New information about the life 
of Cesare Fiaschi

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

New interesting and unknown details of Cesare Fiaschi’s biography emerge from the study of some ancient sources, which illuminate, with a new light, one of the most interesting figures of the Renaissance equestrian culture and disprove many legends and inaccuracies handed down to us about him.

A curious destiny unites the authors of the first equestrian treatises published in Italy during the Renaissance. While they have not been considered very much by professional historians who, with some brilliant exceptions, have ignored them, they are, instead, revered as guardian gods by a small handful of horsemanship enthusiasts who, however, do not know much about them beyond their name printed on the frontispiece of their books. This is exactly the situation of Cesare Fiaschi, author of the Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli (Treatise about bridling, training and shoeing horses), published in Bologna in 1556, which is one of the most fascinating and original books ever dedicated to the equestrian arts. The information we have so far about his life is very scarce and largely erroneous. By simply browsing the Web, you can easily see that many legends, without any evidence and often characterized by evident anachronisms, have flourished about him. For example, many argue that Fiaschi, who was born in the city of Ferrara, was a pupil of the Neapolitan Federico Grisone and that they collaborated in an imaginary academy of Naples. André Monteilhet then writes (MONTEILHET, 2009, 128) that Fiaschi founded another imaginary academy in Ferrara in 1534 (it must be said that classical riding fans are obsessed by academies!). However, none of this information has been proven by any document of the time. Because of these misconceptions, I will try to put together some interesting data about Cesare Fiasch’s biography which I recently collected from some ancient sources and which, until now, were unknown to scholars.

Frontispiece of Alfonso Maresti’s book

The first of these sources is the monumental work of Count Alfonso Maresti, Teatro geneologico et istorico dell’antiche & illustri famiglie di Ferrara (Genealogical and Historical Theater of the ancient and illustrious families of Ferrara) whose three voluminous volumes were printed between 1678 and 1708. Maresti devotes a broad discussion to the history of the Fiaschi family, from which we learn that it was one of the most eminent Ferrarese families. The father of Cesare, Girolamo, was the squire of the French king Charles IX, while his mother, Eleonora, belonged to the Sacrati family, considered to be one of the most prominent and rich in Ferrara. Cesare was the tenth child of the couple and was born in 1523, together with his twin sister Lucrezia. From the marriage of Girolamo with Eleonora Sacrati were born: Alberto (1510), Margherita (1511), Alfonso (1512), Isabella (1514), Alessandro (1516), Margherita II (1518), Ludovico II (1520), Ercole (1522) and the twins Lucrezia and Cesare (MARESTI, 1708, p.155).

Cesare married Barbara Romei, with whom he had no children. This is demonstrated by the fact that, on November 22, 1567, he made his will at the notary Renato Cati for the benefit of his nephews Giacomo and Luigia, son and daughter of his brother Alfonso. Maresti also writes that:

“He had imperial privilege of Earl and Knight, to appoint Notaries, and legitimize bastards [i.e. illegitimate sons]” (MARESTI, 1708, p.156).

From Maresti, we learn that at the time of the writing of the third testament of his father Girolamo, on October 24, 1570, of the five male children that he had from his wife Eleonora, only Cesare and Alessandro were still alive.

Fiaschi’s treatise is the only book about horsemanship in which a musical score is put aside of the drawings of certain excises in order to explain the rhythm with which they should be performed

Regarding the brothers of Cesare, the firstborn Alberto was a doctor in law and went to Rome where he obtained ecclesiastical dignity. He then went back to Ferrara and was appointed Canon of the Cathedral. However, the two most eminent figures were Alfonso and Alessandro. Alfonso served the Este and was ambassador to the French court. He also held the position of governor of the estates that Duke Ercole II obtained in France after the marriage (1528) to his wife Renée (second daughter of Louis XII). Alfonso died in the city of Caen and was buried in the Church of the Friars Minor of Saint Francis of Paola in that city. Alessandro also played a leading role in the Este court and was ambassador to France, Spain, Rome and Germany. We do not have any information about Cesare’s twin sister, Lucrezia. Ercole died at a young age, while Margherita died when she was still a baby in arms. The second Margherita entered the Monastery of Santa Maria di Mortara and was twice abbess. Isabella also took the religious cloth in the Monastery of San Vito, of which she was twice Mother Superior.

