tend to collection would be inopportune; therefore the lesson which is said “to bend [collect] a horse”, which makes the horse sensitive to the legs and able to perform two track movements like half-pass and pirouettes, would be unworkable. So it all comes down to a negligent walk, a low but active and violent trot; to an ordinary and full speed canter, either right or left at random. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 286)

Traduci Baucher eseguì le più sofisticate arie di scuola con cavalli inglesi Baucher performed the most sophisticated school airs with English horses M. L. Heirauld, François Baucher riding Partisan, cantering backwards From F. Baucher, Souvenirs équestres, Paris, Manège Baucher et Pellier, 1840.

Baucher performed the most sophisticated
school airs with English horses
M. L. Heirauld, François Baucher riding Partisan, cantering backwards
From F. Baucher, Souvenirs équestres, Paris, Manège Baucher et Pellier, 1840.

This was a far too severe opinion, which was clearly vitiated by a prejudice. In the nineteenth century, in fact, English horses will be used with amazing results also in academic riding, and will prove to be capable (with riders of the caliber of François Baucher, or James Fillis) of very sophisticated exercises. Instead Mazzucchelli considers them rather hard horses, heavy on the hand, and on which it is impossible to support the elegant seat of academic riders. According to him, they could only be ridden while posting the trot and leaning forward. For this reason, he considers ridiculous the idea of combining the English and the academic styles, which in his opinion are completely incompatible.

Nevertheless, even Mazzucchelli admits that, with suitable horses, it is possible, and necessary, to use the new technique. He then outlines the ideal portrait of the “good English rider.”

He is determined in going forward, perfectly leading the horse, using the bridoon; and as light as a feather and in perfect balance, more on the stirrups than on the saddle, quite leaning forward, and with the left shoulder more forward than the right, he accompanies the energetic movement of the trot, gracefully rising, at the right time, avoiding the shock and pushing the horse in the momentum. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 287)

George Stubbs, Otho, with John Larkin up , ca 1768 © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

George Stubbs, Otho, with John Larkin up , ca 1768
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

According to Mazzucchelli the ideal English horse should be:

quite tall; of light and slender shape; courageous, fast and enduring; strong in the extended trot, so that the movement on the horizontal line is resolute and fast. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 288)

English horses were prized for their height John Wotton, The Hon. John Spencer beside a Hunter held by a Young Boy, 1733-6 © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

English horses were prized for their height
John Wotton, The Hon. John Spencer beside a Hunter
held by a Young Boy, 1733-6
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

He says that he also rode in England, following the dictates of this technique, and that this gave him “a very pleasant sensation:”

The surroundings of London, the movement, the wealth, the industry, the beautiful roads scoured so quickly, produce a singular meeting of pleasures, that you can hardly find together in other places. This is another kind of horse riding, another kind of delight. It almost seems that the rider is ravished and transported by fast wings, and dealing almost nothing with his horse, he is revived by the rapid change of the objects surrounding him, so many, and so different from each other. (MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805, Volume II, p. 289)

Although clearly influenced by his preference for the academic tradition, Mazzucchelli’s opinion of the English style proves to be quite balanced and clearly demonstrates the evolution of equestrian techniques between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. An evolution determined by complex factors which highlights the rich network of relationships and mutual influences that links horse riding to our culture.

As it is shown by this beautiful plate of his treatise, Mazzucchelli preferred the classical academic style Basilio Lasinio, Riding School, in MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805

As it is shown by this beautiful plate of his treatise,
Mazzucchelli preferred the classical academic style
Basilio Lasinio, Riding School,
in MAZZUCCHELLI, 1805

Bibliography

MAZZUCCHELLI, Federigo,  Scuola equestre, Milano, presso Gio Pietro Giegler, Libraio sulla Corsia de’ Servi, 1805.

Anglomania (Part 1): The spreading of English style equitation in the Eighteenth century

James Seymour, Mr Russell sul suo cavallo baio da caccia, c.1740 © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

James Seymour, Mr Russell on his Bay Hunter, c.1740
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

It seems that James Seymour’s passion for horses and horse racing finally led him to ruin. Not much is known of his life, but a chronicler of the time hints that, despite being the son of a banker and diamond trader, he died in 1752, reduced to poverty by the demon of gambling and by the costs of maintenance of his racing horses. Nevertheless, it is for that same passion for horses that his name has been handed down to posterity. Seymour, who was born in London in 1702, was in fact one of the first painters, along with John Wotton (1682-1764) and Peter Tillemans (1684-1734), who devoted his artistic production to sport. His favorite subjects were horses, which he vividly portrayed in many paintings and drawings, especially dedicated to hunting scenes and to the races at Newmarket, which in the first half of the eighteenth century became the most popular sport in England.

