Four millennia of equestrian civilization on display (part2)

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

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Roman bit
Giannelli Collection

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

Roman frontplate with “psalion”
Roman period
Giannelli Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rare mexican “estribos de cruz”
Giannelli Collection

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

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

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

“À piquer” saddle from the Seventeenth century
Giannelli Collection

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

Various Renaissance and Baroque bits
Giannelli Collection

Four millennia of equestrian civilization 
on display (part 1)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The necklace is decorated with human faces and pendants
Giannelli Collection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mycenaean bronze bit
Fourteenth century BC
Giannelli Collection

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

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

to be continued ->

The Austrian Art of Riding

Pas de deux in the Spanish Riding School of Vienna

Pas de deux in the Spanish Riding School of Vienna

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Have you ever wondered how the riders of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna can have the perfect seat that made them so famous in the world? Obviously, there may be different answers:  it is because they work hard and train consistently; it is because each of them is subjected to a long apprenticeship on the longe and without stirrups; and then, it is notorious, as Austrians have an inclination for precision and discipline. These are all answers that have a foundation, but basically are only part of the complete explanation. Primarily, to understand the supreme elegance of these riders, who have such an harmonious relationship with their horses, you have to consider that behind them there are four hundred and fifty years of history. A unique heritage that makes the Spanish Riding School a cornerstone of Austrian cultural identity and a point of reference for all those who love horsemanship.

But then someone will probably say: history by itself does not keep you in the saddle. It is true. However, in this case history is not a mere accumulation of dates and names faded by time, but it is a cultural and technical heritage that comes from four and a half centuries of searching for the perfect harmony between horse and man. It is a wealth of experience that is handed down from generation to generation, with patience and pride. So it is true: history does not keep you in the saddle, but knowledge does.

2 - CoverSo far, however, despite the importance of the Austro-Hungarian equestrian tradition which is recognized by all, the broader public knows very little about the history of the art of horseback riding in Austria. Now, finally, a book by Werner Poscharnigg fills this gap and tells us in a very clear and enjoyable, but also documented, style about the evolution of horsemanship in Austria, from the beginning of the sixteenth century until after World War II. It is really a beautiful book, which was first published in Austria, with the title Meilensteine österreichischer Reitkunst: Eine europäische Kulturgeschichte (2013), and now is available in a richly illustrated edition in English, with the title Austrian Art of Riding (Xenophon Press, 2015, pp. 222, $ 39.95).

First of all, Poscharnigg underlines that the modern Austrian equestrian tradition begins under a double influence: the Spanish and the Italian. The first was primarily due to the dynastic ties between the house of Habsburg and Spain. The Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519), in fact, organized the marriage of his son, Philip the Handsome (1578-1506), with the daughter of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, Joanna the Mad (1479-1555), creating a family bond meant to last into the following generations. At the time, Spain had already a well-established equestrian tradition and the horses bred on the Iberian Peninsula were the most valued in the courts of Europe. The supply of Andalusian blood in the Lipizzaner is well known and evident.

The first equestrian treatise published in Vienna is

The first equestrian treatise published in Vienna is
“Il cavallo da maneggio” (1650)
by Giovan Battista Galiberto

As for Italy, it is well known that during the Renaissance, the Italian culture exercised a very important role not only in the fields of literature and art, but also of horsemanship. In the sixteenth century, the first equestrian treatises were printed in Italy and riding schools and equestrian academies were established, as well as that the majority of the horsemen who were active in the courts of Europe were Italians. And the first book about horseback riding printed in Vienna was by an Italian author, who wrote in Italian and not in German. He was Giovan Battista Galiberto, author of Il cavallo da maneggio (The school horse, 1650). His work is certainly interesting. Poscharnigg analyzes it in detail, highlighting some very significant parts of it, such as the description of an exercise, named “cantone, o angolo” (i.e. corner), which was very similar to the “shoulder-in” described by La Guérinière a century later.

