In 1565, a large equestrian feast was held in Lisbon to celebrate the marriage of Alessandro Farnese with Maria of Portugal. A chronicle of the period testifies of the extraordinary qualities of the Lusitano horses and riders, who profoundly impressed the Italian dignitaries who were in the Portuguese capital
Until the catastrophic earthquake and the subsequent tsunami that destroyed the city of Lisbon in 1755, the Paço da Ribeira, the royal palace, stood in the place where now stands the great Praça do Comérçio, one of the most famous and characteristic places in the Portuguese capital. So much so that, although nothing remains of the building destroyed by the earthquake, the square is still familiarly known as Terriero do Paço, the palace square. The building was built around 1500 and stood perpendicular to the river. It overlooked a large square, similar in size to the current one, where the great public events of the city were held. On May 28, 1565, that large esplanade offered a magnificent spectacle to the bystanders. For days, carpenters, upholsterers and decorators had worked non-stop to set up the boxes along the side of the square which opened onto the river Tagus, which at that point is so wide that it looked like the ocean. The carpenters had built wide and solid wooden steps, partly covered with canopies, which were then covered with fine fabrics and decorated with allegorical paintings. Even the facade of the building had been decorated with pomp. A brightly colored cloth hung from every window and the window sills were decorated with cushions and ribbons. Two weeks earlier, in the royal chapel, the Spanish ambassador Alonso de Tovar had married Maria d’Aviz, nephew of King Manuel I, in the name and on behalf of Alessandro Farnese, son of the Duke of Parma and Piacenza, Ottavio, and Margherita of Austria, half-sister of the king of Spain, Philip II, and governor of the Netherlands. After the first celebrations at the court, now the time had come for the public celebration of the wedding, which united the Portuguese princess to the scion of one of the first families in Italy, linked by kinship, but also by a relationship of fear and suspicion, to the very powerful Spanish crown. And like in any public feast in those years, aimed to celebrate the power of aristocracy, horses played a leading role on that memorable day.
We know of those events thanks to Francesco De Marchi, a singular scholarly figure and adventurer, in the service of Margaret of Austria for more than forty years. Even if he was not part of the Italian delegation that went to Portugal to escort the princess to Brussels, where her young husband was waiting for her, in the aftermath of the wedding celebrations (which were held by proxy in Portugal and, months later, in person in the Belgian capital) De Marchi composed a detailed chronicle entitled Narratione particolare delle gran feste e trionfi fatti in Portogallo e Fiandra nello sposalitio dell’illustrissimo sig. Alessandro Farnese e donna Maria del Portogallo (Detailed narration of the great feasts and triumphs made in Portugal and Flanders in the marriage of the very illustrious Sir Alessandro Farnese and lady Maria of Portugal), through the testimonies of those who took part in the event. The chronicle was pubblished in Bologna in 1566. His account gives us a very vivid picture of the skill of the Portuguese riders, of the extraordinary value of their horses and of the pomp and refinement of the harnesses with which they were harnessed.
As typical in the Iberian tradition, the feast began with a grandiose toirada, a bullfight. At first, the animals were faced by gentlemen on horseback, who proved to be very skilled riders. However, what deeply impressed De Marchi were the amazing qualities of the horses, which were so richly harnessed and so perfectly trained, that they looked as if they were animated by a kind of human understanding.
“At the beginning of the feast there were fights with seventeen wild bulls, which were terrible and ferocious animals. The first fighters were on horseback, and all of them were Knights and esteemed gentlemen. They fought on richly harnessed jennets, holding an assagai with two irons [i.e. with a two iron spikes at both ends] in each hand, and they killed the bulls with so much skill and dexterity and attitude that it was one of the beautiful and worthy things that could be seen, because not only the riders did very well, but the horses were so alive and quick to dodge the charges of the bulls, that they looked like flame and they showed that they had something like a human judgment” (DE MARCHI, p. 3).
Yet, despite the riders’ ability and the liveliness of the horses, two of them were injured, though not seriously. The fights on horseback were then followed by those on foot, in which the bulls were confronted with sword and cape. The Portuguese gentlemen proved to be very expert also in this kind of struggle:
“because as the bull comes towards them, they throw the cape over his horns and so, as the beast is momentarily blinded, they easily dodge him and give him a big stab, either on the head, or on the nose, or on the front legs, and because the swords are very sharp the bystanders immediately see the sign” (DE MARCHI, p. 3).