Among the various paintings of equestrian subjects that Seymour left us, there is one, preserved at the Tate Modern Gallery in London, which is particularly interesting. It is the portrait of a gentleman on horseback in the English countryside accompanied by his hound. The identity of the rider is not certain. An old label on the verso suggests he may be a descendant of Admiral Edward Russell (1653-1727), Earl of Orford, owner of Chippenham Park manor, near Newmarket. What is most striking in the picture is the rider’s clothing, which is represented in the most minute detail. He wears a green frock coat tightened at the waist with a leather belt, a dark jockey cap, light and firmly-tied breeches-lacings, with a buttoned leather strap above the knee, and tall, rigid, bicolored boots. His stylish outfit is completed by a scarf which is tied around his neck and a pair of light, soft leather gloves. With equal accuracy, the painter represented the details of the harness. The horse is bridled with a full cheek snaffle bit and a headstall without a noseband. The saddle is partially hidden by the coat of the rider, but the visible details identify it as a hunting type “English saddle”, with low pommel and cantle and short flaps. Note the folded saddle blanket, and the second girth which goes over the seat and done up under the horse. The horse has the typical slender body of the thoroughbred, with a curved and long neck and a small head. The picture is dated around 1740.

Philibert Benoît de La Rue Monsieur de Nestier, écuyer ordinario della grande scuderia del Re, (stampa di Jean Daullé), 1753 © British Museum - Londra

This picture is considered the emblem
of the classic academic seat
Philibert Benoit de La Rue, Monsieur de Nestier,
Ordinary écuyer of the great King’s stable,
(engravings by Jean Daullé), 1753
© British Museum – Londra

A simple comparison with other equestrian portraits of the time makes the historical importance of Seymour’s picture immediately obvious. Consider, for example, the very famous picture of Louis Cazeau de Nestier (1684-1754), écuyer of the great King’s stable, portrayed while he was riding Le Florido, by Philibert Benoit de La Rue, in 1751. This picture, which was made popular by Jean Daullé’s engraving (1753), is considered the touchstone of the classic academic seat. In this case, the rider wears a tailcoat with wide cuffs, tall and soft musketeer boots, wig and tricorn. The horse is mounted with a double bridle, with a saddle à la Française, with high saddle-bow, but low cantle. The horse is a beautiful Andalusian stallion, which was sent as a gift to Louis XV by the King of Spain.

The two riders could not be more different. Nestier is the emblem of eighteenth-century classical equitation, while the rider portrayed by Seymour looks like a gentleman of the following century. His clothing, harnesses, and even the type of horse he is riding, will in fact be widespread throughout Europe in the nineteenth century (and bicolored hunting boots are still in use today). Yet, if the dating is correct, Seymour’s picture is a decade earlier than that by de La Rue. This inconsistency indicates an interesting historical phenomenon, which testifies, once again, the close connection between politics, fashion and horse riding. In a word, it demonstrates that the equestrian art cannot be confined within the mere sphere of material culture, but fully takes part in the evolution of the history of ideas and of customs.

In the nineteenth century, the "English" clothing will be of rigor across Europe Filippo Palizzi, Hunting in the Neapolitan campaign, 1847 Private collection

In the nineteenth century, the “English” clothing
became de rigueur across Europe
Filippo Palizzi, Hunting in the Neapolitan campaign, 1847
Private collection

Beginning in the eighteenth century, a growing interest in English institutions spread in Europe. In a continent still dominated by absolutism, intellectuals, but also part of the nobility and, above all, the rising bourgeoisie, looked with curiosity and admiration to the English parliamentary monarchy. Already in 1215, the Magna Charta Libertatum imposed a number of significant limits to the power of the English sovereigns: they could not impose taxes at their own will, or imprison free people without the decision of a judge. Then, in 1689, the Bill of Rights sanctioned the freedom of speech and of debate in the Parliament. It established also that the king could not abolish laws or impose taxes without the consent of the Parliament, which should be elected with free elections. Principles that today may seem obvious, but that, at the time, were not obvious at all. In that context, the English institutions represented a beacon of democracy and modernity, to which the absolute regimes looked with suspicion and apprehension, as their principles ignited the imagination and passion of a growing number of European subjects. On the other hand, the greater freedom in England was matched with economic progress and soon Europeans began to be attracted not only by the English political institutions, but also by British literature, arts and by the corresponding British way of life. From clothing to food, from amusement to sports, England became a model of modernity to imitate.

