The Giannelli Collection of ancient bits on display in Travagliato

The suggestive setting of the exhibition

The suggestive setting of the exhibition “Cavallo: storia, arte e artigianato”,
on display in Travagliato (Italy) until June 29
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Hidden treasures are still discovered, even today. For those who love the history of horsemanship, to visit the exhibition of the Giannelli collection in Travagliato, Italy, is like entering into Ali Baba’s cave! I confess I was really surprised at what I found there. I did not expect such a rich exposition and such an impressive setting in a small provincial town. But I was wrong. For the quality and completeness of the collection presented, the exhibition on display in Travagliato (not far from a Milan) until June 29, entitled Cavallo: storia, arte e artigianato (Horse: history, art and craft), could be held in great museums all over the world because it presents pieces that not even the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Metropolitan possess. I swear I’m not exaggerating.

The exhibition shows one of the largest private collection of ancient bits in the world Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The exhibition shows one of the largest private collection of ancient bits in the world
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

I have been studying the history of the equestrian culture for many years  and I have often dedicated my research to the different types of bits in use during  various periods. On this same blog, I began publishing a series of articles dedicated to this topic: Bronze Age bits; The Corinthian bit; Bitless equitation in ancient times; The bit that tamed the flying horse: Pegasus and Bellerophon. However, I had to stop because it was nearly impossible to find images and reliable information about the bits used during the Roman and medieval periods. The few scientific articles and books on this subject and the catalogs of the largest museums in the world, offered me little material to work with. So you can easily imagine my surprise when I discovered in Travagliato, hundreds of Mesopotamian, ancient Greek, Roman, Lombard and medieval findings, displayed side by side with the gigantic Renaissance and Baroque bits, along with some elegant nineteenth century specimens.

Claudio Giannelli - Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Claudio Giannelli – Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

But it is best now to proceed with some order in this article. First of all, you will probably want to know where this amazing collection comes from. Claudio Giannelli put it together through decades of passionate research. He is a truly unique personality, combining an extraordinary intellectual refinement with a politeness and class that seems to be from another time. The son of a cavalry officer, Giannelli grew up among horses and began riding at a very young age, taking good results in three day eventing and dressage. He graduated and practiced for several years as a notary. At some point, however, he decided to turn his passion for beauty and old things into a profession, becoming an important antiquarian. Meanwhile, he moved to Switzerland, where he still lives, and continued to ride, becoming also a three day eventing and dressage judge. His collection was born by accident. In the fifties, while browsing through the stalls of the flea market of Portaportese in Rome, he found an old bit, buried among various odds and ends. Gianelli, who at the time already knew the famous illustrations of Grisone and Fiaschi’s treatises, realized immediately that it was an antique piece, probably from the Renaissance. After the usual grueling negotiations, he bought it, managing to get it for a good price. The rest of the collection came together through his love for horses and history, his unique culture and his expertise as an antiquarian. Within a few years, he was found in the most important auction houses around Europe, bidding for the finest ancient bits available on the market to the curators of museums like the Louvre, or the British, and to a very restricted elite of collectors from all around the world.

Some very well preserved Ancient Greek bronze bits and muzzles are on display Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Some very well preserved Ancient Greek bronze bits and muzzles are on display
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The exhibition begins with some very ancient artifacts. Some cheekpieces made of bone from Central Asia, dating back to the second millennium before Christ, are on display in the first case. It then goes to the Mesopotamian civilization, and then to ancient Greece. In addition to some very well preserved bronze bits, there are some very interesting psalion on display. These were a sort of metallic noseband that restricted the opening of the mouth of the horse. There are also some perfectly preserved bronze muzzles. A beautiful shaffron (horse’s head defense) made of  bronze, with its psalion, stands between the other findings. We then move to the Etruscan civilization, with several specimens belonging to the so-called Villanovan period [see the article on Bronze Age bits], characterized by beautiful zoomorphic cheekpieces. But the main attraction, with regard to the Bronze Age is the incredible collection of Luristan bits, dating from between 1100 and 700 BC. They belong to a mysterious civilization, which flourished between the second and first millennium BC, in a region of southwestern Iran. The remains were found mainly within the tombs, where they were placed under the head of the buried body. They are made of bronze and they consist of a cannon of a single piece, straight or slightly curved, with, at each end a cheek piece, the form of a winged animal. These figures of animals had a large hole in the body through which passed the end of the mouthpiece, and two loops to tie the bridle and the reins. Those which are displayed in Travagliato are absolutely extraordinary. They also include a rare jointed snaffle, with cheekpieces decorated with anthropomorphic figures.  This is the piece chosen for the exhibition poster. Neither the catalog of the British Museum, nor the Metropolitan, which also have important collections of these findings, can boast examples of this quality and condition.

