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


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


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 >


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]

The Saracen Joust in Piazza Navona (part 2)

Filippo Gagliardi e Andrea Sacchi, The Saracen Joust in Piazza Navona (1656-1659) Museo di Roma - Palazzo Braschi

Filippo Gagliardi e Andrea Sacchi,
The Saracen Joust in Piazza Navona (1656-1659)
Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the first part of this article we analyzed the rules of the Saracen Joust in the seventeenth century. In this second part, we discover the complex dramaturgy of these types of equestrian festivals of the Baroque era.

Since the Renaissance, jousts and tournaments undertook eminently theatrical features. They were carried out following a literary plot, which included a prologue and an epilogue that constituted the spectacular and narrative frame in which the chivalrous trials took place. In the days preceding the contest, a knight, the so-called “Maintainer”, presented his cartel. This usually took place during a show in which sonnets were recited and music and dances were performed. Generally, the Maintainer impersonated a fairy-tale character of exotic origin. In the case of the joust in Piazza Navona, the role of the Maintainer was attributed to Marquis Cornelio Bentivoglio, who was considered a great expert in matters of chivalry and was the nephew of Cardinal Guido, who was the chronicler of the joust. Cardinal Bentivoglio’s very detailed account of the Joust and the beautiful drawings by Andrea Sacchi, which enrich the 1635 edition, offer us the opportunity to discover and “see” the complex and very interesting dramaturgy of this kind of equestrian festival in the Baroque era.

The first act was held on the Shrove Saturday of 1634, in the house of Orazio Magalotti, where the pick of the Roman nobility had gathered. During the evening, a chariot drawn by an eagle, appeared in the hall. It carried a singer impersonating Fame. After he had sung some verses, a herald entered the room and read the cartel of the Maintainer, which was written by the poet Fulvio Testi, who was also the author of the verses sung by the singer of Cardinal Barberini, Marc Antonio Pasqualini. The Maintainer presented himself as a mysterious Egyptian knight, Tiamo of Memphis, and challenged his opponents to prove him false with weapons of the assertion:

that secrecy in love is a superstitious abuse, who supposes or lack of merits of the Lady, or poverty of spirit in the Knight (BENTIVOGLIO, 1654, p. 201).

Andrea Sacchi, The Charito of Fame (impersonated by Marc’Antonio Pasqualini, singer in the service of Cardinal Barberini) in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The Chariot of Fame
(impersonated by Marc’Antonio Pasqualini, singer in the service of Cardinal Barberini)

The presentation of the mysterious character of the Maintainer, and the challenge he launched thus, represented the fabulous premise of the joust and placed it within a rich texture of symbolic cross-references to the aristocratic and courtly culture and the chivalric imagery.

In order to make the joust magnificent, twenty-four knights, divided into six different teams, were designated to participate. These knights were the so-called “adventurers,” that is, those who accepted the Maintainer’s challenge, and were ready to demonstrate with weapons in hand, that his statement was false. The first team to reply to the Maintainer’s challenge was the team of Cardinal Barberini. Again, participants impersonated fictional characters of exotic origin. In the scenic fiction they were, in fact, presented as four kings, who were held prisoners by the Romans: Aristobulus, King of Palestine; Tigranes, Infant of Armenia; Artaphernes Prince of Bithynia and Ossatre, ruler of Cappadocia. Their response was proclaimed on the occasion of another party, held at Falconieri’s palace a few days after the presentation of the cartel. During the evening, after attending a ballet, the guests moved into a room where the chairs had been arranged as in a theater. Then two actresses, dressed like Nymphs, appeared. They were there, together with some shepherds and a herald. This latter read the answer of the four knights, who said they were willing to demonstrate:

the need for secrecy in love more adequately with the spear than with the pen. (BENTIVOGLIO, 1654, page 206)

Andrea Sacchi, Ballet of Nymphs, and Shepherds in teh Falconieri Palace (during the evening in which the

Andrea Sacchi, Ballet of Nymphs and Shepherds in the Falconieri Palace
(during the evening in which the “adventurers” replied to the challenge of the Mainteiner)