James Seymour, Saltando il cancello (datazione ignota) Denver Museum - Berger Collection

In England the passion for racing and hunting
led to the selection of a new type of horse
James Seymour, Jumping the gate (date unknown)
Denver Museum – Berger Collection

Also riding was involved in this trend and indeed played a crucial role in spreading the “British fashion”. It should be noted that the differences with the continental way of life do not only relate to political institutions. In the domain of equestrian art, in fact, across the Channel different practices developed, which gradually began to spread in Europe. While the rest of the Continent was fond of the stylized riding exercises and of the baroque figure of Iberian horses, in England, as early as the seventeenth century, grew a passion for speed races and horse riding in the countryside. For these needs, in the late sixteenth century, began the slow selection of a new breed of horse: agile, spirited, fast. The Thoroughbred was less suited to the deliberate slowness of academic exercises, but was perfect to compete with the wind on the turf at Newmarket. This kind of horse was equally well-suited for chasing fox or deer over English estates, scattered with natural obstacles which had to be forded. Academic riding was also practiced in England (as testified by some beautiful drawings by John Vanderbank) but, over time, country riding and especially horse racing, became the distinctive features of the British equestrian world.

John Vanderbank, Volte Renversée a mano destra, 1728 © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

Academic riding was also practiced in England
John Vanderbank, The Volte Renversée to the right, 1728
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

Horse racing was relatively widespread even on the continent. In Italy, for example, almost every town had its palio, but these competitions were very different from those that are held today at racetracks. In most cases, they took place within the city’s streets and very often the race was held between riderless horses (i.e. without jockey): as in the case of the Corsa dei Barberi that traditionally ended the Roman Carnival, or the Palio di S. Giovanni in Florence. These competitions were held during special occasions, and belonged to the same tradition of the ancient knightly trials.

David Allan, La mossa della Corsa dei Barberi a Roma, circa 1767-77 © Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

In continental Europe, horse racing
was very much different than in England
David Allan, The Start of the Race in the Corso, Rome, around 1767-77
© Tate Modern Gallery – London

It is in England that horse racing assumed the character of a modern sport, with the progressive specification of a set of rules regarding the age of the horses, the weight of the jockeys and the establishment of cash prizes for the winners. Already James I (1566-1625) led to the construction of the first racetracks at Newmarket and it was with Charles II (1630-185) that the most prestigious races were established: the King’s Plate and the Town Plate. In 1744, two more races, financed by local merchants and landowners, were established, with prizes of 50 guineas. Soon horse racing fostered a significant economy, both because of the prizes distributed and, above all, for the amount of the bets. In addition, it increased horse trading and promoted all the professions related to the care and maintenance of these animals, starting with that of the jockey. Later, horse races became social events in which members of the high society met and ladies and gentlemen showed off fashionable clothes and their beautiful coaches. The fame of these events, in which the luxury of high society and the trepidation of the competition mixed together, quickly spread across the continent and many fans began to go to England to buy horses (as in the case of the Italian poet Vittorio Alfieri, to whom we recently dedicated an article in two parts, which you can read by clicking on this link).

to read part 2 of this article, please click on this link ->

Horse racing soon became social events Peter Tillemans, Going to the Start for the King's Plate Newmarket Horse Race, 1725ca © Yale Center for British-Art - Paul Mellon Collection

Horse racing soon became social events
Peter Tillemans, Going to the Start for the King’s Plate Newmarket Horse Race, 1725ca
© Yale Center for British-Art – Paul Mellon Collection

Bibliography

GRAF, Arturo, L’anglomania e l’influsso inglese in Italia nel XVIII secolo, Torino, E. Loscher, 1911.

ROCHE, Daniel, La culture des apparences, Paris, Fayard, 1989 (Il linguaggio della moda. Alle origini dell’industria dell’abbigliamento, Torino, Einaudi, 1991)

ROCHE, Daniel, La gloire et la puissance. Histoire de la culture équestre XVIe-XIXe siècle, Paris, Fayard, 2011.