The incredible collection of bronze bits from Luristan, dating between 1100 and 700 BC. View museums in the world can boast specimens of this quality Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The incredible collection of bronze bits from Luristan, dating between 1100 and 700 BC.
Few museums in the world can boast specimens of this quality
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Also, the many Roman and medieval bits are very interesting. In front of their display case the heart of the scholar makes a jump. With the transition from bronze to iron, which is much more perishable, the findings from this era are, in fact, far more rare. Even in the books of the specialists, there are very few images to be consulted and they are almost always the same. The Giannelli collection shows snaffles similar to the current ones and the ancestors of modern curb bits. In fact, in Roman time, we start to find bits with long shanks, but still without a curb chain. The same specialists of this matter continue to argue about their exact principle of operation. They generally have a very rough and brutal look. The mouthpieces are often bristling with spikes and it is quite horrible to think of them in the mouth of a poor animal.

There are also many, very rare, bits of Roman and Medieval times Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

There are also many, very rare, bits of Roman and Medieval times
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Even the Renaissance bits look very severe. You can find in Travagliato exactly the same types of bits that are obsessively represented in the illustrations of the equestrian treatises of the sixteenth century. It is difficult for us to figure out that their incredible variety was conceived to fit the mouthpiece to the anatomical peculiarities of the mouth of each animal! Beyond this, however, you can not help but admire their extraordinary craftsmanship. Many of them are true masterpieces of metalwork and are all the more remarkable when you consider the simple technical means used by the craftsmen who made them.

Renaissance bits look very severe, but they are also real masterpieces of metal work and they are exactly the same represented in the equestrian treatises of the sixteenth century Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

Renaissance bits look very severe, but they are also real masterpieces of metal work and they are exactly the same represented in the equestrian treatises of the sixteenth century
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

With the passing of the centuries, we note the progressive reduction of the length of the shanks. which decreases the lever action on the jaw of the horse, and the constant simplification of the mouthpieces. The progress of the training techniques demonstrated not only that strong bits were unnecessary, but that they were counterproductive. Despite being used by expert hands, it is easy to imagine that they exasperated the animals, subjecting them to unnecessary coercion. If, however, in the eighteenth century, the mouthpieces were gradually simplified and reduced in size, at the same time their workmanship became even more precious, in some cases like that of real jewels. The collection is completed, also, by some oriental bits: Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese and by a remarkable collection of wooden stirrups by the Mapuche Indians of Chile.

In the eighteenth century the bits get smaller, but at the same time, they become real jewels. Like these French bit and stirrups Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

In the eighteenth century the bits get smaller, but at the same time, they become real jewels. Like these French bit and stirrups
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

This brief synthesis certainly cannot really express the beauty and the importance of the pieces that are on display, whose history and meaning are explained in a series of panels which make the course of the exhibition understandable also to non-experts. And the setting is enriched by several paintings of equestrian topics of major authors of the eighteenth and nineteenth century and many by original engravings, such as those from the books by Jan Van der Straet, Antoine de Pluvinel, the Duke of Newcastle, or from the beautiful plates about horseback riding from d’Alembert and Diderot’s Enciclopédie.

The setting is further enriched by pictures and engravings of equestrian subject, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The setting is further enriched by pictures and engravings of equestrian subject,
from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century
Foto © Gaetano Cucinotta

The exhibition of the Giannelli Collection, in Travagliato, offers an extraordinary journey through the history of thousands of years of coexistence between man and horse. A past that is too often idealized, or criticized, without an exact knowledge of the techniques and methods that were actually used in other eras. Instead, an extraordinary exhibition like this puts us in front of the concrete objects, stimulates our curiosity and denies stereotypes and legends. Studying the history of the relationship between man and horse does not mean to put a nonexistent golden age of horseback riding on a pedestal, but rather to illuminate an important chapter of our civilization. And it is useful for today’s riders to understand the roots of their passion and to learn from the mistakes and the wisdom of those who, over the millennia, have preceded them in the worship of these wonderful animals that are the horses.

Locandina

The exhibition, in the former Sant’Agnese Church, in Piazza della Libertà, in Travagliato (BS), has been extended until the end of July

Open: Saturday and Sunday, 10-12. a. m. / 3-6 p.m.;
            weekdays on request by calling +39 030 6864960.
            Monday closed.

For information:
call +39 030 6864960;
email: segreteria@aziendaserviziterritoriali.com.

 Claudio Giannelli is working on a book about his collection, which will be published next Autumn. We will keep you posted as soon as it will be published.