Fiaschi Palace, in Ferrara,

The Fiaschi resided in the historic family palace, in the district of Mucina, close to the Church of Santa Giustina, where now is Via Garibaldi. They had inherited it from Cesare’s grandfather, Ludovico, who was particularly benefited by Duke Ercole I. Not only had the Duke nominated him Knight and attended his wedding with Margherita Perondoli, in 1478, but he donated to Ludovico the palace that he had confiscated from Matteo dall’Erbe from Milan, when the latter sided with Lionello d’Este in a conspiracy in 1476 (FRIZZI, 1796, AVENTI, 1838, MORONI, 1843). The palace was renovated around 1600 by Marquis Alessandro Fiaschi (AVENTI, 1838). It was, unfortunately, destroyed on December 29, 1943, during the first bombing of Ferrara (PIVA 2017) and now a modern condominium stands in its place.

The ruins of Palazzo Fiaschi, after the first bombing of Ferrara on December 29, 1943, during World War II

Maresti writes that:

“Cesare […] devoted entirely himself to the actions of chivalry, and therefore was highly celebrated in those times”. (MARESTI, 1708, p.156)

Interesting news about Cesare’s life also come from Abbot Antonio Libanori’s work. In the third part of his book Ferrara d’oro, “which contains the eulogies of the most famous and illustrious writers of this country”, Libanori offers us a portrait of Cesare which, to tell the truth, is rather conventional and generic:

Frontispiece of Abbot Libanori’s book

“Even the Marquis Cesare Fiaschi [probably Libanori refers to the qualification that the Fiaschi obtained later, while we saw that, according to Maresti, Cesare was Earl], Noble Ferrarese Knight, enjoyed beautiful and generous horses, and as his wealth corresponded to the generosity of his spirit, among the other magnificent and splendid operations, he used to keep a large number of graceful and well-made coursers in his Stable, of all the most famous breeds that one could have, not paying any attention at the expenses that he made to bring them not only from the Kingdom of Naples, but from the other side of the Alps [i.e. from northern Europe] and beyond the Sea, both for the service of the Coaches, as for the Saddle, for riding, handling weapons, hunting, as for tournaments and other chivalric games. He then had his Stables always full, and he wanted that they were very well fed, cared and trained in every attitude. And not only he used to attend to the Operations, but also, as a very expert in that chivalric profession, he composed a beautiful Treatise about bridling, training and shoeing horses, divided into three Books, in which there are the drawings of all kind of Bits, Bridles, Saddles, Horseshoes and anything else that is about this noble profession”. (LIBANORI, 1674, p.126)

Far more interesting is the description that Libanori provides of Fiaschi’s coat of arms:

Fiaschi’s coat of arms

“The Coat of Arms of this noble subject consists of three blackberries, placed in a triangle with green leaves in white field; with privilege of Maximilian the second, in November 6, 1568, the Imperial Black Eagles in golden field were granted to the Marquis Lords Fiaschi, so that today the Coat of Arms of the Marquis Lords is quartered with the Imperial Black Eagle in Golden Field and white flask in red field, in the middle of these four fields there is an escutcheon with the mentioned three blackberries, which is the ancient Coat of Arms of this noble House”. (LIBANORI, 1674, p.284)

Giacomo Attendolo Sforza (1369-1424), duke of Cotignola, in a miniature of the fifteenth century

The presence of the three blackberries recalls the history of the Fiaschi family. According to Maresti, it would have oriental origins and would have come to Italy from Greece, in the thirteenth century. At that time the family had not yet taken the surname we now know, but his members would have been known as “de Mori” (“mora” in Italian means blackberry, while “Mori” means “Moors”). However, they begin to have significant mention starting from the following century, when such a Pietro Gerasio was in the service of Giacomo Attendolo Sforza (1369-1424), duke of Cotignola, progenitor of the dynasty that would have soon take possession of the Duchy of Milan. Attendolo assigned Pietro Gerasio as a companion in arms to his son, Francesco.