Without horses I’m not even the half of myself. The equestrain passion of Vittorio Alfieri. Part 2

François-Xavier Fabre, Vittorio Alfieri e la Contessa Luisa Stolberg d' Albany, 1796 Palazzo Madama - Torino

François-Xavier Fabre, Vittorio Alfieri and the Countess Luisa Stolberg d’ Albany, 1796
Palazzo Madama – Torino

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the first part of this article, we discovered the great passion for horses and horseback riding of Vittorio Alfieri, one of the greatest Italian poets of the eighteenth century. We traced his beginnings in the equestrian field, his first activities, both in the equestrian field and in society in England and the purchase of two magnificent Andalusian horses during a trip to Spain.

Back in Italy, after several years spent traveling the length and breadth of Europe, Alfieri began to show interest in poetry and to outline his first literary works. At that time, the luxury of keeping his beloved horses seemed at odds with his vocation as a writer. In 1773 he even had twelve:

Meanwhile, the continuous and extreme absent-mindedness, the total freedom, the women, my twenty-four years, and my horses, which were up to twelve or more: all these very powerful obstacles to do anything good, soon extinguished my ambition of becoming a writer. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 185)

But soon, a new love affair distracted him from poetry and horses. The love for Gabriella Falletti, wife of Giovanni Antonio Turinetti, Marquis of Piero, was to Alfieri as a long illness, made up of temporary recoveries and inevitable relapses. Finally, in 1775, he was able to rid himself of the turmoil, definitely taking the road of art, but also soothing the wounds of his body and spirit with horseback riding.

I rode out on horseback in the most solitary places and it was the only exercise which proved salutary either to my mind and body. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 194)

Théodore GÉRICAULT, Cavallo inglese nella stalla, 1810-12 Musée du Louvre - Paris

In 1783, Vittorio Alfieri went for the second time in England,
where he bought several horses.
Théodore GÉRICAULT, English horse in a stable, 1810-12
Musée du Louvre – Paris

In the following years, Alfieri, who was Piedmontese, made several trips to Tuscany, to learn to speak and write correctly in Italian. In 1778, he decided to settle permanently in that country and to devote himself entirely to literature. For this purpose, he also decided to donate his possessions to his sister, in exchange for a perpetual annuity. While waiting for the implementation of the donation, Alfieri fantasized about his future. He was determined to cut off all ties with his country of origin and to devote himself to literature, even if that could mean facing poverty. And even in these ruminations, horses had their part:

In the delirium of my imagination, ever fertile in conjuring up gloomy ideas, the mode of procuring a subsistence which more frequently occurred to me, was the commencing horse-breaker, in which I believed myself to be adept. It seemed to me that this would be less slavish, and that I could join with it poetry, as it is more easy to write tragedies in a stable than in a court. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 236)

George Stubbs, Joseph Smyth Esquire on a Dapple Grey Horse, 1762-64 Fitzwilliam Museum - Cambridge

From the second half of the eighteenth century, the English thoroughbred
became the most fashionable breed in Europe
George Stubbs, Joseph Smyth Esquire on a Dapple Grey Horse, 1762-64
Fitzwilliam Museum – Cambridge

As soon as he completed the donation of his property and the financial transaction that was to guarantee him an annuity, Alfieri returned immediately to replenish his stable. For some time, he had started a new relationship with another married woman, Louise of Stolberg-Gedern, Countess of Albany, animator of one of the liveliest literary salons of the time, who then stayed at his side for a lifetime and even after. She is, in fact, buried beside the poet, in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

At the beginning of their relationship, the fact that the Duchess of Albany was married imposed on the two lovers long periods of separation. And just to escape the tedium of one of these moments of separation, in 1783, Alfieri set out on a new journey to France and England, to which is linked the most memorable of his equestrian deeds. In fact, Alfieri went to London to buy English horses, which at the time were becoming increasingly popular and, in a few years, they would became the most fashionable horses in Europe.

No sooner had I reached London, than I purchased a race-horse, then two for the saddle, then another, then six carriages-horses. Subsequently, I had the misfortune to lose several colts; but as one died, I purchased two and in March 1784 I had fourteen left. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 268)

George Stubbs, Fattrici e puledri, 1762 Collezione privata

Besides race-horses, horses for the saddle and carriage-horses,
in England Alfieri purchased also some foals.
George Stubbs, Mares and foals, 1762
Private collection

After about four months, when it was already 1784, for Alfieri and his herd came the time to return to Italy. A journey which at the time was already very adventurous. You can imagine what it meant to do it with fourteen horses in tow!