Johann Elias Ridinger, Left lead canter, Neue Reit Schul, 1770

Johann Elias Ridinger, Left lead canter, Neue Reit Schul, 1770

Following this period, Austrian horsemanship developed independently and had the Imperial Riding School, which we know today as the Spanish School, as its primary foundation. Poscharnigg underlines that in the Austrian equestrian tradition, the oral transmission of the equestrian knowledge prevails over the written. This undoubtedly makes the work of historians more difficult and has led to several misunderstandings and to the emergence of some clichés. For example, that the doctrine of the Spanish Riding School is essentially based on the teachings of La Guérinière. In fact, Poscharnigg shows that the main features of Austrian horsemanship (the extreme attention to the perfection of the seat, the accuracy of the aids, the kindness of the training) were already contained in the “compendium” in which Johann Christoph von Regenthal summed up his primary directives for the Imperial Riding School, where he was Chief Rider from 1709 to 1730. Regenthal was considered one of the greatest riders and horse trainers of his time, but his text was never printed and has been handed down to us only in a manuscript. After being neglected for almost three centuries, this work of great historical and technical interest was rediscovered and finally published in 1996 (and I really hope that it will be translated and published also in English soon). Poscharnigg’s book has the merit to provide us a very interesting, reasoned summary of this work, as well as of the other books written by the most important Austrian horsemen.

Johann Georg Hamilton, Equine portrait from the Rösslzimmer at Schönbrunn Palace,18th century

Johann Georg Hamilton, Equine portrait from the Rösslzimmer
at Schönbrunn Palace,18th century

The evolution of warfare produced important changes in the equestrian field even in Austria, but the strong academic matrix of the Habsburg tradition continued to influence the imperial cavalry for a long time. The two world wars marked the final demise of the use of horses in the military but, despite great difficulties, Austria has managed to keep alive its equestrian traditions, mainly thanks to the activity of the Spanish School. Werner Poscharnigg offers us a fascinating account of this sophisticated equestrian culture, focusing on the figure of the “thinking rider” and on an idea of horsemanship that is refined and respectful of the nature of the horse.

La Scuola Spagnola di Vienna

The Spanish Riding School has played a central role
in keeping the Austrian equestrian traditions alive and vital


You can purchase the book by clicking on the following link:
Austrian Art of Riding by Werner Poscharnigg (Xenophon Press)

Equus frenatus. The book about the Giannelli Collection of ancient bits

Guilded bronze bit France - Restoration (1814-1830)

Guilded bronze bit
France – Restoration (1814-1830)
Picture © Michele Ostini

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Sumptuous. With a very accurate editorial format and beautiful images, which perfectly render the value of the portrayed pieces. But, at the same time, it is also a work with a significant scientific content. Equus frenatus, the book that finally shows the Giannelli Collection, is not only a beautiful package, designed to show off what is certainly one of the most important private collections of ancient bits in the world, but it is also a unique research tool for anyone interested in the history of equestrian culture. In fact, the essays in the book not only describe the most valuable pieces of the collection, but they also present the state of the art knowledge about the evolution and use of the bit through the centuries.

I have already told you, in a previous post to this blog, of the splendor of the Giannelli Collection of ancient bits on the occasion of the beautiful exhibition that was held last summer in Travagliato (you can read the article by clicking on this link: The Giannelli Collection of ancient bits on display in Travagliato). It is an exceptional collection, gathered over decades of research. It ranges from the first bone cheek pieces from Central Asia, dating back to the second millennium BC, progressing up to refined chiseled bits of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The collection has accumulated more than 500 pieces, most of them very valuable.