However, despite their skill, some of the bullfighters were overwhelmed and saved only because the bulls were immediately distracted by the assistants and the unfortunates were promptly rescued.
After the bullfight, the feast continued with the “game of reeds” and with a “carousel joust”. These were two kinds of chivalric trials which were very popular at that time. For some time now, the old and brutal tournaments, a legacy of medieval knightly culture, had almost everywhere been replaced by less bloody equestrian games, which required a more sophisticated equitation, allowing the qualities of the riders to shine without exposing them to mortal risks. This trend was spreading more and more after the death of the King of France Henry II, in 1559, as a result of an accident in the joust that was disputed during the celebrations for the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth with Philip II of Spain. The game of reeds and the carousel joust were mainly practiced in the Iberian peninsula and in the European territories under Spanish rule. In Portugal, for example, these types of equestrian games continued to be played until the end of the eighteenth century, as shown by two splendid plates of the monumental Portuguese equestrian treatise by Carlos de Andrade, Luz da Liberal e Nobre Arte da Cavallaria (1790). Spaniards and Portuguese had probably borrowed these chivalric trials from the Arab early rulers of the Iberian peninsula, as testified by the habit of playing them while wearing Moorish costumes.
In the game of reeds, the teams lined up on the opposite sides of the field. Then a first group of riders cantered towards the opposing team and threw reeds at them, as if they were javelins. Often these fictitious weapons had sticky tips, which would stick to the opponent’s cuirass. At that point, those who were assailed began to counterattack, chasing the others, who turned towards their friends’ rank. When, in turn, the pursuers arrived in the opposing field, they threw their darts. The carousel joust had a similar dynamics, but the riders chased each other, throwing clay projectiles, which the adversaries had to dodge with rapid changes of direction of their horses, or protecting themselves and their animals with small shields, generally made of leather.
As it was usual at the time, that day the chivalric trials were preceded by a solemn pageant of over a thousand people and hundreds of splendid and richly harnessed horses:
“Four companies of knights entered the square on beautiful jennet horses. Each company was made of sixteen riders, which together totaled sixty-four horses. [here follows the list of the leaders of each company]. The other fifteen riders of each company were all gentlemen, dressed in yellow and black satin Moorish livery; the harness of the horses were in the gineta style and they were made of silver and gold, with golden and white damask steel stirrups, and they wore spurs of the same style. The horses’ breastplates and cruppers were full of silver rings and the horses had collars with silver and gold bells, great silk and gold bows, and gilded bridles and bits, with lined saddles decorated in gold in the Moorish style, which was something so beautiful and rare that you could not desire more. As a sign of luxury and grandeur, in front of the chiefs of each company six large Andalusian and Granada horses were led by hand. Not only were they big and beautiful, but they danced like as if they did not even touch the ground. They were harnessed with the so called giaizzi [i.e. with the Portuguese harness called “jaez”], which were so rich and beautiful that each horse could be estimated at great amount of money; because their harnesses were made of wrought gold and silver and of silk and gold yarns and also of damask steel and silver embossed with gold and the leathers were embroidered with gold and silk, and it is certain that these horses were so rare that no painter, however good he could be, could portray any horse of such beauty and adornment just through his imagination” (DE MARCHI, pp. 3r-3v).
As usual, the knights were dressed in Moorish costumes, their heads covered with turbans adorned with precious stones, and they carried small leather shields. Each of them was accompanied by eight grooms and eight pages. So a thousand and twenty-four people took part in the initial parade, which, after having crossed the square, divided into two opposing groups. Then, two pairs of knights departed from the opposing fronts:
“they chased each other, throwing their reeds with so much ferocity that they looked like darts; but because of the continuous exercise of the knights and thanks to the agility and skill of the horses who were accustomed to the game, when they were about to be hit, they elegantly protected themselves and the horse with their leather shield, thus succeeding in dodging the dart. Then they turned the horse, as if they were sitting on a chair, and in a moment they came back” (DE MARCHI, p. 3v).