Accompanied by my numerous caravans, I arrived at Calais, whence I went to Paris; and afterwards, proceeding by the way of Lyons and Turin, repaired to Siena. This journey, which I have described in three lines, was extremely difficult from the great number of my horses. I every day, and indeed at every step, experienced a degree of vexation and embarrassment which embittered the pleasure I should otherwise have derived from my cavalry. One coughed, another would not eat, another fell lame, a fourth became affected with the farey. It was a continued series of disasters, in which I was the greatest sufferer. (ALFIERI, 1877, pp. 269-270)

András Markò, Paesaggio italiano con cavalli al galoppo, 1871 Collezione privata

In the spring of 1784, Alfieri crossed Europe with his English horses to take them to Italy.
András Markò, Italian landscape with galloping horses, 1871
Private collection

The first difficulty was ferrying across the English Channel. To see them crammed into the ship, “dejected and very dirty”, broke their loving master’s heart and then, once they arrived in Calais, they were let down into the sea by means of a hoist because, due to the tide, it was impossible to dock until the next day. The trip then continued through Paris, Amiens and Lyon. But the real deed was the passage through the Alps, through the pass of Mont Cenis. At that time the road was very arduous and, at times, dangerous. For this reason, Alfieri organized the expedition very carefully, sparing no expense.

I therefore took with me to Lansleberg as many men as I had horses: so that each horse had its conductor, who held him close by the bridle. They proceeded one after the other and between every three I had placed one of the guides, who on a mule guarded the three which preceded him. In the midst of this cavalcade was the farrier of Lansleberg, provided with nails and shoes, in order to lend prompt assistance to those which might be unshod, and which was the more to be dreaded from the huge stones over which they had to tread, whilst I myself, in quality of commander in chief of the expedition, rode in the rear mounted on Frontino, the smallest and nimblest of my horses. By my side rode two agile and nimble-footed aides-de-champ, whom I dispatched to the center, to the front, and to the rear with my orders. In this manner we arrived without accident at the summit of Mont Cenis; when we had to descend on the Italian side, I dreaded the mettle of my horses, from the rapidity of their descent. I changed my situation, and, alighting from my horse, walked in the front with the view of retarding the velocity of their march. I placed at the head of this phalanx the heaviest and least spirited of my animals; my aides-de-champ ran before and behind, in order to keep them always at a proper distance from each other; yet, notwithstanding all these attentions, several had their feet unshod; but the dispositions that had been made were so skillful, that the farrier quickly lent the necessary assistance, and they arrived at Novalaise with their feet in very good condition, and absolutely none of them was lame. (ALFIERI, 1877, pp. 270-271)

John Wotton, Lady Mary Churchill alla caccia alla lepre, 1748 Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

Due to their speed and endurance, English horses were soon considered the best hunting horses
John Wotton, Lady Mary Churchill at the Death of the Hare, 1748
Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

With great irony, Alfieri writes that after having so ably directed this passage, he regarded himself “as scarcely inferior to Hannibal, who only passed a little more to the south with his slaves and his elephants” (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 271). Similarly, he admitted the “extravagant vanity” to swell with pride every time that some connoisseur paid a compliment to him on the beauty of his horses. As it happened during his stay in Pisa, in 1785, when he watched the Battle on the Bridge (a typical historical feast), then to the “Luminara” for the San Ranieri festival (June 16) and participated in the public celebrations for the King and Queen of Naples (Ferdinand I of Bourbon and Maria Carolina of Habsburg-Lorraine), on a visit to the Grand Duke Leopold.

During these feasts my vainglory was sufficiently satisfied as I attracted the attention of the bystander owing to my beautiful English horses, which overcome in size, beauty and vivacity any other horse that was there in that occasion. (Alfieri, 1877, part 1, forth epoch, chapter fifteen. Inexplicably this part of the chapter is not translated in the text edited by William D. Howells)

But the writer drew a bitter conclusion. Because that naive pride, coupled with the awareness that in Italy it was much easier for him to be noticed and recognized because he showed off luxury horses, rather than for his literary merits. All in all, since then things do not seem much changed.