Book cover

In the introductory essay, Claudio Giannelli presents all of his expertise on this complex subject. He summarizes, in an extremely clear and accurate way, four millennia of the history of bits, following the chronological development and contextualizing the different types of bits of each period and to the civilization from where they came. The result is a charming and very interesting overview. Giannelli’s historical documentation also underlines, that the parable began with the first bronze snaffles, used two thousand years before Christ by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, moving on to the artistic bits from Luristan, to those from ancient Greece and the Roman period, and on to the very severe medieval and Renaissance bits, ending with the return, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to the simpler mouthpieces, advocated by Federico Caprilli and by his “natural system of horsemanship.” “Therefore, – Giannelli writes – we notice a return to basics with an increasing use of the normal articulated snaffle, certainly the lighter mouthpiece and the most respectful of the horse’s delicate mouth, provided that it is always combined with patience, progressive work and, above all, love for the horse” (p. 40).

The most special areas of the Gianelli Collection are two. First and foremost, the magnificent bits from Luristan, true masterpieces in bronze, made with the technique of lost wax casting, by a civilization that flourished between the second and first millennia BC in the southwestern region of what is currently Iran. The Giannelli Collection is probably the largest and most important collection of these very special artifacts in the world. Equally unique is the collection of Villanovan and Etruscan bits. Even in pre-Roman Italy (IX-VIII century BC.), the practice of burying the dead with grave goods, that frequently included horse bits, was widespread. The bits were mostly snaffles, with cheek pieces representing stylized horses, that today look curiously modern. These two areas of the collection are described in the essays by Manuel Castelluccia, archaeologist specialist of the Ancient Near East, Caucasus and Iran, and by Chiara Martinozzi, archaeologist, specialist of the Etruscan civilization. Both provide a rich historical and cultural framework in which they place the production of these bits and the description of their various types.

Luristan bit with zoomorphic shanks Luristan - around I millennium BC Picture © Michele Ostini

Luristan bit with zoomorphic shanks
Luristan – around first millennium BC
Picture © Michele Ostini

The most compelling feature of the book is that the bits are not just shown and described, but they are always placed in the historical and cultural context in which they were used. So the chapter about ancient Greek bits, written by the same Giannelli, is preceded by an interesting historical overview of Greek cavalry by Giuseppe Cascarino, who is also the author of the chapter about Roman cavalry. It was exactly with the advent of Roman civilization that bronze bits were replaced by those made of iron. The use of this more perishable material makes the findings of this age particularly rare. The Giannelli Collection has several of them in excellent condition. In the Roman era, the bits began to change. The first bits with long shanks appeared. These bits had a complicated and (at least in my opinion) still obscure functioning principle. The headstalls were complemented by the so-called psalion, a sort of metal halter that prevented the animal from escaping the action of the bit by opening his mouth. The Giannelli Collection includes also some rare specimens of the so-called “hipposandals,” which were also in use at that time.  These were a type of metal horse boots that were secured to the hooves of the horse with leather straps,

With regard to the study of the evolution of bits, the Middle Ages are definitely a difficult period. The artifacts from this period are few, as are the written sources, while the iconographic sources are difficult to interpret. The philologist and historian, Patrizia Arquint, describes this period with his usual accuracy and clarity, offering a survey in which, despite the caution due to the relative scarcity of data, the historical outline is complemented by the technical description.

“Prometopidion”: frontplate with “psalion”
Bronze – Roman era
Picture © Michele Ostini

The Renaissance is, in contrast, the era in which more importance is given to the bit and the “art of bridling”, i.e. the art of choosing the most suitable mouthpiece for each horse was considered a key to showing the competence of the true rider. This is clearly testified by the equestrian treatises that began to be published since the mid-sixteenth century. Most of these works include a series of drawings of bridles, whose bewildering variety was designed precisely to suit the different types of horse, under the illusion of correcting any possible defect with the use of specific instruments. In fact, given the severity of their action, it is probable that those bits produced quite the opposite effect. Nevertheless, from the manufacturing point of view, they are real works of art.

