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.

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]


Bellerophon kills the Chimera
Cesare Fiaschi, Traité de la maniere de bien emboucher, manier et ferrer les chevaux, Paris, chez Adrien Perrier, 1564 (frontispiece)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Son of Glaucus and grandson of Sisyphus, the king and founder of the city of Corinth, the hero was actually called Ipponoo and assumed the name of Bellerophon after he inadvertently killed Bellero. On this point, however, the classical sources are not definitive. According to some, Bellero was the despot of Corinth, according to others, he was the ruler of Syracuse, and according to still more, Bellerophon would not have killed him, but rather his brother, Deliade. However, all sources agree that, as a result of a crime committed involuntarily, Bellerophon had to leave his hometown and came to the city of Tiryns, where he was a guest of the king, Proitos. The king’s wife, Stheneboia, fell in love with him, but when the hero rejected her advances, she accused him, to her husband, of trying to seduce her. Proitos, to which the laws of hospitality forbade killing Bellerophon, sent him to his father in law, Iobates king of Lycia, under the pretext of delivering a message. In fact, in the letter, Proitos asked to his father in law to kill the young man. However, even Iobates felt bound by the laws of hospitality. So, instead of killing him directly, he decided to send him against the Chimera, a monster spitting fire who was terrorizing his kingdom, whose body was composed of the parts of three animals..

Chimera of Arezzo (V sec. a. C)
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Florence (bronze)

According to the majority of the sources, excluding Homer, Bellerophon faced the combat  riding Pegasus. Thanks to the speed of his horse, he was then able to avoid the attacks of the monster and then to kill her with a trick. On the tip of his lance, the hero put a piece of lead, which was melted by the flames that sprang from the jaws of the Chimera. Bellerophon then poured the molten metal into the creature’s throat, suffocating her. Iobates then asked him to face the barbarous tribe of the Solymoi, followed by the Amazons. In both of these challenges, Pegasus contributed significantly to the victory of the hero. At this point, however, Iobates recognized the virtue and courage of Bellerophon. He revealed the request from Proitos and, as a sign of his esteem and friendship, he gave Bellerophon his daughter in marriage, sharing with him the kingdom.

The last part of the life of Bellerophon, however, was unhappy. Homer says that when the gods conceived a strong aversion toward him, he began to wander the plain of Alea, avoiding meeting other men. According to other sources, Bellerophon would be filled with pride for his achievements and aspired to challenge the gods. For this reason, Zeus sent a gadfly to harass the winged horse who, annoyed by his bite, finally unseated his rider.

Giovan Battista Tiepolo, Bellerophon kills the Chimera (detail) – 1723 – Palazzo Sandi-Porto (Cipollato) -Venice

The figures of Bellerophon and Pegasus are linked to the god Poseidon. In his Theogony, Hesiod claims that the winged horse originated from the neck of Medusa at the time when she was decapitated by Perseus with a scythe. Actually, Medusa had previously mated with the god Poseidon who took the form of a horse. Immediately after her death, the winged horse was raised to the heavenly abode of the gods, where he took on the task of bringing the lightning to Zeus. Also according to Hesiod, as well as Hyginus, the same Bellerophon was the son of Poseidon. The struggle that opposed them against the Chimera proposes the theme of the fight between a heavenly  knight and a hellish monster, which already occurred in the religions of Asia Minor and was then transposed in the Christian legend of St. George slaying the dragon. Having been able to reduce to obedience Pegasus, the terrible winged horse born from the blood of Medusa, Bellerophon especially fascinated the Renaissance authors of treatises about horsemanship.


HOMER, Iliad, VI

PINDAR, Olympic Odes, XIII.

HESIOD, Theogony, v. 281-286 e 325

HYGINUS, Fabula, 157

OVID, Metamorphoses, V, 250-268

TACCONE, Angelo, Bellerofonte, in AA. VV., Enciclopedia Italiana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Treccani, 1930.

WAGNER, Marc-André, Dictionnaire mythologique et historique du cheval, Monaco, Éditions du Rocher, 2006.



by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

We know very little about this mysterious character, whose name, however, is remembered for being the author of the oldest text dedicated to the care and training of the horse reached down to us. He lived in the thirteenth century BC.

Horses groomed and watered.
Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal (northern Iraq), 883-859 BC .
© Trustees of the British Museum

«Thus speaks Kikkuli, master horse trainer of the land of Mitanni», so begins his manual for training war horses. Despite being at the service of the Hittite king Suppiluliuma, Kikkuli was in fact a “stranger.” Mitanni or Mitani was the name of an empire on the left bank of the Euphrates, south of the Taurus, which included northern Mesopotamia and in the period of its greatest expansion (fifteenth century BC), the western part of Assyria. Mitanni was probably the capital of the kingdom, although the sources are also called the capital city Washshuggani. The population of this kingdom was of Hurrian origins. The Hurrians spoke their own language, such as that spoken by the Mitanni was nothing more than a dialect. They lived in Armenia, in the eastern provinces of the empire of the Hittites in Asia Minor, in northern Mesopotamia, and mixed with other populations, in Assyria, Babylon, Syria, and Palestine.

Fragment from the north-west palace.
© Trustees of the British Museum

Early in its history, the main rival of Mitanni was Egypt. The rise of the Hittites, however, pushed the Mitanni rulers to form an alliance with their old enemies, sealed by several marriages between Egyptian pharaohs and Mitanni’s princesses. Probably as a result of a conspiracy, which led the disorder in the empire of Mitanni, the Assyrians invaded the south-eastern Mesopotamia. The situation prompted the Hittite king Suppiluliuma to intervene on behalf of Mattiwaza, one of the princes of Mitanni, who was fighting for the succession. He gave him an Hittite princess as wife and put him on the throne as a vassal of his reign. Shortly after, however, Adad-nirari I of Assyria (1310-1281) won the country’s major cities and the kingdom of Mitanni passed to Assyria.

The Kikkuli text has a particular importance for philologists. According to Kammenhuber, who has studied all the fragments of the text, the four tablets were recorded by four different scribes, probably of Hurrian origin. Each one shows a different level of expertise of the Hittite language by the writer. It can be deduced from the text that Mitanni horse trainers, as Kikkuli, and their Hittites counterparts used common words, Hurrian and Hittite, but also technical terms derived from different languages spoken in Asia Minor, such as Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite,Luvian, Hurrian and Indo-Aryan.

The lion hunt (detail)
Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II
© Trustees of the British Museum


FURLANI, Giuseppe, Mitanni, in AA.VV., Enciclopedia Italiana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Treccani, 1934.

RAULWING, Peter, The Kikkuli Text. Hittite Training Instructions for Chariot Horses in the Second Half of the 2nd Millennium B.C. and Their Interdisciplinary Context 2009.

SESTILI, Antonio, Cavalli e cavalieri nel mondo antico, Roma, Società Editrice Dante Alighieri, 2012.

Further informatiom about the pictures pubblished in this page may be found folowwing this links:  Horses groomed and watered / Fragment from the North-west Palace / The lion hunt