After the first two pairs, the exercise was repeated by four knights on each side, then by six and then by eight, and ten, until they all ran together chasing each other. During the game, the horses and the horsemen proved to be so skilled that the author says that it would be impossible to emulate them elsewhere, because it would be impossibile to find horses and riders so perfectly trained:
“I do not believe that one can so easily do the same elsewhere, both because of the lack of horses and harnesses, but also because men must be trained for a very long time, otherwise they would not have the grace and the nimbleness they have in this country” (DE MARCHI, p. 4r).
During the simulated combat the riders showed off their skills, making authentic virtuoso exercises:
“there were some who threw a reed in the air in front of themselves, as fast as an arrow, and then they chased it by running at full speed with their horse, so fast that before it fell on the ground they took it back. There were others who, running at the same speed, lifted a reed from the ground, taking it with their hands. And others who threw their reeds into the air towards the sky, in a way that it looked like a lightning bolt that pierced the clouds” (DE MARCHI, p. 4r).
The following carousel joust was similar to the previous game of the reeds, except that the knights were using raw clay projectiles, filled with coal, the size of a small orange. If one of the knights was hit, the shell broke and the coal that filled it, stained his clothes. But De Marchi says it happened rarely, given the skill with which the participants knew how to dodge the shots. The carousel joust concluded the celebrations which, with typically courtly exaggeration, De Marchi considers
“for the decorations, the banquets, the dances, the music, the ferocity of the bulls, the agility of the horses and of the riders and for the beauty of their harnesses and their liveries, for the good fights on foot and on horseback … the greatest [feast] known among those made in Portugal for hundreds of years” (DE MARCHI, p. 4r).
Before concluding our article, it is perhaps worthwhile to spend a few more words on some of the historical figures that have been mentioned. Beginning with Margaret of Austria (1522-1586), who was that “Madama” (i.e. “Milady” in Italian) from which the palace that today is the seat of the Italian Senate, takes its name. It is in fact know as Palazzo Madama. Margherita inherited the palace from her first husband, Duke Alessandro de’ Medici. She married him in 1536, but he was killed by his cousin Lorenzino, the following year. “Madama”, as the Romans called her confidentially, moved to Rome in 1538, to marry, very reluctantly, Ottavio Farnese, nephew of Pope Paul III. She was seventeen while he was only fifteen. It took a while for the two to consummate the marriage and this caused a lot of conjectures and rumors. After seven years, on August 27, 1545, Margherita finally gave birth to twins, Carlo and Alessandro, who were solemnly baptized in the Basilica of Sant’Eustachio, a few steps from the maternal palace. Carlo died as an infant, while Alessandro (1545-1592) grew up and became one of the most important leaders and politicians of his time. He was educated in Italy until the age of ten, then he was sent to the court of the King of Spain, Philip II. Here he was supposed to continue his education, but above all he was there to guarantee, as a hostage, the loyalty to the Spanish crown of his father, Ottavio, who had a tendency to change alliances with considerable ease. When it came to marrying him, Philip II denied permission for his marriage with one of the daughters of the Duke of Urbino, to avoid a too close bond between two powerful Italian families who could create problems on the peninsula, and gave him a Portuguese princess, considering the kinship thus acquired less dangerous for the interests of the Kingdom of Spain. Finally, the author of the report, Francesco De Marchi (1504-1576). Although self-taught, he was not only a scholar, a military architect and an artillery expert, but also a courtier, a horse and dance instructor, an adventurer who escaped pirates off the coast of Ponza, a shipwrecked man at the mouth of the Tiber. In 1535, protected by a rudimentary diving suit, he dived in the lake of Nemi, near Rome, in search of the ships of Caligula, which were actually in the lake and they were recovered only in 1929-30, to be then destroyed in a fire in 1944. He accomplished his last adventure at the age of sixty-nine when, in 1573, he was one of the first men to climb to the top of the Gran Sasso.
(This is the text of the lecture I gave in September 9, 2017, during the Festival Italiano del Cavallo Puro Sangue Lusitano, at Tenuta Malaspina (Ornago) MB – Italy)
Francesco DE MARCHI, Narratione particolare delle gran feste e trionfi fatti in Portogallo e Fiandra nello sposalitio dell’illustrissimo sig. Alessandro Farnese e donna Maria del Portogallo, Bologna, Appresso Alessandro Benacci, 1566.
Giuseppe BERTINI, Le nozze di Alessandro Farnese. Feste alle corti di Lisbona e di Bruxelles, Milano, Skira, 1997.