Wrought iron Renaissance bit, pierced and engraved Germany - Seventeenth century

Wrought iron Renaissance bit , pierced and engraved
Germany – Seventeenth century

The flourishing of the new literary genre of the equestrian treatise is evoked in an essay by Mario Gennero, curiously focused on Claudio Corte’s Il cavallerizzo (The Horseman), which is one of the most interesting books about horsemanship of the sixteenth century, but is also one of the works which devotes less space to the art of bridling, while other authors of the time write at length about this subject. It is certain that the technical capacity of the Renaissance “bit makers” was amazing. By virtue of the strong progress of iron metallurgy, the craftsmen of the time, as Alessandro Cesati wrote in his essay, were able to make, with simple tools, such as files, hand drills and chisels, “artifacts that looks like small iron sculptures: art objects which sometimes are so refined that they make one almost completely forget their original function” (p. 188).

One of the most incredible pieces of the Giannelli Collection: Wrought iron Renaissance bit , pierced and engraved. There are only two other known similar specimens. Sixteenth century Picture © Michele Ostini

One of the most incredible pieces of the Giannelli Collection: Wrought iron Renaissance bit , pierced and engraved. There are only two other known similar specimens.
Sixteenth century
Picture © Michele Ostini

The final essay by Pierre Desclos has the merit of describing the complexity of the Renaissance bridles from the technical point of view and of explaining the progressive simplification of the bits during the following three centuries. Particularly interesting is the section devoted to the three main parts of the bit (the mouthpiece, the shanks and the curb chain) and to the complex technical terminology used in the treatises of the period, to which is also devoted a very useful glossary.

Finally, it should be pointed out that this work was made possible by the decisive contribution of the Fondazione Iniziative Zooprofilattiche e Zootecniche (Zooprophylactic and Zootechnical Initiatives Foundation) of Brescia, which has been funding scientific, experimental and cultural activities related to veterinary and biomedical sciences for sixty years. Since 1979, the Foundation has also been active in the field of scientific publishing. This book is number 100 of its series of monographs and it is a worthy climax of the Foundation’s meritorious commitment in the promotion of culture and scientific research.

Villanovan bronze bit Ninth - Eight centuries BC

Villanovan bronze bit
Ninth – Eight centuries BC

To buy the book

Unfortunately the book, which is available only in the Italian edition, is not distributed through normal commercial channels.

Anyone interested in buying it, can request it by sending an email to this address:

A book that changed my life. A personal tribute to Sylvia Loch.

IMG_3005by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

It seems that nowadays we read less and less. Or rather, it seems we read fewer and fewer books. The crisis of this powerful means of communication is now supported by a thousand statistics. For most people, it seems that they are bombarded with too many messages to find the time to devote themselves to books. Undoubtedly, compared to television and social media, books require more zeal and concentration and, in an increasingly frantic and superficial world, this makes them less attractive than other means of communication. Nevertheless, I’m still deeply convinced, that those who regularly predict the inexorable disappearance of books are wrong. This is because books have a force that only books possess and that, even in the age of Facebook and Twitter, this force is still irreplaceable. Books keep on being the ideal vehicle for the irrepressible need of men and women to give voice to their feelings and to pass on their knowledge, overcoming the barriers of space and time. This is what continues to make books able to move and fascinate us. And it makes no difference if today they turn into immaterial objects, which we can download with a click on our tablets. A book is not, in fact, just an object, but it is first and foremost an intention: the vector of a creative energy that can change our existence.

There are many books that have influenced my life and my views, making me what I am today. However, I can say that only a few have really produced a deep change. And it is of one of these in particular that I want to tell you.

Ferdinand Albrecht, Later Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Bevern, by John Wotton  (1682-1764) (courtesy of Arthur Ackermann & Son, London)

Ferdinand Albrecht, Later Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg-Bevern, by John Wotton (1682-1764)
(courtesy of Arthur Ackermann & Son, London)