You can see other beautiful pictures of the exhibition, by Gaetano Cucinotta, visiting his website, by following this link: www.gaetanocucinotta.com

“A la brida” and “a la gineta.” Different riding techniques in the late Middle Ages 
and the Renaissance

Rider in the

Rider in the “a la gineta” style
(in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, 1602)

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Defining, in his Book of the Courtier (1528), the ideal features of the Renaissance gentleman, Baldassare Castiglione wrote: “I would hope that our Courtier is a perfect horseman in every kind of saddle” (1, 21). That a gentleman had to be able to perfectly ride a horse is quite obvious. Since the Middle Ages, and for many centuries thereafter, the practice of knightly exercises represented one of the characteristic features of the identity of aristocracy. So much so that the term “knight” came to be identified with that of “noble” as a synonym. What is instead striking is the reference to the different types of saddles. This was a suggestion that the author did not explain, considering it clear to his contemporary readers, but which now seems far less apparent, giving us the opportunity for a quick overview of the main equestrian techniques practiced at the time.

Baldassare Castiglione portrayed by Raffaello (1514-15) Louvre Museum - Paris

Baldassare Castiglione portrayed by Raffaello (1514-15)
Louvre Museum – Paris

It is evident that, if it was only a matter of harness, Castiglione’s specification would have been superfluous. In fact, as we will see in more detail, the author of the Book of the Courtier refers to different riding techniques which characterized equitation in late medieval times and during the Renaissance. We find a clear testimony of these different techniques in the most ancient equestrian treatise of the post-classic age: the Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sela. This is the work which Edward (Duarte), King of Portugal (1391-1438), wrote around 1434 and which was handed down to us in a manuscript, first published in Paris, dating back to 1842. The title can be translated into the Book of the art of riding with any type of saddle. We then find the same premise discussed in Castiglione, but in this work, the author gives us many more details.

In the

Tthe “a la brida” style consisted of riding deeply seated, keeping the leg outstretched
and the feet forward
(in Pierre de la Noue, La Cavalerie Française et Italienne, Paris, 1620)

In his book, Dom Duarte distinguishes five different ways to ride a horse: 1) the one with the Bravante saddle, 2) the one in which the rider does not take support on the stirrups, 3) the one in which the rider stands firm on the stirrups, 4) the one in which the rider rides with short stirrups, 5) and finally, riding bareback, or with a pack-saddle without stirrups. The distinction, according to the type of the saddle and to the length of the stirrups, clearly refers to different ways in which the rider is seated and then to different riding techniques. Dom Duarte says that the habit of riding nearly without resting the rider’s feet on the stirrups was widespread in England and in some Italian regions, while riding without stirrups and no spurs was typical of Ireland. According to Carlos Henriques Pereira, who devoted detailed studies to Dom Duarte’s book, the first and the third way mentioned by Dom Duarte substantially coincide and correspond to the so-called “a la brida” style, which was frequently mentioned in later treatises. In fact, as we will see, these two ways of riding were very different and can be compared only by the fact that the rider rode keeping his legs straight. These ways of riding were opposed to the so-called “a la gineta” style, characterized by the fact that the rider rode with shorter stirrups and bent legs. Even though Dom Duarte’s classification demonstrates the coexistence of many different riding techniques in the late medieval period, equitation at the time and during the Renaissance was mainly characterized by the contrast between the a la brida and the a la gineta styles.

Paolo Uccello, detail of Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino unseating Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano (1435-1440) Florence, Uffizi Musuem

Paolo Uccello, detail of Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino unseating Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano (1435-1440), Florence, Uffizi Musuem

The “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry and was characterized by the use of long stirrups. As we have already seen, Dom Duarte distinguished two different methods:  the first one was done with a particular kind of saddle, called “Bravante saddle”, and consisted of riding deeply seated, keeping the feet forward (III, 2); the second, in contrast, consisted of riding standing up in the stirrups, never sitting on the saddle (III, 4). To facilitate this second method, the stirrups were fastened to each other with a strap under the horse’s belly in order to prevent them from separating. According to Dom Duarte, the method of standing while riding was older and required the rider to keep his legs perfectly straight under him. Both of these techniques were used to facilitate the knight in handling the lance. Between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the length and the weight of this weapon increased progressively. This required the rider, who was already awkward in his movements from heavy armor, to stand firm in the saddle in order to face the moment of collision with his opponent. For this purpose, special saddles with very high pommels and cantles were used in order to support the rider. According to Carlos Henriques Pereira, and to other historians, the “a la brida” style was typical of Northern Europe. But it is well documented that this way of riding was also widespread in southern countries such as Italy and also in Portugal. Indeed, according to Baldassare Castiglione, Italian knights stood out because of their ability in this technique and for their ability to master difficult horses.

it is the special pride of the Italians to ride well a la brida, to school wild horses with consummate skill, and to play at tilting and jousting.” (Book of the Courtier, I, 21)

The “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry (in Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen, Ritterkunst, Franckfurt, 1616)

The “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry
(in Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen, Ritterkunst, Franckfurt, 1616)

In addition, this was the typical riding technique used in jousting, the knightly games in which two armed knights on horseback faced off at “the barrier,” if between the two contenders, there was a “tilt,” made of wood, or of canvas, or in the “open field.” These chivalrous events were widespread throughout Europe up until the seventeenth century and this explains also why “a la brida” was a common style.