Antonio Pollaiolo, Study for the equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza

Following Francesco, Pietro Gerasio participated in the war of succession of the Kingdom of Naples, opposing Alfonso V of Aragon. According to Maresti, the acquisition of the surname Fiaschi went back to an episode of this war, in which Francesco and Pietro Gerasio fought with the colors of Queen Johanna II of Naples. In the alternating vicissitudes of the conflict, at a certain moment, the queen had to flee for the chase of the enemy troops and during the flight, she found herself extremely thirsty and in a place where there was no water. Pietro Gerasio then helped her with a flask of wine, which he had found there. Since then, in the army, they began to call him “Pietro dal Fiasco” (“Peter of the flask”) and this nickname passed to his descendants, replacing the old surname “de Mori” with that of “dal Fiasco” or “de Fiaschi”. Maresti writes that, to keep memory of this episode, Pietro Gerasio added the flask to his family’s coat of arms with the three blackberries. Moreover, according to Maresti, shortly before conquering the duchy of Milan, Francesco Sforza invested Pietro Gerasio, with the title of earl and assigned him the county of Castello di Tizzano, at that time in the State of Milan. As evidence of the close relationship that linked him to his lord, Pietro was one of the twelve knights admitted to the Sforza’s table. At his death, Pietro Gerasio was buried in the Pieve di Tizzano, which was in his possession and which today is in the province of Parma.

The Pieve di  Tizzano where Pietro Gervasio, ancestor of Cesare Fiaschi, is buried

The first mention of the surname Fiaschi in Ferrara dates back to April 4, 1439, in an act of purchase in which it is named an “egregio viro Bartolomeo alias cognominato Fiasco, fam. Illustrissimi Domini Marchionis Estensis, et filio quondam Iacobi Mattei de Moro” (egregious sir Bartolomeo also surnamed Fiasco, in the service of the very illustrious Lord Marquis d’Este and son of late Giacomo Matteo de Moro; MARESTI 1708, pp. 147-148). We know that he received a land grant with the title of Ferrarese Noble from Nicolò III d’Este in 1428 and obtained further benefits in 1431. Bartolomeo had three sons. Ludovico was one of them and he served the Estensi, obtaining ample benefits and possessions in return. He is Cesare’s grandfather, from whom the family inherited the Palace in the city of Ferrara.

It is probable that Cesare’s last years were distressed by a serious threat. The Italy in which our noble knight lived was pervaded by the religious ferment born with the Lutheran Reformation and by the consequent reaction of the Church of Rome that, with the Council of Trent, had decided to repress that ferment with every means. In 1551, in Ferrara a preacher of Sicilian origin was tried, sentenced and hanged. He was a Benedictine monk, Giorgio Rioli, known as Giorgio Siculo, author of works judged heretical, in which he announced extraordinary revelations, that he claimed were communicated to him directly by Christ. Powerful and humble men, as well as religious and laity, were fascinated by his doctrines, which were disclosed in secret form. The persecution of his followers continued for a few decades after his death.

On December 3, 1567 Francesco Severi, named l’Argenta, was arrested. He was a famous physician and professor of the University of Ferrara. The process lasted for several months and involved other people from Ferrara. The sentence was delivered in early August 1568, and we know from a chronicle of that time, that it was read publicly in Ferrara on the 29th of the same month. Severi was condemned to perpetual jail, as well as several other followers of the sect. Three of them were beheaded and then burned. Among other convictions there is also that of Cesare Fiaschi, a gentleman from Ferrara, who was condemned to ten years in jail. The chronicle that reports this news warns that, apart from the dead, all the people who was condemned “shortly afterwards, their condemnations were partly forgiven, some by the intercession of friends, and others by other arrangements, but principally because the inquisitor who succeeded the one who condemned them, was less harsh” (cited in PROSPERI, 2011, p 280). Unfortunately, this did not happen to Francesco Severi, who was again found guilty on 13 July 1570 and a month later, beheaded and burned.