About twenty-five years ago, I was on holiday in London. As I always do (at least in the places where I still find them), as well as visiting museums and monuments, I also visited various bookshops in the area of Charing Cross Road, a place famous for its second hand and antique bookshops. At that time, I already had been riding horses for more than a decade and I had experienced how difficult it was to find books about horseback riding in Italy. For this reason, my curiosity was particularly attracted to the shelves devoted to publications about horses and the equestrian art. I remember that while I was scrutinizing the volumes in a very large, four story bookshop, my gaze was captured by a big, beautiful book. The cover was superb – a magnificent picture by the famous equestrian English painter John Wotton (1682-1764). It portrayed Ferdinand Albrecht, later Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, in his eighteenth-century dress, mounted on a beautiful gray stallion. For me, that image finally summarized the elegance, strength and dignity that I, vaguely, sensed as the most attractive essence of horseback riding. That picture showed me an ideal of rigor, grace and lightness, but also of strength and agility, that I had hardly ever seen in contemporary riders and that, in that moment, I realized belonged to a different era and to another way of conceiving equitation. That revelation brought me a new consciousness: that was the way of conceiving and practicing the equestrian art that I wanted to become mine too.

Capriola da fermo a fermo al piliere, in Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberale e Nobre Arte da Cavallaria, 1790, Stampa 83

The charm of an equestrian knowledge refined over the centuries.
Cabriole on the pillar, in Carlos de Andrade,
Luz da Liberal e Nobre Arte da Cavallaria, 1790, Plate 83

I already began to devour the book on the underground that brought me back to the hotel. I was fascinated by the beautiful pictures and by the story of an equestrian tradition rooted in classical antiquity. No matter if I did not understand everything of that story. There were, in fact, names and technical terms that I confess, at the time, I had never heard before and I did not comprehend. But I understood that in those pages, an ancient wisdom was evoked: wisdom developed in millennia of coexistence between man and horse. The same wisdom and skill that made possible that miracle of refinement that struck me in the cover picture of the book and that I also found in many other pictures of that beautiful edition. But above all, two things were clear to me. The first was that the culture of my country had, in the past, a major role in the evolution of the equestrian tradition. The other was that there were still places in the world where this tradition was kept alive by people who may still be considered its interpreters and custodians. These two certainties were a good starting point.

Ricordo ancora con quanta emozione sfogliai per la prima volta un'edizione cinquecentesca degli Ordini di cavalcare di Federico Grisone

Frontispiece and plate from one of the many sixteenth’s century edition of
Ordini di cavalcare by Federico Grisone

At that time, I was a young student of literature, who was on the point of discussing his graduation thesis. I had already begun to publish essays and reviews in various magazines and I dreamed of a career in the field of research. It was, therefore, quite logical that reading this book suggested to me the idea to deepen the study of the first Italian equestrian treatises. I still remember the great emotion I felt while leafing through, for the first time, a sixteenth century edition of the Ordini di cavalcare (Rules of Riding) by Federico Grisone, at the Central National Library in Rome.

Those readings sent my mind adrift. Some years before I already visited Jerez de la Frontera, in Spain, and I was dazzled by the beauty of the famous cartujanos horses and by the skill of the jinetes of the Real Escuela. Now I wanted to broaden my horizon. Among the illustrations of the book that had most attracted my attention, there was a picture that showed a group of Portuguese riders, mounted on beautiful Alter-Real stallions, performing in the garden of a mysterious Palace of Queluz. I had found another destination for a new equestrian pilgrimage.

Una foto nel libro ritraeva un gruppo di cavalieri portoghesi che si esibivano nei giardini del Palazzo di Queluz

A picture in the book showed a group of Portuguese riders
performing in the garden of the Palace of Queluz

You should consider that at the time the Web did not exist. Today if you want to know something about a place or a person, you just search for them on Google. At that time, instead, someone had to tell you about it. Or you should have the luck to stumble on a newspaper article, on a book, or on some rare television documentary. My first riding master (who had worked in Spain with Sergio Leone’s crew) often told me about the splendors of Andalusian horsemanship. She mentioned once that in Portugal there were riders who were considered even more refined. And it was exactly for this reason that that picture of the equestrian carousel in the gardens of Queluz ignited my imagination.