In the following days, in Piazza Navona, the fence for the joust was prepared, surrounded by boxes and tiers of seats. It occupied about two-thirds of the square, which stands on the ruins of the Diocletian’s stadium and preserves, in part, its shape. The boxes and the stands for the public were placed at a certain height, so that horses and operating personnel could be placed below, without disturbing the audience. The box for the ladies was set up right across from the Saracen dummy, and was accessed directly from the Mellini Palace (later incorporated into the Pamphili Palace, which still overlooks the square). The box, covered and lavishly decorated with rich fabrics, was intended first and foremost for Anna Colonna, the wife of Taddeo Barberini, the brother of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, and for Costanza, who was the mother of the same Cardinal. Beside them sat, in an order of precedence established strictly according to their rank, the wife of the ambassador of Spain and the other ladies of the Roman nobility. The stage of the judges was, instead, placed on the opposite side of the fence, inside the competition area. The whole arena was surrounded by stands for the public. The race course was of an octagonal shape. The career (i.e. the track on which the horses run during a joust) consisted of a double fence, divided by the lists and was paved with bricks. Finally, to the right of the theater’s southern gateway, there was the Maintainer’s pavilion: a rich marquee, from where the challenger watched the competition, surrounded by his retinue.

Andrea Sacchi, Andrea Sacchi, View of Piazza Navona during the Joust, the 25 the february 1634 (on the right, marked with the letter N, the box of Donna Anna Colonna; on the left, marked by the letter M, the boc of the judges) in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, Andrea Sacchi, View of Piazza Navona during the Joust, February 25, 1634
(on the right, marked with the letter N, the box of Donna Anna Colonna;
on the left, marked by the letter M, the box of the judges)

On the morning of Saturday, February 25, 1634 people began to crowd the boxes and the stands around the competition field. Many high-ranking personalities attended, leaning out of the windows of the buildings, while their servants and common people crowded on the roofs of the palaces. When the ladies and the judges took their places in their respective boxes, the festival began. The teams of knights, accompanied by their seconds and by a large cortege of pages, grooms and trumpeters, made their entry into the field, following a strict order of succession. The view was magnificent, considering that three hundred and sixty people, and a hundred and thirty eight horses, took part in the show.

The first to be received by the Master of the Field was the Maintainer. He was dressed in a sumptuous green silk costume, embroidered in gold and decorated with many pearls and precious stones. He had a giant feather headdress, with a sun and the motto “Non latet quod lucet” (“what shines is not hidden”) in the center. The horse’s harness was just as rich and exotic. He was preceded by a procession made up by four trumpeters, six horses led in hand, twenty-eight grooms on foot and four pages on horseback who were carrying baskets from which they distributed printed copies of the cartel and of various sonnets. They were followed by the seconds, Don Prospero Colonna and the Count of Castel Villano, and by a page who carried the spear and the shield of the Maintainer.

Andrea Sacchi, The entry into the field of the Maintainer in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The entry into the field of the Maintainer

The magnificence of the clothes and of the rich harnesses of the horses had a great importance in this kind of show. This is demonstrated by the fact that, at least since the Renaissance, the very detailed description of the quality of the fabrics, the style of the clothes of the riders, and their retinue, took up pages and pages in the chronicles of jousts and tournaments, even being the largest part of the chronicles. These parades, in fact, represented an opportunity for the public expression of the power of the aristocracy. The noble wanted to dazzle the people with showy and flashy clothes, made with rare and precious fabrics. On the other hand, the showing off of wealth by the nobles was not directed only to common people, but also to their peers, in a competition for which they were ready to spend huge sums, in some cases up to getting into debt and ruining their finances. But it was not always gold that glittered. In some cases, the showy trappings of pages and footmen were made, as real theatrical costumes, with the poorest materials, such as papier mâché and plaster.

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Kings prisoners of the Romans (The parade was open by the dwarf in the service of Cardinal Barberini) in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Kings prisoners of the Romans
(the parade was open by the dwarf in the service of Cardinal Barberini)

The first team of adventurers to enter the field, after the Maintainer was, of course, the team of Cardinal Barberini. The parade was opened by the dwarf of the Cardinal who rode a small bull, covered with gaudy trappings. At that time, almost all nobles kept dwarves at their service, as jesters, or just for company. He was followed by a cortege similar to that of the Maintainer, made of seconds, trumpeters, pages, grooms and spare horses. Again, the knights had extravagant dresses and tiaras with feathers on their heads and were holding a dart in their right hand. It should be noted that one of the knights of this team was Domenico Cinquini, one of the most famous Roman horseman of the time. In the second edition of his book La perfettione del cavallo (The perfection of the horse, 1669), Francesco Liberati wrote about him:

[he was] of such great value and experience in the Chivalric things that without any exaggeration it can be said that in our century he was the Apollo of this noble profession; since there was not any wild and untamed horse that under him did not acquired a wonderful gentleness and obedience; nor it was ever found such a skilled professor of this art, who did not voluntarily surrender and admire the lightness and the gracefulness with which he held himself on horseback, so that I sometimes saw him riding with such steadiness that if any subtle thing would have been placed between the stirrup and the foot, or between the boot and the saddle no one would have seen it move at all.  (LIBERATI, 1669, p. 78)

Andrea Sacchi, The teamo of the Indignant knights in BENTIVOGLIO 1634

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Indignant knights

After entering the field and parading before the audience, the knights of the first team faced the Saracen. Then the following team entered and so on. All knights were impersonating fabulous characters. There was the team of the Roman knights, that of the Provençal, the team of the so-called Pertinacious, the one entitled to the Goddess Isis and that of the Indignant knights. Each of them “paced the field”, ie paraded before the boxes and the stands, while the pages distributed sonnets and printed copies of the knights’ replies to the Maintainer’s challenge. Then they took the place of the team that preceded them and the riders competed in the joust, charging the dummy with their spear. In this way the teams were continuously moving,

so that the Theater could easily gaze fondly, from all sides, the dresses and liveries of each Squadron.  (BENTIVOGLIO, 1635, p. 115)

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Provençal knights (At the end of the joust this team won the deciding-game for Masgalano prize) in Bentivoglio, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Provençal knights
(At the end of the joust this team won
the deciding-game for the “Masgalano” prize)
in Bentivoglio, 1635

When all the riders had run against the Saracen, the Master of the Field ordered them to made another parade before the audience. Finally, the blare of trumpets announced the trail of “the spear of the Lady”, a sort of special prize, which consisted of a jewel studded with diamonds, placed in the middle of a bunch of red roses, offered by Anna Colonna. During this trial, twelve knights hit the dummy in the front and then resulted at an equal score. The judges therefore decided to draw lots for the winner. After the end of the trails, the knights kept in showing off, demonstrating their skill before the audience. In particular, the Maintainer charged the dummy holding a spear in each arm and driving the horse with the reins between his teeth, finally hitting the target with both spears. Then he ordered to tie together three spears and charged and hit the dummy with them, nearly cutting off his head. His superiority over his rivals in the chivalric trials was overwhelming, so much so that he won sixteen awards. These were jewels that the knight gave as a present to the most prominent ladies, as a sign of gallantry.

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the knights of the the Goddess Isis in BENTIVOGLIO 1634

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the knights of the the Goddess Isis

In addition to the prizes awarded for the chivalrous trials, each joust also included a prize to the squadron that was judged the more elegant and with better bearing. It was the so-called Masgalano (from the Spanish “mas galante”, i.e. the more gallant). This prize still survives today in the Palio of Siena, in which it is awarded to the contrada whose “comparsa” (i.e. team) is considered the most “elegant”, during the parade that precedes the race. In the Joust of Piazza Navona the prize, offered by Cardinal Barberini, consisted of a magnificent silver sword and a beaver hat, gloves and other ornaments. The judges were the Ladies, and they decreed an ex-aequo among the knights of the First Squadron (the one of the four Kings) and that of the Provençal knights. It was decided to elect a champion for each team, who had to run three times with his spears against the Saracen, to determine the verdict. The winner was Ambrogio count of Carpegna, of the Provençal team.

Andrea Sacchi, The ship of Bacchus (Along the broadside are the emblems of those who at the time were the two most powerful families of Rome: the bees for the Barberini and the column for the Colonna) in BENTIVOGLIO, 1635

Andrea Sacchi, The ship of Bacchus
(along the broadside are the emblems of those who at the time were the two most powerful families of Rome: the bees of the Barberini and the column of the Colonna)

The entire show lasted over five hours. When it was beginning to get dark, some cannon shots were heard. Then two chariots entered inside the fence: one shaped like a ship, the second in the form of a boat. The first was richly decorated with the emblems of the Barberini and the Colonna (at the time, the two main noble families in Rome). The ship was armed with cannons and fireworks and carried actors impersonating the god Bacchus, accompanied by the Laughter, bacchantes, satyrs, shepherds and gunners firing blanks with cannons. The boat was, instead, carrying several musicians, who held a concert under the box of Anna Colonna and of the Marchioness of Castel Rodrigo, wife of the Spanish ambassador. The spectacle of the Ship of Bacchus excited such wonder that the people demanded that it was exposed, so that even those who had not attended the joust could come to admire it. And so it was done, while the ladies and the knights spent the evening at the reception hosted by Cardinal Barberini, in the Palazzo Mellini, which overlooked the square.