John Wotton, La caccia del Visconte Weymouth: Mr Jackson, Henry Villiers e Thomas Villiers, con cacciatori e segugi 1733-6 Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

English horses were very popular because higher and more spirited
than the average horses of the time.
John Wotton, Viscount Weymouth’s Hunt: Mr Jackson, the Hon. Henry Villiers
and the Hon. Thomas Villiers, with Hunters and Hounds, 1733-6
Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Vittorio ALFIERI, Life of Vittorio Alfieri, Boston, J.R. Osgood, 1877 [I slightly changed the translations of some quotes, as the text edited by William D. Howells is sometimes quite far from the original in Italian]

Without horses I’m not even the half of myself. The equestrian passion of Vittorio Alfieri. Part 1

François-Xavier Fabre, Portrait of Vittorio Alfieri, 1793, Museo degli Uffizi - Firenze

François-Xavier Fabre, Portrait of Vittorio Alfieri, 1793,
Museo degli Uffizi – Firenze

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Given the perverse imagination of those who draw up the syllabus, I do not know if today he is still studied at school. To be honest, when I was in high school, they did everything to make him unpleasant to me. They presented him as the “poet of the heroic will”, strutting in the pose of fierce opponent of every tyranny, author of indigestible tragedies in verse. It was, fortunately, at the university that I discovered that Vittorio Alfieri, one of the greatest Italian poets of the eighteenth century, had a much more interesting and adventurous life than I imagined. Above all, reading his beautiful autobiography, Vita di Vittorio Alfieri da Asti, scritta da esso (Life of Vittorio Alfieri from Asti, written by himself, published posthumously in 1806), I discovered his deep passion for horses. It is clear that this significantly contributed to change my opinion of him.

The many anecdotes of equestrian topics scattered throughout his life are very interesting and fun, not only because they reveal the inclination toward horses of one of the great poets of the Italian literature, but mainly because they attest to the importance of the horse in the customs and the culture of the time.

Pietro Longhi, Passeggiata a cavallo, 1755-60 Museo del Settecento, Ca Rezzonico - Venezia

Alfieri began to ride at the age of fourteen.
Pietro Longhi, The horseback ride, 1755-60
Museo del Settecento, Ca Rezzonico – Venezia

Son of the Count of Cortemilia, Vittorio Alfieri was born in 1749 and lost both his parents when he was still very young. In 1763, at the death of his uncle who had been his tutor and had always restricted his activities , Alfieri was finally able to realize his dream of “going to the Riding School”, that he had always “ardently” desired. The prior of the Royal Academy of Turin, where the young count was pursuing his education, knowing his “great anxiety” to be instructed in the art of riding, offered to indulge him in this respect, if he would enroll for the degree of Master of Arts at the university. Alfieri accepted without delay and immediately set about to pass the exam.

Thus then I became, I know not how, in less than a month Master of the Arts; and was immediately permitted to take my first lesson in riding – an art in which I became extremely expert in a few years. I was then below the middle size, and very meagre; my knees, which are the pivots of equitation, were extremely weak; but my passion for this exercise, and the determination of my will, supplied the place of strength. In a short time my progress was extremely rapid, particularly in the art of ruling the horse by the mutual consent of hands and mind,and in that of understanding the impulses and the temper of the horse. To this agreeable and noble exercise I owed the return of my health, the increase of my growth, and a certain vigor of constitution, which was soon visible to every eye. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 105)

When the young Count finally came into possession of his property, he started to lead a good life, and he spent the most part of his time riding on low-quality rented horses, in the company of other scions of noble families. Following the marriage of his sister Giulia, in 1764, Alfieri obtained a wider liberty to spend his money. So he decided to acquire his first horse.

He was a very beautiful white Sardinian horse, extremely handsome in his whole form; but specially in his head, neck, and chest: I was extremely fond of this animal; even now I never think of him without experiencing the most lively emotions. My attachment was so excessive that when he labored under the slightest malady, which not infrequently happened, because though fiery, he was yet of a delicate constitution, sleep and appetite both forsook me. My fondness, however, when mounted on him, did not prevent me from teasing and tormenting him, according as the whim and caprice of the moment exerted their influence on my mind. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 110)

George STUBBS, William Anderson con due cavalli da sella, 1793 Royal Collection - Windsor

In 1768, Alfieri went for the first time in England
and he was immediately struck by the beauty of English horses.
George STUBBS, William Anderson with Two Saddle-horses, 1793
Royal Collection – Windsor

In 1768 Alfieri went for the first time to England and in that country he especially liked “the roads, the inns, the horses, the females” (Alfieri, 1877, p. 142). At that time, a growing interest in the English institutions, culture and fashion was spreading throughout Europe. England was felt to be a model of modernity and progress. It was a real “Anglomania,” which affected also the equestrian field: in a few decades, the English thoroughbred became the most popular breed and, in addition, new equestrian techniques were adopted, such as the rising trot, called precisely “English trot”.