The

The “a la brida” style was used in jousting, a type of chivalrous events
which were widespread throughout Europe
(in Anthoine de Pluvinel, L’instruction du roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval, Paris, 1625)
© The Trustees of the British Museum

In contrast, the “a la gineta” style of riding with shorter stirrups, allowed the rider a more direct and precise contact of the “lower aids” with the horse’s sides. According to Dom Duarte, this style required the rider to sit “in the middle of the saddle”, not using the support of the pommel and the cantle, keeping the feet firmly resting on the stirrups, with the heels slightly down (III, 5). It was a technique typical of the Iberian Peninsula, clearly originating in North Africa. The term “gineta” or “ginetta” comes from the Spanish word “jinete” which, in turn, most likely derived from the Berber tribe of Zeneti, famous for it’s light cavalry. They would have been the ones to introduce this style of riding to the Iberian Peninsula. This origin is also clearly identified by the fact that in the “a la gineta” style,  a kind of bit was used which was identical to those still in use in North Africa. It was formed by two short shanks connected by a cannon, with a central shovel that rested flat on the horse’s tongue and on top of which a large metal ring was attached. This ring passed under the lower jaw of the animal and acted as a curb chain. Also, the saddle was clearly of Arabic origin and was quite similar to the “silla vaquera” still used in Spain.

In the

In the “a la gineta” style the use of short stirrups
allowed the rider a more direct and precise contact
of the “lower aids”
(in Galvão de Andrade, Arte da cavalaria de Gineta, Lisboa, 1678)

The “a la gineta” style was typical of the Iberian Peninsula, but rapidly spread into the domains of the Spanish Empire and particularly into southern Italy, where the horses of Spanish  origin were called “Ginnetti”. We find testimony of the widespread breeding of this kind of horse in the southern regions of Italy, in the frescoes of Palazzo Pandone in Venafro. Among these frescos is the portrait of the bay “ginecto” called Stella, portrayed at the age of four on the 23rd of May 1523, which was subsequently donated to the Neapolitan nobleman Annibale Caracciolo. Dom Duarte underlines that riding “a la gineta” was not practiced in Northern Europe and that the British and the French had little experience with this way of riding (III, 7).

The bay Stella, life-size portrayed in Castello Pandone in Venafro (XV century). The breeding of

The bay Stella, life-size portrayed in Castello Pandone in Venafro (XV century). The breeding of “Ginnetti” (jennets, i.e. horses of Iberian origin) was widespread in southern Italy

Riding “a la gineta” is also the basic technique of bullfighting on horseback. The short stirrups allowed the rider to make fast stops and departures, as well as sudden changes of direction, which are essential in the fight with the bull. It is well known that this kind of fighting took place not only on the Iberian peninsula, but during the Renaissance, was used as well in Italy. Benedetto Croce recalls events in Siena and Florence, where, in 1584, in Piazza Santa Croce, there was a magnificent bullfight on the occasion of the visit of Prince Vincenzo Gonzaga, heir to the throne of Mantua. Maria Bellonci chronicles the passion of the Borgias for bulls and mentions the bullfight with which the Duke Valentino, Cesare Borgia (the son of Pope Alexander VI), celebrated the New Year’s Eve 1502, no less than in Saint Peter’s square in Rome. The features of the “a la gineta” style were also further used in some types of chivalrous trials, such as the “game of the reeds” (juego de canhas) and the “carousel joust.” They both were equestrian games of Arabic origin, imported by the Spaniards in Italy, in which two teams of riders faced each other in a bloodless battle armed with reeds and Moorish shields, or hurling projectiles made of clay.

Riding “a la gineta” was the basic technique of bullfighting on horseback. During the Reinassance, this kind of fighting were widespread  also outside the Iberian peninsula (Antonio Tempesta, Caccia al toro, 1598)

Riding “a la gineta” was the basic technique of bullfighting on horseback. During the Reinassance, this kind of fighting were widespread also outside the Iberian peninsula
(Antonio Tempesta, Caccia al toro, 1598)

However, both Dom Duarte and, about a century after him, Baldassare Castiglione were convinced of one thing: the perfect knight must master each of these techniques and be able to adapt to any type of saddle, since each one is useful for specific needs. “A man will never be a good rider if he is not able to choose the most appropriate way to ride on each type of saddle” (Livro da Ensinança de Bem Cavalgar Toda Sela, III, 14).