In his last years Fiaschi may have been convicted for heresy

If indeed the Cesare Fiaschi who was condemned as a follower of the Giorgian sect, is our author, it is probable that  he could have benefited from the intercessions of powerful friends and of his family and that he did not end his days in a cell, or chained to the oars of a galley (at the time, convictions were often served on warships, in conditions that made the convicted regret not being in the damp dungeons of the Castle of Ferrara). This condemnation for heresy, still to be verified and investigated, could however explain a certain reticence regarding the figure of Cesare of the authors who wrote about the Fiaschi family in epochs immediately following the events, when perhaps the memory of the events was still alive. They usually remember only his work, without talking of other details. Maresti, who is the one who wrote more about Cesare’s life, makes no mention of any condemnation.

In any case, the book of Abbot Libanori offers us an extremely interesting pronouncement, where, on the subject of Cesare Fiaschi, he writes:

“the aforementioned subject died in the year 1571, on the 12th of October, and was buried in the church of Saint John Baptist of the Lateran Canons”. (LIBANORI, 1674, p.284)

The Church of Saint John the Baptist in Ferrara
(picture by Gino Perin)

I confess that when I read these few lines I jumped on the chair! Not only do we finally know when Fiaschi died, but also where his mortal remains rest. However, while I have no reason to doubt a date which is quoted with such certainty and precision, I have more than one reason to consider doubtful this indication of the place of burial. The first one, because I visited the church of San Giovanni Battista in Ferrara, where there is no trace of the tomb of Cesare Fiaschi, while the epigraphs of various other burials are preserved. What is above all strange, is that no other author (among those that I have been able to read and who have described the church) mention this tomb, while they all precisely list others. There is another reason that is puzzling. In his Compendio historico dell’origine, accrescimento, e prerogative delle Chiese, e luoghi pij della città, e diocesi di Ferrara, e delle memorie di que’ personaggi di pregio, che in esse son seppelliti (Historical Compendium of the origin, growth, and prerogatives of the Churches, and holy places of the city, and diocese of Ferrara, and of the memories of those valuable figures, which are buried in them), published in 1621 (therefore in a epoch closer to that of Fiaschi’s death), Marcantonio Guarini writes that the tomb of the Fiaschi Family was located in the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi, next to the Chapel of the Crucifix. Here, according to Guarini, Ludovico, who was dear to the duke Ercole I d’Este, was buried with his wife Margheria Perondoli, and their descendants. Among these, Guarini also mentions

“Cesare subject of high intelligence, who wrote a useful treatise about harnessing, training and shoeing Horses”. (GUARINI, 1621, p. 49)

The church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Ferrara

If the Fiaschi had a family tomb, it is indeed probable that Cesare was also buried there. The church of Santa Maria dei Servi was demolished in 1635 and rebuilt a few decades later. From the book that Cesare Barotti dedicated in the second half of the eighteenth century to the Pitture e Scolture che si trovano nelle Chiese della Citta di Ferrara (Paintings and Sculptures which can be found in the Churches of the City of Ferrara), we know that the tomb was relocated to the new church  where the Fiaschi family continued to have their chapel:

the Chapel of the noble Fiaschi Family; where the main painting is Saint Pellegrino Laziosi, whose leg is healed by the Crucifix; work by Giovanna Durandi from Milan. The four lateral Paintings, which show some actions of the aforesaid Saint, were worked by Giuseppe Morganti from Pistoia. (BAROTTI; 1770, p. 73)

Unfortunately, today there is no apparent evidence left in the church. The interior has been remodeled several times and it is now altered by an ugly decoration, probably dating back to the late nineteenth century. The paintings mentioned by Barotti are not there anymore and it is impossible for the visitor to identify which of the niches dug in the walls could accommodate them. In short, research can and must go on.

