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 ->


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

John scott leithreply
13/08/2018 at 13:44


13/08/2018 at 14:00
– In reply to: John scott leith

Thank you John!

Tracey Sandsreply
13/08/2018 at 16:53

Thank you so much for this wonderful essay. This is a fascinating and extraordinary collection!

13/08/2018 at 19:02
– In reply to: Tracey Sands

Thank you Tracey!

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