Andrea Sacchi, The musicians boat (After covering the field, they held a concert under the Ladies box) in BENTIVOGLIO ,1635

Andrea Sacchi, The musicians boat
(after covering the field, they held a concert under the Ladies box)


ADEMOLLO, Alessandro, Il Carnevale del 1634 in Piazza Navona, in Il carnevale di Roma nei secoli XVII e XVIII : appunti storici con note e documenti, Roma, A. Sommaruga, 1883, pp. 23-58.

BENTIVOGLIO, Guido, Festa fatta in Roma alli 25. di febraio MDCXXXIV, in Roma, data in luce da Vitale Mascardi, 1635.

LIBERATI, Francesco, La Perfettione del cavallo, Roma, per Michele Hercole, 1639 (2° ed. Roma, 1669).


Hati Trust Digital Library

The Saracen Joust in Piazza Navona (part 1)

Giovanni Ferri, Saracen joust in Piazza Navona in the 25th of February 1634 (Seventeenth century) Museo di Roma - Palazzo Braschi

Giovanni Ferri, Saracen joust in Piazza Navona in the 25th of February 1634 (Seventeenth century)
Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

With the typical unscrupulousness of the Popes of the time, in 1628, Urban VIII ordained his nephew as cardinal when he was just twenty. In a short time, Antonio Barberini gained a prominent position in the Roman Curia, where his brother, Francesco, and his uncle, Antonio the elder, also sat in the college of cardinals. To celebrate his role and the power of his family, which was enormously increased because of the protection of the Pope, at the beginning of 1634, Antonio decided to finance, with the fabulous sum of 60,000 scudi, a large Saracen Joust in honor of Prince Alexander Carl Wasa of Poland, who at that time was on a visit to Rome. His intention was the joust had to be the culminating event of that year’s Carnival and it would then remain in the memory for posterity. Piazza Navona was chosen as the scene of the joust. For several centuries, in fact, the Carnival jousts and other chivalric trails were held in that square. The literary conception of the joust was entrusted to the poet Fulvio Testi, who was resident (akind of diplomat) of the Duke of Modena, while the staging was commissioned to architect Francesco Guitti, from Ferrara.

We have several testimonies of this formidable joust. Beginning with two beautiful paintings, preserved in the Museo di Roma at Palazzo Braschi, one by Filippo Gagliardi and Andrea Sacchi, which offers an overview of the square, and the other attributed to Giovanni Ferri, giving a closer view. We also have a detailed account of the event by Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio, published in 1635, and enriched by splendid drawings by Andrea Sacchi.

Carlo Maratta, Portrait of cardinal Antonio Barberini (1670) Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini - Roma

Carlo Maratta, Portrait of
Cardinal Antonio Barberini (1670)
Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica
di Palazzo Barberini – Roma

The Saracen Joust is a special type of chivalric trial that consists of charging, at the canter, and hitting, with a spear, a rotating dummy that is placed on top of a pole. Usually the dummy has his right arm armed with a mace, or a lash, and has a shield on his left. According to some, this exercise would be based on that of the palus (pole, in Latin), described in Vegetius’ Epitoma rei militaris (IV-V century A.D.), which was used to train Roman soldiers to strike with the sword. The Saracen Joust was also called Quintain and included the variant in which, instead of hitting the dummy, the rider had to insert the tip of his spear in a ring suspended from the dummy’s arm. It is called “Saracen” because the rotating dummy typically had the features and clothing of a Moor, i.e. of a Muslim, like the pirates who, having come from North Africa, raided tat the time he Italian coasts.

On the contrary to what we see today, in many re-enactments of this type of Joust (for example in Arezzo, or in Ascoli Piceno), originally the rider did not have to hit the shield of the dummy, but its head. In fact, if the rider hit the shield he was penalized. This is explicitly explained in the “chapters to be observed in the Feast,” that is to say the rules of the joust held in Piazza Navona in 1634.