The plate which opens the second part of Cesare Fiaschi’s treatise

NOTE: This article summarizes the contents of the lecture I gave at the Ferrara Press Club (Circolo della Stampa in Ferrara), Saturday, September 1, 2018. I hereby express all my friendship and gratitude to Angelo Grasso, president of the UAIPRE – ANCCE Italia, the Italian Association of PRE breeders, for inviting me and encouraging me to deepen my studies about Cesare Fiaschi. My thoughts then go to the Ferrara Press Club, and in particular to the vice president Simonetta Savino, to the secretary Gino Perin and to the entire Board of Directors, who welcomed me as honorary member. The friendship, the consideration and the affection of my Ferrarese friends are a very precious gift to me.












Francesco AVENTI, Il servitore di piazza, guida per Ferrara, Pomatelli Tipografo, 1838.

Cesare BAROTTI, Pitture e Scolture che si trovano nelle Chiese della Citta di Ferrara, Ferrara, appresso Giuseppe Rinaldi, 1770.

Antonio FRIZZI, Memorie per la storia di Ferrara, Ferrara, per Francesco Pomatelli, 1796, Tomo IV.

Marcantonio GUARINI, Compendio historico dell’origine, accrescimento, e prerogatiue delle Chiese, e luoghi pij della citta, e diocesi di Ferrara, e delle memorie di que’ personaggi di pregio, che in esse son sepelliti, Ferrara, presso gli heredi di Vittorio Baldini, 1621

Antonio LIBANORI, Ferrara d’oro. Parte terza. Che contiene gl’elogij de’ più famosi, ed illustri scrittori di questa patria, i quali anno alla stampa l’opere loro di sagra teologia, leggi, filosofia, … e d’ogn’altra più erudita, e varia lettione, Ferrara, nella Stampa Camerale, 1674.

Alfonso MARESTI, Teatro geneologico et istorico dell’antiche & illustri famiglie di Ferrara, Ferrara, Nella stampa Camerale Vol. III, 1708.

André MONTEILHET, Les Maîtres de l’oeuvre équestre, Arles, Actes Sud, 1979 (nuova ed. 2009).

Gaetano MORONI, Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni, Venezia, Tipografia Emiliana, 1843.

Florio PIVA, C’era una volta Palazzo Fiaschi, Un gioiello architettonico della vecchia via Garibaldi, Listone Magazine, 30 novembre 2017.

Adriano PROSPERI, L’eresia del Libro Grande. Storia di Giorgio Siculo e della sua setta, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2011.

Four millennia of equestrian civilization on display (part2)

Very rare bronze cheekpieces of an ancient Chinese bit,
dating back to the Shang Dynasty, about 1,100 BC
Giannelli Collection

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Golden ornaments of Ostrogoth harnesses, Viking bits and stirrups, rare ancient Chinese bits and cheekpieces are among the most extraordinary specimens displayed for the first time in the exhibition Il Cavallo: 4.000 anni di storia, at the Pinacoteca Züst, near Lugano

The archaeological section is, for certain, the most extraordinary part of the Giannelli Collection of ancient bits. In the first part of this article, we saw some of the most valuable pieces displayed for the first time in the exhibition at the Pinacoteca Züst, coming from Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. Nevertheless, the Giannelli Collection also includes some very precious ancient findings from the Far East, starting with two very rare bronze cheekpieces, dating back to the Shang dynasty, around 1,100 BC.

Chinese bronze bits with spiral mouthpieces
Han Period 206 BC – 220 Ad
Giannelli Collection

This section of the collection includes several bits, some with elegant spiral mouthpieces, and two exquisite terracotta horse heads, dated exactly between 206 and 220 BC by means of the thermoluminescence dating method.