The “a la gineta” bit was of a clear Arabic origin and was identical to those still in use in North Africa (in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, 1602)

The “a la gineta” bit was of a clear Arabic origin and was identical to those still in use in North Africa
(in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, 1602)

Bibliography

BELLONCI, Maria, Lucrezia Borgia, Milano, Mondadori 1939.

CASTIGLIONE, Baldassare, Il Cortigiano, a cura di A. Quondam, Milano, Mondadori, 2002.

CROCE, Benedetto, La Spagna nella vita italiana durante la Rinascenza, 2a ed. riveduta, Bari, Laterza, 1922.

D’ANDRADE, Fernando Sommer,  La tauromachie équestre au Portugal, Paris, Michel Chandeigne, 1991.

Dom DUARTE, The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting and Knightly Combat, translatetd by A. F. and L. Preto, edited by Steven Muhlberger, Highland Viallge, The Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005.

PEREIRA, Carlos Henriques, Etude du premier traité d’équitation portugais. Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sela, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001.

PEREIRA, Carlos Henriques, Naissance et renaissance de l’equitation portugaise, Paris, l’Harmattan, 2010.

Bitless equitation in ancient times

Boy with horse (possibly Castor)
Marble relief from Hadrian’s Villa (Tivoli – Italy)
© The Trustees of the British Museum

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In recent years, the ability to ride a horse without using a bit, perhaps performing sophisticated dressage exercises, has often been presented as a demonstration of an innovative communication skill with the animal, due to the new techniques of so called “natural horsemanship”. But in fact, the use of riding without a bit is very old. Classical sources provide us with many examples, most of which relate to the use of a horse mounted without a bit, not simply to perform exercises that demonstrate his perfect training, but even in war in which the riders relied on their horses for their lives and their success in battle.

The best known case is that of the ancient Numidian cavalry. The Numidians were a people who lived in Northern Africa, in an area that went from the Mauretania to the kingdom of Carthage, which now coincides roughly with northwestern Algeria. They were skilled riders who provided mounted troops first to the Carthaginians, then to the Romans. The Numidian kingdom finally became a Roman province after the victory of Caesar over Pompey (48 BC.). The Numidian cavalry (equites numidarum) constituted a significant portion of the auxiliary corps of light cavalry in the Roman army from the Second Punic War until the third century AD. They were fast units, mainly used to strike the enemy with sudden attacks and quick retreats. They were armed with round shields of leather and short javelins. They were also used in patrolling tasks, but they were quite vulnerable in close combat.

Numidian Cavalry (on the right)
The horses have a simple collar as the only harness
Traian’s Column (Rome)

Their skill is mentioned by Livy, which recounts an episode in which their habit of riding without bits was exploited as defeat, with a trap, for the Ligurian that barred the passage to the Roman army. Livy writes:

«Between the auxiliary troops, the consul had about eight hundred Numidian horsemen. […] The Numidians jumped on the backs of their horses and began to ride in the face of enemy positions without attacking anyone. Nothing was more insignificant of their first appearance: men and horses were few and little ones, the riders had no belt and weapons, except for the fact that they brought with them a javelin, the horses were without bit and even their gait was bad, seen that they cantered with a stiff neck and head forward. Increasing on purpose such contempt, the Numidians fell from their horses and offered themselves to the sight of the enemy amidst mocking jokes» (Ab urbe condita, XXXV, 11, 8).

By this strategy, the Numidians were able to evade the enemy blockade and, once beyond the line of defense, they reached and devastated a village. Their action produced panic among the ranks of the Ligurians, which disbanded and, therefore, the Roman consul could proceed with the rest of his troops. Always, Livy (Ab urbe condita, XXIII, 29) points out that the Numidians had horses specially trained and that they took two animals with them into battle. At the height of the fight, they used to jump, as acrobats, from the tired horse to the more fresh, so great was their agility and the docility of their mounts.

Numidian Cavalry
Traian’s Column (Rome)

The Numidians habit of riding without a bit is also mentioned by Virgil, in the fourth canto of his Aeneid, when talking about them he defines them as (in verse 41) “infreni”. This adjective is usually translated with words like “unconquered” or “wild”, meaning “savagely hostile”, but literally it means “without brake”, namely “without bit”.

Further confirmation is in the Pharsalia of Lucan in which, giving an overview of the African troops under the command of Publius Varus Actium, lieutenant of Pompeius, he remembers that among them were mentioned the forces of the Numidian king Juba. Of the Massylii, namely the Numidian oriental tribes, he says “that, riding bareback, they direct the muzzles, unaware of bits, with a light stick” (IV, 682-683).

In his description of North Africa, even Strabo (Geography, XVII) points out the use of the Massylii to ride without a bit, only with the help of a rope and a stick. Their horses are described as small and ardent, but yet so obedient to follow their masters like dogs.

The Traian’s Column
Rome – Italy

Another use which is also confirmed, is found in the Column of Trajan, the Roman monument that celebrates the conquest of Dacia (101-106 AD) by the Roman emperor Trajan. This is a column which is about a hundred feet high, growing to about one hundred and thirty one feet if you include the base and the statue on top. Along the shaft, rolls up a spiral frieze, a total of about six hundred and fifty six feet long, which includes 114 scenes that tell, as a giant strip cartoon, the deeds of the imperial army. In one of these can be clearly seen, the Roman auxiliary cavalry Numidians troops who ride their horses without bits, but with a simple collar as the only harness.

In his Essais, Montaigne also points out that Julius Caesar, as did Pompey Magnus, was an excellent rider. So much so that in his youth he was able to ride «on a horse bareback and without a bridle», with his horse «running at full speed keeping his hands behind his back» (Essais, I, 48).

Finally, in the sixteenth century, the Italian writer and horseman Claudio Corte devotes a chapter (the 63rd of the second book) of his treatise about The Horseman (1562) to «the manner of riding the horse without the help of reins and without curb chain», explaining how, through progressive training, the horse can be taught to obey only with leg and seat aids, so that he can perform difficult exercises without the use of a bit.

Alizée Froment riding her lusitano stallion Mistral, without either bit or saddle. A superb demonstration of perfect understanding between horse and rider. To visit her website, click on this link: Alizée Froment website

Bibliography

CORTE, Claudio, Il Cavallarizzo, Venezia, Giordano Zilletti, 1562

LIVY, Ab urbe condita, libri XXIII e XXXV

LUCAN, Pharsalia, IV, 682-683

MONTAIGNE, Michel de, Essais, I, 48

SIDNELL, Phil, Warhorse: Cavalry in the Ancient World, London-New York, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007

STRABO, Geograhy, XVII, 3, 7

VIRGIL, Aeneid, IV, 41

The Corinthian bit

Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar)
Attributed to the Eucharides Painter (ca. 490 B.C.)
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Unlike what we have said about various civilizations of the Bronze Age, in Greece the practice of burying horse bits in graves was rare. Because of this, not many specimens have been preserved. For instance, those relating to the period between the eighth and seventh centuries BC, are almost entirely missing and historians have tried to reconstruct the variety of instruments used in ancient times in Greece, mainly from vase paintings. These, however, are too stylized to allow reliable analysis. However, we know that before the invasion of the Celts from Central Europe in the third century BC, in Greece only snaffle bits were used.

In the Bronze Age and in the early Iron Age, the use of chariots in Greece prevailed above horseback riding. During this time, it is believed that horses were controlled with a type of cavesson, or with snaffle bits (rigid or jointed) with sidebars. These bits acted partly through the mouthpieces and partly through the pressure of the sidebars on the sides of the animal’s mouth. In the following classical period, roughly between the fifth and fourth centuries BC, when riding began to prevail over the driving of chariots, the use of different bits with very severe mouthpieces, spread. On the cannons of the bits spikes were added that, while not changing the operating principle of the snaffle bit, made their action on the bars much more effective.

Greek Bronze bit
4th–3rd century B.C.
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

There is no doubt that these types of mouthpieces frequently hurt the horses mouth. In this regard, the historian and rhetorician Dio Chrysostom, who lived between I and II sec. AD, in his Discourses (LXIII, 5), tells an anecdote about the famous Greek painter Apelles (IV sec. BC) who, not succeeding in his attempts to portray realistically the mouth of a horse covered with foam and blood, threw a sponge against the painting thus finally achieving the desired result. It is precisely because of the extreme severity of the mouthpieces in use in his time, that Xenophon in his treatise on the Art of Riding, argues that «smooth bits are better than the rough ones, but if you put the horse a rough bit, you have to make it similar to a smooth one through the lightness of the hand »(Perì Hippikès, IX, 9). Xenophon also argues that «we need to have at least two bits. Of these, one should be smooth, having discs of a fair size, the other should have the disks heavy and thick and the spikes sharp, so that when the horse takes hold of it he may be repulsed by its roughness into letting it go, and when instead of it he has the smooth one in his mouth, he may be pleased by its smoothness and perform in it all those exercises that were taught by the rough one» (Perì Hippikès, X, 6). The author does not provide a detailed description of these bits, taking for granted the knowledge on the part of the reader. However, he dwells on the mouthpieces, specifying that if the horse has a tendency to lean on the bit, it is appropriate to use one with large internal disks, requiring the animal to keep his mouth open. Similarly he prefers jointed bits with respect to the stiff ones, because it is more difficult for the horse to lean on them and resist to their action.

The Alxander Mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompei
First century BC
Museo Archeologico Nazionale – Napoli

Among the different kinds of bits that have been identified in classical Greece, one is particularly typical. It may be seen in the famous Mosaic of Alexander, found in the House of the Faun in Pompeii, depicting the Battle of Issus, which opposed the Macedonian leader to Darius III of Persia (in 333 BC). It is distinguished by showy cheekpieces in the form of S. The ends of which are bent, one horizontally inwards, the other outwards. The inward turning end probably went under the chin of the horse. The mouthpiece was particularly severe and consisted of two jointed cannons on which pivoted two rollers bristling with spikes (echinoi), designed to act on the bars of the mouth, and two disks (trochoi), acting on the tongue and on the palate, to prevent the horse from closing his mouth and resisting the action of the bit. From the juction rings (sumbolai) of the cannons, hung a short length of fine chain that stimulated the tongue of the animal. It was used to encourage the mobility of the jaw and salivation.The straps of the bridle were attached to the four rings on the cheekpieces, while the reins were attached to characteristic hooks, rotating freely around the ends of the cannons.

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing a horse with a Corinthian bit
Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Some bits with S-shaped cheekpieces are already represented in Assyrian bas-reliefs of the mid-seventh century BC. Cheekpieces of similar shape, but made of wood and with ends carved in the form of animal heads (dated between the fifth and the fourth centuries BC.), were also found in the burial mounds of Pazyryk, in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. On the basis of the painting found on vessels, it is believed that this kind of bit was introduced by the Corinthians and then quickly spread throughout Greece. On the other hand, the legend of the divine bit that Bellerophon use to tame Pegasus, is particularly attached to Corinth and the same Pindar supports the tradition that places the invention of the first bit in this city.

Bibliography:

ANDERSON, John Kinloch , Ancient Greek Horsemanship, Berkley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1961.

BUGH, Glenn Richard, The Horsemen of Athens, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1988.

GAEBEL, Robert E., Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

SENOFONTE, L’arte della cavalleria. Il manuale del comandante della cavalleria, a cura di G. Cascarino, Rimini, Il Cerchio, 2007.

SESTILI, Antonio, L’equitazione nella Grecia antica. I trattati equestri di Senofonte e i frammenti di Simone, Firenze, Atheneum, 2006.

SPENCE, Iain G., The cavalry of Classical Greece. A social and military history, Oxford,Oxford University Press, 1993 .

WORLEY, Leslie J., Hippeis: The Cavalry of Ancient Greece, Boulder and Oxford, Westview Press, 1994.

Bronze Age bits

Bronze horse-bit with decorated cheek-pieces, from Luristan
© The Trustees of the British Museum – London

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

As we have seen in the myth of Pegasus and Bellerophon, in antiquity the application of the bit was considered a decisive moment for the horse’s submission to the will of the rider. It is believed that the first rudimentary mouthpieces were made of perishable materials, such as horsehair strings, or bone. The oldest metal bits date back to the Bronze Age and were conceived according to a principle similar to that of the modern snaffle, i.e. they consisted of a cannon (rigid or jointed) exerting direct pressure on the bars, to which the reins were secured by metal rings. Generally, this sort of snaffle had a width exceeding (12-20 cm) those of the ones that are used today (10-15 cm). Because of these dimensions they exercised more pressure on the sides of the mouth, with a more severe effect than the current snaffles. Both the Greek civilization and the pre-Roman world ignored the use of the curb bit (i.e. with long leverage–arm and curb chain), which is believed to have been introduced by the Celtic people, between the fourth and third century BC. Its use would be adopted later by the Romans through the influence of the Gauls, and would spread in the Hellenistic world after the Gauls invasion of the Balkans in 279 BC.

The people of the Mediterranean, however, also knew the use of halters (phorbeia) and cavessons, which were used to conduct the horses in hand and to tie them in the stables. It is also conceivable that they were used to drive chariot horses. The harnesses found with a chariot in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose IV, in fact suggest that the horses were driven with a sort of cavesson, which exerted pressure on the nostrils of the animals.

Copper alloy horse-bit with cheekpieces in the form
of a human-headed animal with central figure attacked by a lion
Luristan – 9thC BC-8thC BC
© The Trustees of the British Museum – London

Some of the oldest surviving bits comes from Luristan, a region in western Iran on the Zagros Mountains, and are dated between 1000 and 700 BC. They are made of bronze and they consist of a cannon of a single piece, straight or slightly curved, with at each end a cheek piece in the form of a winged animal. These figures of animals had a large hole in the body, in which passed the end of the mouthpiece, and two loops to tie the bridle and the rein. These remains were found mainly in tombs in which they were placed under the head of the buried body. Signs of wear on these bits, however, suggest that they were actually used – though probably only as parade accessories – and that they were not mere funeral offerings.