In occasione del secondo soggiorno in Inghiterra, Alfieri ebbe una tumultuosa relazione con la moglie del Visconte Ligonier,Joshua Reynolds, Lord Ligonier, 1760© Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

During his second stay in England, Alfieri had a tumultuous relationship with the wife of Viscount Ligonier.
Joshua Reynolds, Lord Ligonier, 1760
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

After traveling in various European countries, in 1771 Alfieri returned to England and there he fell in love with Penelope Pitt, wife of Viscount Edward Ligonier. It was a passionate and thwarted love for a beautiful woman, that the young Italian count lived with romantic enthusiasm, giving vent to the turmoil of his heart, risking the most reckless equestrian deeds. One morning, while on horseback in the company of a friend, in spite of the protests and warnings of his companion, he decided to jump the fence that divided a lawn from the street. However, on the first attempt, the horse hit the fence and fell to the ground, together with the rider. There and then, the young daredevil believed to be unharmed. He jumped back in the saddle and, ignoring the screams of his companion, he cantered again towards the obstacle, and this time he finally cleared it. But he did not enjoy that triumph for long. Gradually, he began to feel an increasing pain in his left shoulder. The ride back seemed endless. At home, the surgeon labored and caused him to suffer for a long time to fix his broken collarbone. The love affair with the lady ended with a duel and a public scandal. The young enthusiast suffered the disappointment of discovering that, before him, the beautiful intriguer had had a love affair with a groom and the whole affair was spread by the gazettes.

Thomas Gainsborough, Penelope Pitt, Viscontessa Ligonier, 1770 The Huntingto Library, San Marino - California

Vittorio Alfieri’s love affair with Penelope Pitt
ended up with a public scandal.
Thomas Gainsborough, Penelope Pitt, 1770
The Huntington Library, San Marino – California

Alfieri then took to the road again, traveling to Holland, France and then to Spain, where he immediately purchased new mounts.

Before leaving Britain I had disposed of my whole stud, except the most beautiful animal, which I left in charge of the Marquis Caraccioli, and, as without horses I’m not even the half of myself, I purchased two a few days after my arrival at Barcelona. One of them was a Carthusiam from Jerez, a beautiful golden chestnut; the other one was a Cordovan hacha, and though somewhat smaller, was full of spirit. I had always longed to possess Spanish horses, which are very difficult to export from their country; my heart therefore bounded with joy on becoming master of two of the most beautiful of their kind. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 172-173)

Ginés Andrés De Aguirre, Mercato di cavalli, secolo XVIII Museo del Prado - Madrid

In 1771, Alfieri purchased two horses in Spain:
a Cordovan and a Carthusian of Jerez.
Ginés Andrés De Aguirre, horse market, eighteenth century
Museo del Prado – Madrid

And his love for the beautiful Carthusian horse was such that traveling on the road to Zaragoza and Madrid he says:

I performed almost the whole of this journey on foot, with my Andalusian courser, which accompanied me like a faithful dog, and appeared to understand whatever was said to him. How great was my delight on being alone with him in the vast wilds of Aragon. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 174)

After almost a year, the journey finally came to an end. Returning to Barcelona, Alfieri had to part with his beautiful Andalusian, with whom he had traveled for more than thirty consecutive days, coming from Cadiz. Being “a great enemy” of selling his horses, he decided to give them both away: the Cordovan to the “very pretty” daughters of a landlady, the Carthusian to a French banker, who lived in Barcelona, with whom he had already become acquainted at the time of his first visit to the city.

to be continued >

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Vittorio ALFIERI, Life of Vittorio Alfieri, Boston, J.R. Osgood, 1877 [I slightly changed the translations of some quotes, as the text edited by William D. Howells is sometimes quite far from the original in Italian]