The one who will hit from the eyebrows up, and in the sign adjusted for this purpose, breaking [the spear] will gain three strokes. From the Eyebrows to the Mouth, he will gain two, and one from the Mouth to the Chin, according to the distinction made apparent by the lines. Without breaking [the spear], it will be deemed he had not hit, nor made the stroke. Breaking from the Chin and the Throat down he does not gain any stroke. If the ferrule falls, without breaking, and without detaching wood from wood, it will not be deemed broken, and if the Spear touches one of the lines it will be granted the next lowest stroke. […]
Who will hit the shield, or other place in the body of the Saracen, breaking or not, will lose a stroke among those already gained or between those he still has to gain.
The one who during the Charge will lose the Spear, the Hat, the Sword, the Bridle, or the Stirrup will lose the Charge. (BENTIVOGLIO, 1635, p. 20)

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Roman knights in BENTIVOGLIO 1634

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Roman knights

The score was then awarded as follows: three points (“strokes”) to the rider hitting the dummy on the front (“from the eyebrows up”), where a specific target was placed (“the sign adjusted for this purpose”). Two points were awarded if the rider hit the face (“from the Eyebrows to the Mouth”), one if he hit the chin (“from the Mouth to the Chin”). These areas were delimited by lines drawn on the dummy’s head (“the distinction made apparent by the lines”). To be valid, the blow had to produce the rupture of the tip of the spear, which for this purpose was made of a softer wood than the one used for war spears. In the event that the blow just produced the detachment of the tip of the spear (“ferrule”), but without breaking the wooden pole, the blow was considered invalid, while if the spear had hit one of the lines that divided the target, i.e. the head of the Saracen, the rider was awarded with the score associated to the lower part of the target, that is to say the lowest. If the rider hit the shield, or another part of the dummy’s body, whether breaking the spear, or not, he was still penalized by one point. Finally, if, during the charge the rider lost his spear, sword, hat, stirrup or bridle, he lost the “charge”, that is to say that he received no points.

Crispin de Passe the young, Quintain, in PLUVINEL, 1625, Plat. 47

Crispin de Passe the young, Quintain, in PLUVINEL, 1625, Plat. 47

We find these same rules in the slightly foregoing French treatise by Antoine de Pluvinel L’instruction du Roi en l’exercice de monter à cheval (1625), proving that not only they were already in use before, but also that they were wide spread also outside Italy. The treatise is written in the form of a dialogue between the author and the King of France, Louis XIII, who was his pupil in the knightly disciplines:

SIRE, sometimes the riders get tired of doing always the same thing and they find too difficult and sometimes painful to often repeat the exercise of confronting each other entering the lists; instead they enjoy the ring joust, of which they rarely get tired. But considering this exercise not martial enough, the more inventive among them found an intermediate exercise, which consists in placing the figure of a man in the same position and at the same height as an opponent who is facing them at the lists. Fully armed, they break their spears against this silhouette, which they also call Quintain, attacking it as they would do with a real man; thus performing an exercise that is halfway between the fury of facing each other at the lists and the gentleness of the ring joust: the point at which to break [the spear] is in the head, the best blows are the ones above the eyes,  in the forehead, the less good are those who hit below. And if some evil man-at-arms hits the shield that the Quintain has on the left arm, this last turns on a pivot, and it is likely to hit the one who uses his spear so badly, who thus loses his charge because of his bad grace. (PLUVINEL, 1625, pp. 138-139 [1627, pp. 177-178).

The author’s words are made explicit by one of the wonderful plates by Crispin de Passe the young, which decorates Pluvinel’s book and make it one of the most beautiful treatises about horsemanship ever. In plate number 47 we see the king in the act of hitting the Quintain (which looks like a Roman emperor, armed with sword and shield, and with his head crowned with laurel). The sovereign hits a target at the center of the dummy’s forehead. In the background, some courtiers and the author mounted on horseback watch with a pleased expression, while a page follows the rider closely, carrying a new spear.

Go to part 2… ->

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Pertinacious knights in BENTIVOGLIO 1634

Andrea Sacchi, The team of the Pertinacious knights


BENTIVOGLIO, Guido, Festa fatta in Roma alli 25. di febraio MDCXXXIV, in Roma, data in luce da Vitale Mascardi, 1635.

PLUVINEL, Antoine de, L’instruction du Roy en l ’exercice de monter à cheval, desseignées & gravées par Crispian de Pas le jeune, Paris, M. Nivelle, 1625.


Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi:

Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica – Palazzo Barberini: