New information about the life 
of Cesare Fiaschi

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

New interesting and unknown details of Cesare Fiaschi’s biography emerge from the study of some ancient sources, which illuminate, with a new light, one of the most interesting figures of the Renaissance equestrian culture and disprove many legends and inaccuracies handed down to us about him.

A curious destiny unites the authors of the first equestrian treatises published in Italy during the Renaissance. While they have not been considered very much by professional historians who, with some brilliant exceptions, have ignored them, they are, instead, revered as guardian gods by a small handful of horsemanship enthusiasts who, however, do not know much about them beyond their name printed on the frontispiece of their books. This is exactly the situation of Cesare Fiaschi, author of the Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli (Treatise about bridling, training and shoeing horses), published in Bologna in 1556, which is one of the most fascinating and original books ever dedicated to the equestrian arts. The information we have so far about his life is very scarce and largely erroneous. By simply browsing the Web, you can easily see that many legends, without any evidence and often characterized by evident anachronisms, have flourished about him. For example, many argue that Fiaschi, who was born in the city of Ferrara, was a pupil of the Neapolitan Federico Grisone and that they collaborated in an imaginary academy of Naples. André Monteilhet then writes (MONTEILHET, 2009, 128) that Fiaschi founded another imaginary academy in Ferrara in 1534 (it must be said that classical riding fans are obsessed by academies!). However, none of this information has been proven by any document of the time. Because of these misconceptions, I will try to put together some interesting data about Cesare Fiasch’s biography which I recently collected from some ancient sources and which, until now, were unknown to scholars.

Frontispiece of Alfonso Maresti’s book

The first of these sources is the monumental work of Count Alfonso Maresti, Teatro geneologico et istorico dell’antiche & illustri famiglie di Ferrara (Genealogical and Historical Theater of the ancient and illustrious families of Ferrara) whose three voluminous volumes were printed between 1678 and 1708. Maresti devotes a broad discussion to the history of the Fiaschi family, from which we learn that it was one of the most eminent Ferrarese families. The father of Cesare, Girolamo, was the squire of the French king Charles IX, while his mother, Eleonora, belonged to the Sacrati family, considered to be one of the most prominent and rich in Ferrara. Cesare was the tenth child of the couple and was born in 1523, together with his twin sister Lucrezia. From the marriage of Girolamo with Eleonora Sacrati were born: Alberto (1510), Margherita (1511), Alfonso (1512), Isabella (1514), Alessandro (1516), Margherita II (1518), Ludovico II (1520), Ercole (1522) and the twins Lucrezia and Cesare (MARESTI, 1708, p.155).

Cesare married Barbara Romei, with whom he had no children. This is demonstrated by the fact that, on November 22, 1567, he made his will at the notary Renato Cati for the benefit of his nephews Giacomo and Luigia, son and daughter of his brother Alfonso. Maresti also writes that:

“He had imperial privilege of Earl and Knight, to appoint Notaries, and legitimize bastards [i.e. illegitimate sons]” (MARESTI, 1708, p.156).

From Maresti, we learn that at the time of the writing of the third testament of his father Girolamo, on October 24, 1570, of the five male children that he had from his wife Eleonora, only Cesare and Alessandro were still alive.

Fiaschi’s treatise is the only book about horsemanship in which a musical score is put aside of the drawings of certain excises in order to explain the rhythm with which they should be performed

Regarding the brothers of Cesare, the firstborn Alberto was a doctor in law and went to Rome where he obtained ecclesiastical dignity. He then went back to Ferrara and was appointed Canon of the Cathedral. However, the two most eminent figures were Alfonso and Alessandro. Alfonso served the Este and was ambassador to the French court. He also held the position of governor of the estates that Duke Ercole II obtained in France after the marriage (1528) to his wife Renée (second daughter of Louis XII). Alfonso died in the city of Caen and was buried in the Church of the Friars Minor of Saint Francis of Paola in that city. Alessandro also played a leading role in the Este court and was ambassador to France, Spain, Rome and Germany. We do not have any information about Cesare’s twin sister, Lucrezia. Ercole died at a young age, while Margherita died when she was still a baby in arms. The second Margherita entered the Monastery of Santa Maria di Mortara and was twice abbess. Isabella also took the religious cloth in the Monastery of San Vito, of which she was twice Mother Superior.

Fiaschi Palace, in Ferrara,

The Fiaschi resided in the historic family palace, in the district of Mucina, close to the Church of Santa Giustina, where now is Via Garibaldi. They had inherited it from Cesare’s grandfather, Ludovico, who was particularly benefited by Duke Ercole I. Not only had the Duke nominated him Knight and attended his wedding with Margherita Perondoli, in 1478, but he donated to Ludovico the palace that he had confiscated from Matteo dall’Erbe from Milan, when the latter sided with Lionello d’Este in a conspiracy in 1476 (FRIZZI, 1796, AVENTI, 1838, MORONI, 1843). The palace was renovated around 1600 by Marquis Alessandro Fiaschi (AVENTI, 1838). It was, unfortunately, destroyed on December 29, 1943, during the first bombing of Ferrara (PIVA 2017) and now a modern condominium stands in its place.

The ruins of Palazzo Fiaschi, after the first bombing of Ferrara on December 29, 1943, during World War II

Maresti writes that:

“Cesare […] devoted entirely himself to the actions of chivalry, and therefore was highly celebrated in those times”. (MARESTI, 1708, p.156)

Interesting news about Cesare’s life also come from Abbot Antonio Libanori’s work. In the third part of his book Ferrara d’oro, “which contains the eulogies of the most famous and illustrious writers of this country”, Libanori offers us a portrait of Cesare which, to tell the truth, is rather conventional and generic:

Frontispiece of Abbot Libanori’s book

“Even the Marquis Cesare Fiaschi [probably Libanori refers to the qualification that the Fiaschi obtained later, while we saw that, according to Maresti, Cesare was Earl], Noble Ferrarese Knight, enjoyed beautiful and generous horses, and as his wealth corresponded to the generosity of his spirit, among the other magnificent and splendid operations, he used to keep a large number of graceful and well-made coursers in his Stable, of all the most famous breeds that one could have, not paying any attention at the expenses that he made to bring them not only from the Kingdom of Naples, but from the other side of the Alps [i.e. from northern Europe] and beyond the Sea, both for the service of the Coaches, as for the Saddle, for riding, handling weapons, hunting, as for tournaments and other chivalric games. He then had his Stables always full, and he wanted that they were very well fed, cared and trained in every attitude. And not only he used to attend to the Operations, but also, as a very expert in that chivalric profession, he composed a beautiful Treatise about bridling, training and shoeing horses, divided into three Books, in which there are the drawings of all kind of Bits, Bridles, Saddles, Horseshoes and anything else that is about this noble profession”. (LIBANORI, 1674, p.126)

Far more interesting is the description that Libanori provides of Fiaschi’s coat of arms:

Fiaschi’s coat of arms

“The Coat of Arms of this noble subject consists of three blackberries, placed in a triangle with green leaves in white field; with privilege of Maximilian the second, in November 6, 1568, the Imperial Black Eagles in golden field were granted to the Marquis Lords Fiaschi, so that today the Coat of Arms of the Marquis Lords is quartered with the Imperial Black Eagle in Golden Field and white flask in red field, in the middle of these four fields there is an escutcheon with the mentioned three blackberries, which is the ancient Coat of Arms of this noble House”. (LIBANORI, 1674, p.284)

Giacomo Attendolo Sforza (1369-1424), duke of Cotignola, in a miniature of the fifteenth century

The presence of the three blackberries recalls the history of the Fiaschi family. According to Maresti, it would have oriental origins and would have come to Italy from Greece, in the thirteenth century. At that time the family had not yet taken the surname we now know, but his members would have been known as “de Mori” (“mora” in Italian means blackberry, while “Mori” means “Moors”). However, they begin to have significant mention starting from the following century, when such a Pietro Gerasio was in the service of Giacomo Attendolo Sforza (1369-1424), duke of Cotignola, progenitor of the dynasty that would have soon take possession of the Duchy of Milan. Attendolo assigned Pietro Gerasio as a companion in arms to his son, Francesco.

Antonio Pollaiolo, Study for the equestrian monument to Francesco Sforza

Following Francesco, Pietro Gerasio participated in the war of succession of the Kingdom of Naples, opposing Alfonso V of Aragon. According to Maresti, the acquisition of the surname Fiaschi went back to an episode of this war, in which Francesco and Pietro Gerasio fought with the colors of Queen Johanna II of Naples. In the alternating vicissitudes of the conflict, at a certain moment, the queen had to flee for the chase of the enemy troops and during the flight, she found herself extremely thirsty and in a place where there was no water. Pietro Gerasio then helped her with a flask of wine, which he had found there. Since then, in the army, they began to call him “Pietro dal Fiasco” (“Peter of the flask”) and this nickname passed to his descendants, replacing the old surname “de Mori” with that of “dal Fiasco” or “de Fiaschi”. Maresti writes that, to keep memory of this episode, Pietro Gerasio added the flask to his family’s coat of arms with the three blackberries. Moreover, according to Maresti, shortly before conquering the duchy of Milan, Francesco Sforza invested Pietro Gerasio, with the title of earl and assigned him the county of Castello di Tizzano, at that time in the State of Milan. As evidence of the close relationship that linked him to his lord, Pietro was one of the twelve knights admitted to the Sforza’s table. At his death, Pietro Gerasio was buried in the Pieve di Tizzano, which was in his possession and which today is in the province of Parma.

The Pieve di  Tizzano where Pietro Gervasio, ancestor of Cesare Fiaschi, is buried

The first mention of the surname Fiaschi in Ferrara dates back to April 4, 1439, in an act of purchase in which it is named an “egregio viro Bartolomeo alias cognominato Fiasco, fam. Illustrissimi Domini Marchionis Estensis, et filio quondam Iacobi Mattei de Moro” (egregious sir Bartolomeo also surnamed Fiasco, in the service of the very illustrious Lord Marquis d’Este and son of late Giacomo Matteo de Moro; MARESTI 1708, pp. 147-148). We know that he received a land grant with the title of Ferrarese Noble from Nicolò III d’Este in 1428 and obtained further benefits in 1431. Bartolomeo had three sons. Ludovico was one of them and he served the Estensi, obtaining ample benefits and possessions in return. He is Cesare’s grandfather, from whom the family inherited the Palace in the city of Ferrara.

It is probable that Cesare’s last years were distressed by a serious threat. The Italy in which our noble knight lived was pervaded by the religious ferment born with the Lutheran Reformation and by the consequent reaction of the Church of Rome that, with the Council of Trent, had decided to repress that ferment with every means. In 1551, in Ferrara a preacher of Sicilian origin was tried, sentenced and hanged. He was a Benedictine monk, Giorgio Rioli, known as Giorgio Siculo, author of works judged heretical, in which he announced extraordinary revelations, that he claimed were communicated to him directly by Christ. Powerful and humble men, as well as religious and laity, were fascinated by his doctrines, which were disclosed in secret form. The persecution of his followers continued for a few decades after his death.

On December 3, 1567 Francesco Severi, named l’Argenta, was arrested. He was a famous physician and professor of the University of Ferrara. The process lasted for several months and involved other people from Ferrara. The sentence was delivered in early August 1568, and we know from a chronicle of that time, that it was read publicly in Ferrara on the 29th of the same month. Severi was condemned to perpetual jail, as well as several other followers of the sect. Three of them were beheaded and then burned. Among other convictions there is also that of Cesare Fiaschi, a gentleman from Ferrara, who was condemned to ten years in jail. The chronicle that reports this news warns that, apart from the dead, all the people who was condemned “shortly afterwards, their condemnations were partly forgiven, some by the intercession of friends, and others by other arrangements, but principally because the inquisitor who succeeded the one who condemned them, was less harsh” (cited in PROSPERI, 2011, p 280). Unfortunately, this did not happen to Francesco Severi, who was again found guilty on 13 July 1570 and a month later, beheaded and burned.

In his last years Fiaschi may have been convicted for heresy

If indeed the Cesare Fiaschi who was condemned as a follower of the Giorgian sect, is our author, it is probable that  he could have benefited from the intercessions of powerful friends and of his family and that he did not end his days in a cell, or chained to the oars of a galley (at the time, convictions were often served on warships, in conditions that made the convicted regret not being in the damp dungeons of the Castle of Ferrara). This condemnation for heresy, still to be verified and investigated, could however explain a certain reticence regarding the figure of Cesare of the authors who wrote about the Fiaschi family in epochs immediately following the events, when perhaps the memory of the events was still alive. They usually remember only his work, without talking of other details. Maresti, who is the one who wrote more about Cesare’s life, makes no mention of any condemnation.

In any case, the book of Abbot Libanori offers us an extremely interesting pronouncement, where, on the subject of Cesare Fiaschi, he writes:

“the aforementioned subject died in the year 1571, on the 12th of October, and was buried in the church of Saint John Baptist of the Lateran Canons”. (LIBANORI, 1674, p.284)

The Church of Saint John the Baptist in Ferrara
(picture by Gino Perin)

I confess that when I read these few lines I jumped on the chair! Not only do we finally know when Fiaschi died, but also where his mortal remains rest. However, while I have no reason to doubt a date which is quoted with such certainty and precision, I have more than one reason to consider doubtful this indication of the place of burial. The first one, because I visited the church of San Giovanni Battista in Ferrara, where there is no trace of the tomb of Cesare Fiaschi, while the epigraphs of various other burials are preserved. What is above all strange, is that no other author (among those that I have been able to read and who have described the church) mention this tomb, while they all precisely list others. There is another reason that is puzzling. In his Compendio historico dell’origine, accrescimento, e prerogative delle Chiese, e luoghi pij della città, e diocesi di Ferrara, e delle memorie di que’ personaggi di pregio, che in esse son seppelliti (Historical Compendium of the origin, growth, and prerogatives of the Churches, and holy places of the city, and diocese of Ferrara, and of the memories of those valuable figures, which are buried in them), published in 1621 (therefore in a epoch closer to that of Fiaschi’s death), Marcantonio Guarini writes that the tomb of the Fiaschi Family was located in the Church of Santa Maria dei Servi, next to the Chapel of the Crucifix. Here, according to Guarini, Ludovico, who was dear to the duke Ercole I d’Este, was buried with his wife Margheria Perondoli, and their descendants. Among these, Guarini also mentions

“Cesare subject of high intelligence, who wrote a useful treatise about harnessing, training and shoeing Horses”. (GUARINI, 1621, p. 49)

The church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Ferrara

If the Fiaschi had a family tomb, it is indeed probable that Cesare was also buried there. The church of Santa Maria dei Servi was demolished in 1635 and rebuilt a few decades later. From the book that Cesare Barotti dedicated in the second half of the eighteenth century to the Pitture e Scolture che si trovano nelle Chiese della Citta di Ferrara (Paintings and Sculptures which can be found in the Churches of the City of Ferrara), we know that the tomb was relocated to the new church  where the Fiaschi family continued to have their chapel:

the Chapel of the noble Fiaschi Family; where the main painting is Saint Pellegrino Laziosi, whose leg is healed by the Crucifix; work by Giovanna Durandi from Milan. The four lateral Paintings, which show some actions of the aforesaid Saint, were worked by Giuseppe Morganti from Pistoia. (BAROTTI; 1770, p. 73)

Unfortunately, today there is no apparent evidence left in the church. The interior has been remodeled several times and it is now altered by an ugly decoration, probably dating back to the late nineteenth century. The paintings mentioned by Barotti are not there anymore and it is impossible for the visitor to identify which of the niches dug in the walls could accommodate them. In short, research can and must go on.

The plate which opens the second part of Cesare Fiaschi’s treatise

NOTE: This article summarizes the contents of the lecture I gave at the Ferrara Press Club (Circolo della Stampa in Ferrara), Saturday, September 1, 2018. I hereby express all my friendship and gratitude to Angelo Grasso, president of the UAIPRE – ANCCE Italia, the Italian Association of PRE breeders, for inviting me and encouraging me to deepen my studies about Cesare Fiaschi. My thoughts then go to the Ferrara Press Club, and in particular to the vice president Simonetta Savino, to the secretary Gino Perin and to the entire Board of Directors, who welcomed me as honorary member. The friendship, the consideration and the affection of my Ferrarese friends are a very precious gift to me.












Francesco AVENTI, Il servitore di piazza, guida per Ferrara, Pomatelli Tipografo, 1838.

Cesare BAROTTI, Pitture e Scolture che si trovano nelle Chiese della Citta di Ferrara, Ferrara, appresso Giuseppe Rinaldi, 1770.

Antonio FRIZZI, Memorie per la storia di Ferrara, Ferrara, per Francesco Pomatelli, 1796, Tomo IV.

Marcantonio GUARINI, Compendio historico dell’origine, accrescimento, e prerogatiue delle Chiese, e luoghi pij della citta, e diocesi di Ferrara, e delle memorie di que’ personaggi di pregio, che in esse son sepelliti, Ferrara, presso gli heredi di Vittorio Baldini, 1621

Antonio LIBANORI, Ferrara d’oro. Parte terza. Che contiene gl’elogij de’ più famosi, ed illustri scrittori di questa patria, i quali anno alla stampa l’opere loro di sagra teologia, leggi, filosofia, … e d’ogn’altra più erudita, e varia lettione, Ferrara, nella Stampa Camerale, 1674.

Alfonso MARESTI, Teatro geneologico et istorico dell’antiche & illustri famiglie di Ferrara, Ferrara, Nella stampa Camerale Vol. III, 1708.

André MONTEILHET, Les Maîtres de l’oeuvre équestre, Arles, Actes Sud, 1979 (nuova ed. 2009).

Gaetano MORONI, Dizionario di erudizione storico-ecclesiastica da S. Pietro sino ai nostri giorni, Venezia, Tipografia Emiliana, 1843.

Florio PIVA, C’era una volta Palazzo Fiaschi, Un gioiello architettonico della vecchia via Garibaldi, Listone Magazine, 30 novembre 2017.

Adriano PROSPERI, L’eresia del Libro Grande. Storia di Giorgio Siculo e della sua setta, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2011.

“Maneggi and jumps”. The basic exercises of Renaissance horsemanship (Part 2)

Benozzo Gozzoli, Chapel of the Magi, detail of the est wall, Palazzo Medici- Ricciardi, Florence, 1459

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

At the beginning of the second part of his Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli (Treatise on bridling, training and shoeing horses, 1556), Cesare Fiaschi explicitly states his intention of codifying the equestrian art of his time, setting the rule for the proper execution of the different “maneggi”. A rule which, in the author’s intention, served also to safeguard those who applied it from the criticisms of the many riders who at that time, rode without due accuracy.

In this second part of the treatise I intend with my speech not only to set the standard for the handling of horses, but also to expose by means of designs some acts of riders on horseback and their horse tracks [indicating the position of the hooves of the horse on the ground] and the time in Music of some exercises so that no one can be blamed every time that he performs them if following these instructions. Since I have seen many [riders], both in the past and now that do not aspire to do what they entirely ought to do with the horse, I feel pressed to undertake this effort, and also because I know that currently some, for the reason of not being made aware, incur in many errors […] but no one should disdain to accept my opinion, given that if he shall proceed as indicated in this treatise, and by means of drawings and Music, he will be honored, without fear of being considered ignorant, because with the living reasons in the hands he will shut the mouth of those who dare to contradict him. (FIASCHI, 1556, II, 1, pp. 87-88)

The part of  Fiaschi’s treatise specifically dedicated to horse riding can, in fact, be considered as a canon of the different exercises performed with a horse which has already been perfectly trained. However, the author says very little on how the animals were prepared to perform these refined movements.

The works by Grisone and Corte were reprinted many times during the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries
Frontispieces of the 1551 edition of the “Ordini” and of the 1573 Lyon edition of “Il cavallarizzo”

From the point of view of horse training techniques during the Renaissance, two other fundamental texts of the sixteenth century are more interesting. Namely, Gli ordini di cavalcare (The orders of riding, 1550) by Federico Grisone, a kind of real manual for the training of the horse “to the use of war,” and Il cavallarizzo (The Horseman, 1562) by Claudio Corte, one of the most refined and innovative works among those devoted to the equestrian art in the sixteenth century.

According to Grisone, the horse had to be tamed when he was at least three years old. The training was rather quick and lasted an average of four to six months. Grisone suggested that the horse be ridden initially on a plowed field, where other horses have made a track. In this way, the author argued,  the horse was induced to follow a correct path, avoiding the trouble of walking on loose soil. With the progress of the training, a shallow ditch could be used in order to force him to follow an even more rigorous path.

Grisone suggests using a shallow ditch to induce the horse
to follow a more rigorous path while performing the passade.
Pierre de la Noue, La Cavalerie françoise et italienne, 1620

According to the Neapolitan author, the so-called “torni” were essential to prepare the horse to perform the “maneggi”. They consisted in making two circles (“volte”) to the right and then, two circles to the left, followed by going along a straight line (“repolone”) after which the horse had to be stopped performing some pesades (“posate). Then, when the horse was “quiet and proper”, he had to make two narrow voltes to the right, then two to the left. With the progress of the training, the rider had to have the horse perform one or two pirouettes (which Fiaschi and Grisone call “doubling”- raddoppio – or “doubled voltes” – volte raddoppiate). Finally, the animal was led back on the straight line and “went out” of the “torni”. The exercise was performed initially at the trot and then, in a more advanced stage of the training, at the canter.

This is the form of the “torni” offered by me, with some written words, by which, and also for what I said before, will be easily understood. By the way in which they are illustrated, you can see how different they are from the ancient turns, which, a few years ago, were done between the trees and in the countryside, and were done wider and with no measure of number or width, changing place and not as methodically as today. (GRISONE, 1550, II, p. 54r-54v)

Diagram of the so-called

Diagram of the so-called “torni”, the basic exercise to prepare the horse to the “maneggi,” according to Grisone

The “torni” were used to train the horse to find his balance under the weight of the rider, in order to teach him how to run the repolone (or passade), stopping after the charge and turning on his haunches, and cantering again in the opposite direction.

To help the horse to become accustomed to facing battle on any kind of soil, Grisone also suggested placeing stones on the path. The author insisted on the importance of training the horse to stop straight, perhaps even with the help of a man on the ground who put him into frame with a stick. For the same purpose, he considered it useful to rein back. At the first stage of the training, the horse was mounted with a cavesson and a curb bit. Then, when he was already trained at a trot, Grisone suggested to take away the cavesson and to use the so-called false-reins, namely additional reins which were secured to special rings on the bit’s shanks, at the ends of the mouthpiece. The bridle then functioned like a pelham bit (1). This use was harshly criticized by Fiaschi, who considered it harmful to the horse.

The pesade was considered essential to accustom the horse to stop carrying his weight on the hind legs.
Giovanni Battista Galiberto, Il cavallo da maneggio, 1650

Soon the horse was taught the “pesade” (posata), that is to say to bring his hind legs under his body, lowering his hips and lightening the front legs so as to lift them from the ground. This technique made ​​it possible to collect the horse to the extreme, making him capable of a rapid change of direction at the end of the “repolone”. It was also a spectacular exercise which was used as a presentation air.

Compared to Grisone’s book, the work of Claudio Corte introduces various other training exercises, the most part of which are still used today, even if with slight differences. Clearly, these were not invented by Corte, but he had the merit to explain them in his treatise, consolidating their use.

Corte proposed an updated scheme
of Girsone’s “torni,”
which he called “rote”
Claudio Corte, Il Cavallarizzo, 1562

According to Corte, the starting point of the training is the work on the circles. Therefore, he proposed an updated scheme of Grisone’s “torni”, which he calls “rote” (“wheels”). The difference between the two exercises is that, after covering the straight line, the horse had to turn on three contiguous circles with a diameter of 8-12 meters(26-39 feet), then he had to come back on the same straight path, after which he had to turn on three smaller circles (of about 6-9 feet in diameter).

Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo, 1562

According to Corte, the exercise of the “caragolo” was the most effective
to make the horse supple and obedient.
Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo, 1562

After confirming the horse in this exercise, Corte suggested to start him to another one: the so-called “caragolo” (from the Spanish “caracol”, i.e. snail). It was about performing a spiral then, after covering a repolone, performing another one in the opposite direction. Corte considered this the most important and effective exercise, capable of producing the same benefits of the work on the “rote” (circles), but allowing the horse to become more agile in a shorter time. After a certain amount of training, the horse had to perform it also at the canter. According to Corte, at that point, the exercise also assumed a significant aesthetic value, demonstrating the docility and the smoothness acquired by the horse and the skill of the rider.

Training the horse to the so-called “esse serrato” (tight S)
served to prepare him for the “repolone.”
Claudio Corte, Il cavallarizzo,1562

Another innovative exercise is what Corte called “esse serrato” (tight S). It was a path in the form of a figure eight, from which the rider comes up with a repolone, stopping the horse on the straight line. The author recommended performing it initially on a wider path, which was gradually reduced as the horse became accustomed and more dexterous in turning. Among other things, it was considered a prerequisite to the repolone (i.e. to the passade).

Curiously, Corte argued that the most generous and noble horses were pleased to perform the serpentine.
Claudio Corte, Il Cavallarizzo, 1562

Finally, the last exercise introduced by Corte was what he called “to snake” (“serpeggiare”), i.e. the serpentine. It was, he said, a kind of training suited to promote the balance of the horse and his obedience to the bit and to the legs. The author considered it also useful to avoid firearms shots in battles and, argued that horses, especially the most generous and noble, were pleased to do it. He added that, unfortunately this exercise was generally neglected in the riding schools, where courbettes and pesades were mainly taught.

The “Passade” remains the fundamental exercise for mounted combat
until the eighteenth century.
WIlliam Cavendish, duca di Newcastle, La methode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux, 1658, Tav. 21

Corte was also the first author to mention the use of the work in-hand, with the rider on the ground who guides the horse with the reins. Over time, this way of training the horse would subsequently have a remarkable development, being used to teach the horse the different exercises of dressage without the hindrance of the weight of the rider. Corte recommended it for training the horse to rein-back. If the animal resisted the aids of the rider, he had to dismount and, taking in each hand the reins of the cavesson, he had to push the horse “pleasantly” back until he understood what he had to do. As soon as the horse took a few steps back, the rider had to get back in saddle and ask the horse to rein-back. If again he resisted, the rider had to repeat the exercise from the ground: “that you have to be very sure that doing so in two or three mornings, and even in less than an hour, you will have him at this” (CORTE, 1562, II, 8, p. 66v).

to be continued

to read  the continuation of this article, please click here -> part three

(1) Grisone and the other Renaissance authors do not describe the false-reins, but we find their description in later editions of the treatise by the Duke of Newcastle: “To work Horses with false Reins, is very false working, for, being tied to the Arches of the Bitt, and pulling it, that flacks the Curb: and so no Horse shall be firm and settled with it, for, that Horse that doth not suffer the Curb, shall never be a ready-horse; so it makes the Bitt like a Snaffle” (I quote from the English edition: William Cavendish (Duke of Newcastle), A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses, etc, Dublin, James Kelburn, 1740, p. 277). I owe this information to Michael Stevens, who has friendlily pointed out an inaccuracy in the first version of my article. Having such attentive and competent readers is a privilege and an honor to me.


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

FIASCHI, Cesare, Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli, Bologna, Anselmo Giaccarelli, 1556

GRISONE, Federico, Gli ordini di cavalcare, Napoli, stampato da Giovan Paolo Suganappo, 1550.

Coats, socks, blazes and the theory of humors

Diego Velasquez – Portrait of Philip IV on horseback (1635-36)
© Museo del Prado – Madrid
In ancient times it was believed that the legs with socks
were slower and weaker than the others

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In ancient times and up to the Renaissance and beyond, it was a widespread belief that the color and markings (such as socks, blazes and other markings) of the horse’s coat identified the nature, inclinations and the specific characteristics of each animal. This belief led to the preference of some coats, which were considered as expression of a more reliable and healthy nature, and to dismiss others, regarding them as signs of an unfavorable “complexion”. We find an explicit mention of this belief in the main Renaissance treatises, starting from the first printed book dedicated to horse riding: Gli ordini di cavalcare (The Orders of Riding, 1550), by Federico Grisone. The favorite coat of the Neapolitan author, who expresses what was a current opinion at the time and not just a personal preference, was the bay, but he also appreciated the dapple gray and the liver chestnut. In general, the author considers the white hairs a symptom of weakness and, for this reason, he gave preference to specimens with dark legs, or small socks. Despite the fact that the author stresses that these considerations are drawn from experience, rather than from opinion, he admits that often «these marks fail and one sees the opposite effect» (GRISONE, 1550, p. 4v). For this reason, he recommends that to best assess the horse’s “complexion”, one should begin to examine him from the ground, that is to say by the quality of his hooves and limbs.

We find similar convictions in the subsequent work by Cesare Fiaschi: Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli (Treatise about bridling, training and shoeing horses, 1556). Also, the author from Ferrara argues that the color of the coat and the markings should be regarded as indications of the nature of the animal (FIASCHI, 1556, p. 38). Similarly, he considers the light hairs as a sign of weakness, because in them lies the phlegmatic humor (FIASCHI, 1556, p. 153).

Andrea Mantegna, Detail from
the “Camera Picta” (1474)
Ducal Palace, Mantua
The best coats were considered the bay,
the dapple grey and the liver chestnut

This conception was based on the so-called “theory of humors,” introduced by Hippocrates (IV-III century BC), considered the father of medicine, and then backed up by the Roman physician, Galen (129-216). This doctrine remained dominant in ancient Western medicine until at least the seventeenth century. It was the first attempt to explain the cause of diseases, replacing the previous religious and magical beliefs, and was based on the idea of the Greek philosopher Anaximenes of Miletus (fourth century BC) that the universe was made up of four basic elements: air, water, fire and earth. From these four elements Hippocrates identfied four basic humors: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood (red humor). The black bile (also known as melancholy) corresponded to the earth, fire to the yellow bile (also known as anger), water to the phlegm, and air to blood. Four temperaments (phlegmatic, melancholic, choleric and sanguine) corresponded to the four humors, and further to: four elementary qualities (cold, warm, dry, moist), four seasons (spring, summer, autumn and winter) and four seasons of life (childhood, youth, maturity and old age). According to this scheme, health would depend on the humors’ balance within the body and the predominance of one of them would influence the personality of the subject, defining his temperament and physical constitution (known as “complexion”).

Claude Deruet – The four elements: Fire (Vers 1641-1642)
© Musee des Beaux-Arts, Orleans
The theory of humors was based on the idea that the universe was made up
of four basic elements: air, water, fire and earth

The clearest and more detailed explanation of how this theory could also apply to horses is given by Claudio Corte, a Lombard horseman who published, in 1562, a book called Il cavallarizzo (The Horseman), in which he shows a remarkable literary culture, which is reflected in the richness of the quotations, as well as in the adoption of sophisticated literary proceedings in his treatise.

According to Corte, the natural heat governs the digestion of the humors in the body of the animal. This process generates “sooty vapors”, which are pushed upward by the force of the same heat and exert a pressure to exit from the body. The leakage occurs through the pores and «through that flesh, which they find more suitable and open to give them way» (CORTE, 1562, p. 23r). When they get in contact with the air, they “conglutinate”, that is to say that they thicken, forming the hairs and the mane, which are thicker, or thinner, depending on the greater or lesser heat which has pushed them out and then take on different colors depending on the humor from which the vapor producing them was generated. Similarly, the hairs are straight or curly depending on how much dry, moist, straight or crooked are the ways by which they are released. For this reason, Corte says, the quality of the coat gives a clear indication of the nature of horses, «of their greater warmth or coldness, dryness and moisture» (CORTE, 1562, p. 23r).

Tiziano Vecellio, Charles V at the Mühlberg battle
(1548) © Museo Nacional del Prado
The black horses were less considered because it was believed that
they were influenced by the melancholic humor

Thus, the color and quality of the hair derive from the four humors (rage, melancholy, blood and phlegm) and from the corresponding qualities (warm, cold, dry, moist). Each of these humors and qualities generate a coat color: anger produces chestnut, blood produces bay, from phlegm comes the grey (“leardo”) and from melancholy comes the black. These qualities are almost never absolute, but they generally combine one with the other:

And since you cannot find on earth any body totally simple, or rather of simple quality, we will say that one cannot find a fire that is not warm and dry, air that is not warm and moist, water that is not moist and cold, earth that is not cold and dry. So we can also say that there is no horse that is simply sanguine, nor only choleric, but choleric-sanguine, choleric-burned, choleric-melancholic, phlegmatic-sanguine, phlegmatic-melancholic, earthy-melancholic and icy, and melancholic-choleric… (CORTE, 1562, p. 24r)

Claude Deruet – The Four Elelments: Air (1641-1642)
© Musee des Beaux-Arts, Orleans
In the Hippocratic theory air corresponded to the blood humor

As for the coats, Corte agrees with the general opinion of the time, granting a preference to the bay, the dapple gray and the liver chestnut. Roans are also appreciated, because they combine the natures of the four main coats. He shows, however, very little consideration for the black, although he admits that there are some very good examples. Finally, he is skeptical about the meaning of socks. Having failed to find convincing explanations, he claims to refer to the authority of the ancients, according to whom the leg with the sock would be slower and weaker. On this point, however, he maintains some reservation, concluding that the experience shows the irrelevance of socks and of other signs, such as blazes and whorls.

And to fortify my opinion, the experience, master of things, shows that the weakness and strength, speed and slowness come and depend on the climate of the whole body and on its disposition and proportion and not on small socks, as well as little force comes and depends from little humor. (CORTE, 1562, p. 29r).

George Stubbs, Whistlejacket (1762)
© National Gallery – London
Accroding to Corte, the chestnut coat was produced
by a prevalence of anger (yellow bile)

It is clear that, even if this theory was, at the time, universally spread and recognized as valid, it could only collide with direct observation. For this reason, all the authors point out that the principles should be considered as parameters for the first assessment of each specimen and not as exhaustive criteria. The same Grisone stresses that, even if a horse is well-marked and born under a “happy constellation”, he must be well-formed and proportioned. On the other hand, he adds with common sense, the good nature of the horse is not sufficient without the expertise of the rider and the proper training:

And do not think that although the horse is well organized by nature, without the human aid and the true doctrine he could work well by himself, because you have to wake up his limbs and the occult virtues that are in him through art, and with the true order and good discipline he will show clearly his goodness. On the contrary, when art is false it ruins and covers all his virtues, as well as when it is good it compensates to the many parts where his nature lacks (GRISONE, 1550, p. 10r).

Claude Deruet – The Four Elements: Water (1641-1642)
© Musee des Beaux-Arts Orleans
Water corresponded to phlegm, which was moist and cold

It was, therefore, well kept in mind, as it should be today, that an experienced rider and a rational, gradual training program may compensate for the morphological defects of a horse, just as incorrect work can ruin even the good qualities of the more physically gifted specimen.


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

FIASCHI, Cesare, Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare e ferrare cavalli, Bologna, Anselmo Giaccarelli,1556.

GRISONE, Federico, Gli ordini del cavalcare, Napoli, stampato da Giovan Paolo Suganappo, 1550

JONES, William Henry Samuel, Philosophy and Medicine in Ancient Greece, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1946

JOUANNA, Jacques, Ippocrate, Torino, SEI, 1994

KLIBANSKY, Raymond – PANOFSKY, Erwin – SAXL, Fritz, Saturno e la melanconia, Torino, Einaudi, 1983 (ult. Ed. 2002).

KRUG, Antje, Medicina nel mondo classico, Firenze, Giunti, 1990.