Bits with zoomorphic cheek pie­ces, were found also in Italy. The oldest belong to the so-called Villanovan culture, which flourished in central Italy (in the Tyrrhenian Etruria, Emilia Romagna and Marche, and also to the south, in Campania and Lucania) between the ninth and eighth century BC. They were part of the funeral offerings in the characteristic shaft tombs in which the deceased’s ashes were housed in an urn. In this case, however, they were jointed bites, decidedly less severe then the oriental models.

Bronze bit with zoomorphic cheek pieces
Villanovan (8th-7th century BC)
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

A bit with a rigid cannon, dating back to the late Bronze Age, found in the site of Tell el-Ajjul, near Gaza in Palestine, identifies another typology of bits, relatively widespread in ancient times. In this case, the cheek pieces are drilled bronze discs, through which passes the cannon, studded with spikes on their inner face. The cheek pieces were used to prevent sideways movements of the bit in the mouth, while the spikes strengthened the coercive action of the bit on the horse. The reins were secured to metal rings inserted in small holes at the ends of the cannon. This kind of bit was probably used for war-chariot horses. In his historical and geographical work titled Indika, the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia says that bits with circular cheek pieces and internal spikes were also used in India at the time of Alexander the Great (fourth century BC).

Bronze bit with circular cheek pieces
Canaanite (Late Bronze Age)
Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Jointed bits with similar cheek pieces, but without internal spikes, were found in Greece and Asia Minor. Their operation was very similar to that of a modern snaffle.

Bronze bit with circular cheek pieces
Greece or Asia Minor (I millennium BC)
© The Metropolitan Museum – New York

In Italy, Etruscan (or Villanovan) bits from the eighth century BC were found perfectly preserved. Of particular interest are the pairs of bits found in some burials in central Italy, especially the pair found in the tomb number 39 of the Benacci Caprara cemetery in Bologna.

Pair of Etruscan bronze bits
Benacci Caprara tomb 39 (750-720 BC)
Museo civico archeologico di Bologna

They are two bronze snaffles with elegant openwork cheek pieces. The jointed cannon, as in many other ancient bits, is “twisted”. According to some scholars, this kind of cannon evokes the memory of the time when horsehair strings, or other resistant fibers, were used as mouthpieces instead of metal. It seems to us more reasonable to think that instead the grooves serve to improve the effectiveness of the cannon on the horse’s bars and then to make the bit more severe. The hypothesis seems confirmed by the spread, in ages immediately following, of mouthpieces in which the action of the cannon on the bars was further strengthened by spikes. The two snaffles, preserved in the Archaeological Museum of Bologna, were part of an Etruscan funerary outfit dating from the seventh century BC (the date of the tomb is estimated between 750 and 720 BC). Note that in the Italian burials of this period the bits were always in pairs, because they were intended for a pair of horses attached to light chariots. In the tomb were also found bronze pins and hub locks of the chariot’s wheels, that were probably burned on the funeral pyre with the body of the deceased. If in earlier times, in the area of Bologna, the bits were exclusively part of male funerary outfits, from the end of the seventh century BC they appear also in some particularly rich female burials.

In the same area we note another couple of bronze snaffles, found in excavations at the end of the nineteenth century, in the Pradella farm in Castelfranco Emilia, near Modena. They are a variation of the two bits from Bologna, with pelta, or waxing moon cheek pieces. It is a kind of bit relatively widespread in the area of Emilia, in both male and female tombs.

Bronze bit with waxing moon cheek pieces (8th BC)
Pradella farm – Castelfranco Emilia (MO)
Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna

Bibliography

ANDERSON, John Kinloch , Ancient Greek Horsemanship, Berkley & Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1961.

 AZZAROLI, Augusto, An Early History of Horsemanship, E.J. Brille, Leiden,1985.

DREWS, Robert, Early Riders: The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe, New York-London, Routledge, 2004.

QUESADA SANZ, Fernando, El gobierno del caballo montado en la antigüedad clásica con especial referencia al caso de Iberia. Bocados, espuelas y la cuestión de la silla de montar, estribos y herraduras, Gladius XXV, 2005, pp. 97-150

For further information on the picture published in this page please follow these links:

Bronze horse-bit with decorated cheek-pieces, from Luristan

Copper alloy horse-bit with cheekpieces in the form of a human-headed animal 

Villanovan bronze bit with zoomorphic cheek pieces

Greek bronze bit with circular cheek pieces

Etruscan bronze bits from Benacci Caprara tomb 39

Bronze bit with waxing moon cheek pieces – Pradella farm