Terracotta horse heads
Han, Period 206 BC – 220 BC
Giannelli Collection

In the exhibition, there is also a considerable variety of ancient Roman bits. These are particularly rare because they are generally made of iron and, for this reason, they were much more perishable than the older bronze bits. In this era, it is surprising to see the use of mouthpieces made up of rotating washers, bristling with spikes. The shape of some bits, which seem to foreshadow the modern curb bit with long shanks, but still without a curb chain, is also intriguing. In any case, these were very severe bits (at the limit of torture) and the way they really worked is still rather mysterious.

Ancient Roman bit
Giannelli Collection

In the exhibition, there is also a beautiful ancient Roman frontplate, with “psalion” (a kind of metallic muzzle). It is displayed together with two bronze blinkers, in order to give an idea of the magnificence of a Roman parade harness.

Roman frontplate with “psalion”
Roman period
Giannelli Collection

The harnesses used by the so-called “barbarians” were equally, if not more, splendid. The Giannelli Collection presents two rare sets of decorative plates for harnesses in gold and garnets, datable to the Ostrogoth era (5th-6th century AD). One of them is complete with iron snaffle, and bronze cheekpieces, and displayed mounted on a horse head, to give an idea of the use and of the disposition of those precious decorations.

Rare set of of decorative plates
for harnesses in gold and garnets
Ostrogoth era (5th-6th century AD)
Giannelli Collection

Detail of decorative plates
Ostrogoth era (5th-6th century AD)
Giannelli Collection

A very interesting showcase was the one presenting Viking bits, spurs and stirrups. In addition to being formidable navigators, the Vikings were, in fact, also skilled riders. They carried their mounts on their ships, tied one next to the other, and they were probably already saddled. As soon as they reached the land, they employed them for their fearsome raids. It is noteworthy that those are the oldest stirrups documented in the Giannelli Collection.

Viking bits, spurs and stirrups
Ninth – Eleventh century
Giannelli Collection

In regard to stirrups, the exhibition shows some truly peculiar and rare specimens. They are strange stirrups in the shape of a cross (“estribos de cruz”), made of forged, engraved, or pierced iron. They were used in Mexico between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, when they were finally banned, being considered blasphemous for their shape that evoked the Holy Cross. The Catholic Church ordered their destruction, under penalty of excommunication. It is exactly for this reason, that the remaining specimens are extremely rare. One of those that are part of the Giannelli Collection bears the brand of Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras (1485/1495 approximately – 1541). He was a Spanish leader, who participated in the conquest of Cuba (1510-11) and in that of the Aztec Empire by Hernán Cortés (1519-1521). He was also governor of Guatemala and he is sadly famous for his cruelty against the native populations of Central America.

The rare mexican “estribos de cruz”
Giannelli Collection

The exhibition then shows Giannelli’s conspicuous collection of Renaissance and Baroque bits (I spoke extensively about it on the occasion of the Exhibition held in Travagliato and of the publication of the book Equus Frenatus). This section has recently been further enriched by a magnificent iron frontplate, dating back to the sixteenth century, on which stands the coat of arms of the Piccolomini family.

Iron frontplate, with Piccolomini family’s coat of arms
Sixteenth century
Giannelli Collection

A perfectly preserved saddle of the “à piquer “type, in leather and crimson velvet, dating back to the eighteenth century, is also very beautiful and very interesting to see. The small dimensions of the saddle testify that the riders were, at that time, most likely not very tall or big.

“À piquer” saddle from the Seventeenth century
Giannelli Collection

In short, the exhibition confirms the exceptional quality of the collection gathered with patience and expertise by Claudio Giannelli. It is a truly unique heritage that should deserve a permanent exhibition in a museum that would finally document, in a complete and scientifically reliable manner, the multimillennial relationship between man and horse. Such a museum location is still lacking, but we hope the light will soon be seen for the importance of this collection.

Various Renaissance and Baroque bits
Giannelli Collection

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.