A couple of years later, I crossed Europe in a camper with a group of friends in the direction of Portugal. My friends were simply on holiday. I had, instead, a clear goal: Queluz. We arrived early in the morning. Outside of the magnificent palace there were few cars parked. At the ticket office I did not find any trace of the presence of an equestrian school. I asked the guy who was at the entrance. He looked at me quizzically. Then, when I finally managed to explain what I was looking for, he said that there was no school there. The horses were in Lisbon, at the Jockey Club. They had performed a few times in the gardens of the Palace and it was perhaps in one of those occasions that the picture I had seen was taken.

The beautiful Palácio Nacional de Queluz, built between 1747 and 1770, was one of the Portuguese royal residences  © PSML - Wilson Pereira

The beautiful Palácio Nacional de Queluz, built between 1747 and 1770,
was one of the Portuguese royal residences
© PSML – Wilson Pereira

In short: a failure. However, it was during that trip that, in a small bookshop near the famous cafe A Brasileira, in the center of Lisbon, I found the French edition of Nuno Oliveira’s complete works (Éditions Crépin Leblond) and the beautiful volume by Fernando Sommer D’Andrade, about Portuguese bullfighting on horseback. More tracks for me to follow and other ideas to make my imagination run wild.

Since then, many years have passed and I returned many times in Portugal. Not only I have seen many shows of those incredible riders of Queluz who form the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre, but I also assisted in their training, visited their stables, met them personally and become friends with many of them. I also had the pleasure and honor to take riding lessons from some of them. Meanwhile, although I became a journalist in the field of politics, I kept on studying the ancient treatises about horsemanship and I finally published the results of my research in a book.

Francisco Bessa de Carvalho of the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre performing a cabriole in hand © PSML - Pedro Yglesias

Francisco Bessa de Carvalho of the Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre
performing a cabriole in hand
© PSML – Pedro Yglesias

I do not think this would have happened, if one afternoon many years ago, in London, I hadn’t bought Dressage: the Art of Classical Riding by Sylvia Loch. That book has literally changed the course of my life. It induced me to travel, to study, to write. It opened a window to a wonderful world and showed me a path along which I met many people and great friendships were born, I read books, I learned a lot of things, I got excited, and I had fun. All of this was gifted to me by a person who I did not have the pleasure, nor the honor, to meet personally, but in spite of this, I am grateful to her as to a benefactor.

Every writer first of all obeys to the personal need of expressing his dreams, of giving shape to his own experiences and, in some cases, of exorcising his obsessions. When this impulse is translated into action, and feelings and ideas become written discourse, the author abandons his work to others, hoping that they can benefit from it. It is impossible to determine which short circuits trigger the decisive spark, but some books speak to us differently. They touch keys to which we are more sensitive and so they produce great changes.

Sylvia Loch riding (picture from the Classical Riding Club website)

Sylvia Loch riding
(picture from the Classical Riding Club website)

I recently joined the group that Sylvia Loch founded on Facebook and I began to regularly post small excerpts of my articles. On several occasions Sylvia’s comments confirmed to me that she appreciated what I had published. But it was an extraordinary accident that induced me to write this article and to let her know what the influence her work has had on my life and to tell you an example of the unique power of books. At the beginning of this summer, I visited the beautiful equestrian library that has been recently opened in the Palace of Queluz (you can read the article I wrote for this blog by clicking on the following link: The new Equestrian Art Library in Queluz, Portugal). After seeing, with enchanted eyes, the shelves on which are preserved many precious ancient books about horsemanship, my gaze was drawn to the shelf of recent publications. That’s when, with a soaring heart, I discovered the American edition of my book right next to that volume by Sylvia Loch’s from which everything began so many years ago. The circle had finally come full. Thank you, Sylvia!

The American edition of my book, The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art, side by side with Sylvia Loch's book on the shelf of the Equestrian Library of Queluz © PSML - Fabiano Teixeira

The American edition of my book, The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art, side by side with Sylvia Loch’s book on the shelf of the Equestrian Library of Queluz
© PSML – Fabiano Teixeira

Sylvia Loch’s links: