A riding academy in Sicily during the Renaissance: the Congregazione dei Cavalieri d’Armi

Le splendide tavole de Le guerre festive (Palermo, 1680), mostrano il lusso delle armi e delle bardature impiegate nelle giostre che si tenevano in Sicilia tra il XVI e il XVII secolo

The beautiful plates of Le guerre festive (Palermo, 1680) 
show the luxury of weapons and harnesses used in Sicily 
 between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries

di Giovanni Battista Tomassini

At dawn on Friday, May 18, 1565, the sentinels of the Knights of Malta saw on the horizon, the sails of the Turkish fleet, commanded by Admiral Piyale Paşa. The fleet consisted of approximately one hundred and seventy vessels: galleys, galleass and galliot, eight large transport mahon and dozens of smaller boats, carrying supplies and horses. The Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), was launching an attack on the Christian stronghold at the center of the Mediterranean with one of the largest armies hitherto ever seen. The news of the siege threw Europe into dismay and caused a real panic in nearby Sicily. The siege lasted nearly four months, but in the end, the brave resistance of the Maltese knights got the better of the powerful Ottoman army, which was rejected back into the sea, after suffering heavy losses.

Armatura da Giostra Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli

Jousting armor
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Nevertheless, in Sicily the final victory of the Christians did not dispel the widespread feeling of an impending threat. It seemed urgent to form a militia ready to repel possible assaults on the coasts and to uphold the honor of the Sicilians, rivaling in value with the Spanish rulers. It was, therefore, with this purpose that soon after the siege of Malta, the viceroy of Sicily, García Álvarez de Toledo y Osorio (1514-1577), founded, an equestrian academy in Palermo in which the nobles could practice horsemanship and military disciplines, but also study mathematics, geography and navigation. The academy was named Congregazione dei Cavalieri d’Armi (Congregation of the Knights of Arms) and San Sebastian became its patron saint, while the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (the Admiral’s Bridge) was chosen as its emblem. The Admiral’s Bridge is a twelve arches bridge dating from Norman times, which at that time, was on the eastern borders of the city of Palermo (today it is visible from Corso dei Mille). It was probably chosen as a symbol of the city’s glorious past and because its name (“Admiral’s”) evoked one of the top military positions of the Norman army. The Latin sentence Et suos hic habet Oratios (“And here it has its Horatius”) was the academy’s motto. It referred to Horatius Cocles, the Roman hero who (in 508 BC) defended the Sublicio Bridge, blocking by himself the Etruscan army, led by Porsenna, which was marching towards Rome. The sentence means that, like Rome, «also Palermo had its Cocles, virtuous and brave men in arms able to defend the city from any danger» (BILE, 2011, p. 30).

Il Ponte dell'Ammriaglio a Palermo venne scelto come emblema della Congregazione

The Admiral’s Bridge was chosen as emblem of the Congregation

A public ceremony held on San Sebastian’s Day sanctioned the establishment of the Congregation. A pageant of the knights traveled through the streets of the city following the blessing of the academy standard:

January 20, 1567 – The day of Saint Sebastian the standard of the Academy’s knights was blessed and in the evening, the knights, completely armed with cold steel, escorted it throughout the city, holding torches. The illustrious Marquis of Avola was the Academy’s general, Baron Fiumesalato the counselor and Mr. Carlo Marchisi the standard-bearer. (PARUTA – PALMERINO, 1869, p. 27)

That same day, the knights gave the first public demonstration of their skills in a joust, organized at the Pian della Marina (now Piazza Marina, at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, in Palermo). At that time, jousts and carousels represented the main occasions for the nobles to demonstrate their skills in martial exercises in times of peace. In this sense, jousts and pageants played an essential political and social role. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the growing strategic importance of firearms and the military role of the infantry had, in fact, drastically reduced the role of cavalry and fed into the nobility, “the frustration that comes from being nominally knights but with little chance, if not in carousels and tournaments, to prove themselves to the world” (Antonelli, 1997, p. 194).

Burgonet, depicting the Roman emperor Trajan Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Burgonet, depicting the Roman emperor Trajan
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

In Sicily, as indeed in the rest of Europe, jousts were very frequent and were very popular shows. So much so that the Senate of the city of Palermo, decided to build an “Aringo”, i.e. an ephemeral wood amphitheater, which could hold up to twenty-five thousand people, with boxes reserved for the vice royal court and the representatives of the Senate. “Every opportunity was good to organize these choreographic shows of arms: the celebration of a victory or of a wedding; a peace or an alliance or another important political event, such as the visit of a king or a prince; but sometimes they were also an occasion to find husbands for maidens, or to allow young riders to stretch their limbs after the inertia of a long winter and keep them in constant exercise and always ready to use weapons “(MANSELLA, 1972, p. 16). These chivalric trials had their peak in the sixteenth century, but they continued to be practiced, with great pomp, even in the next century, as evidenced by the superb plates that illustrate this article and which are from the report devoted by Pietro Maggio to the jousts held in Palermo during the celebrations for the wedding of the King of Spain, Charles II, with Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Orléans, in 1679. The report was published in 1680 under the title Le guerre festive (The festive wars: Palermo, Giuseppe Barbera and Tomaso Rummulo & Orlando).

Shield Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Shield
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

On October 10, 1567, with another solemn public ceremony, the Congregation took possession of Palazzo Ajutamicristo, on the borders of the walls of Palermo (now in Via Garibaldi), not far from the Admiral’s Bridge. The pageants was led by Ottavio del Bosco, appointed general of the Congregation, who was escorted by armed pages on horseback, each of them bearing the insignia of his lord. “In the palace, the knights gathered in the morning for mathematics lessons, and during the day to ride horses” (NARBONE, 1851, p. 101). The statutes of the Congregation (Maurizio Vesco has recently published their frontispiece in VESCO, 2016) regulated minutely the tasks, the meetings, the ceremonies and the devotions, and fixed the requirements for the aspirants, as well as how to behave in the presence of the Viceroy. Academics practiced daily for two hours in the riding arena, divided into two classes. The session of the most experienced was open to the public, while the extraneous could not be present for that of the novice riders (see MAYLÄNDER, 1926-30, vol. I, p. 523).

In 1620, the Congregation changed location and moved to another building just in front of the Senate Palace, so that the knights could defend the Senate more effectively and promptly if necessary. In case of an alarm, the knights were required to gather, fully armed, at the Admiral’s Bridge, and each of them had to bring with him a similarly armed companion. The Academy, however, was abolished in 1636.

Dettaglio della rotella da giostra con Orazioo Coclite a cavallo Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli

Details of the shield with Horatius Cocles on horseback
Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Soon after the establishment of the Congregation, the academy turned to Lombard armorer, which at the time was among the best in Europe, to supply the knights with war and parade weapons. A few years ago, the deputy manager of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, Umberto Bile (who died in 2013), discovered that the most valuable pieces of Capodimonte’s armory did not belong to Alessandro, or to Ottavio Farnese, as it was believed for at least two centuries, but they went back just to the knights of the Congregation. During the seventeenth century, some of the most valuable weapons of the knights of the Congregation were transferred to the armory of the Castle of Canicattì, where they were stored for about two centuries. After some years, the memory of their origin was lost and they were erroneously considered dating back to Roger I the Norman (around 1031 – 1101). In 1800 Giuseppe Bonanno and Branciforte, prince de la Cattolica, gave to Ferdinand of Bourbon a shield, a sword and a burgonet (helmet), which were considered the weapons belonged to the “Great Count” Roger I, conqueror of Sicily in 1062. Bile demonstrated that they, obviously, were the burgonet, the shield and the sword of extraordinary workmanship, which are the most valuable and famous pieces of Capodimonte’s armory. The iron, embossed, damascened and golden shield depicts Horatius Cocles on horseback, facing the enemies, while the Roman soldiers are demolishing the Sublicio Bridge, to prevent the Etruscan from entering in Rome. It is the same Roman hero summoned by the motto of the Congregation of Palermo. The beauty of such weapons gives us an idea of the magnificent elegance of the knights who drilled in the Sicilian academy.

Graziano Balli Barone di Galattuvo in Pietro Maggio, Le guerre festive, 1680

Graziano Balli Barone di Galattuvo
in Pietro Maggio, Le guerre festive, 1680

BIBLIOGRAPHY

ANTONELLI, Raoul, Giostre, tornei, accademie: formazione e rappresentazione del valore cavalleresco, in AA. VV., I Farnese. Corti, guerra e nobiltà in antico regime, a cura di P. Del Negro e C. Mozzarelli, Roma, Bulzoni, 1997, pp. 191-207.

HERNANDO SÁNCHEZ, Carlos José, La gloria del cavallo. Saber ecuestre y cultura caballeresca en el reino de Napóles durante el siglo XVI, in AA. VV. Actas del Congreso Internacional: Felipe II (1527-1598). Europa y la Monarquía Católica (UAM, 20-23 de abril de 1998), coord. J. Martínez Millán, Madrid, Parteluz, 1998, pp. 277-310.

MANSELLA; Giovanni Battista, Le giostre reali di Palermo, a cura di R. La Duca, Palermo, Sellerio, 1972.

MARINO, Salvatore Salomone, La Congregazione dei cavalieri d’armi e le pubbliche giostre in Palermo nel secolo 16°: notizie e documenti, Palermo : Tip. di P. Montaina e Comp. gia del Giornale di Sicilia, 1877.

MAYLANDER, Michele, Storia delle Accademie d’Italia, Bologna-Trieste, Cappelli, 1926-30 (rist. anastatica Bologna, Forni, 1976).

NARBONE, Alessio, Bibliografia sicola sistematica, o apparato metodico alla Storia litteraria della Sicilia, Palermo, stamp. di G. Pedone, 1851.

PARUTA, Filippo – PALMERINO, Niccolò, Diario della città di Palermo 1500-1613, in AA. VV. Diari della città di Palermo dal secolo XVI al XIX pubblicati sui manoscritti della Biblioteca Comunale, a cura di G. Di Marzo, Palermo, Luigi Pedone Lauriel editore, 1869.

VESCO, Maurizio, La Regia Razza di cavalli e le scuderie monumentali nella Sicilia degli Asburgo: il modello “negato” delle Cavallerizze dei Palazzi Reali di Palermo e Messina, in AA. VV., Las Caballerizas Reales y el mundo del caballo, Cordoba, Edicioneslitopress, 2016, pp. 391-428.

Ajutamicristo palace in Palermo was the first seat of the Congregation

Ajutamicristo palace in Palermo was the first seat of the Congregation

Horseback riding in the Middle Ages – Jordanus Rufus of Calabria

Miniature of an armed knight of Prato on horseback, attribution to Pacino di Buonaguida, from Convenevole da Prato, Regia Carmina, Italy, Central (Tuscany),
c. 1335-c. 1340

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Although the importance of the horse in the medieval European civilization is known and recognized, given it’s central function in the definition of the identity of the dominant classes and the prominent role that the cavalry held in the military until at least the fourteenth century, we unfortunately know little about the equestrian practices in the period from the classical era to the Renaissance. The so-called chivalric literature and chronicles handed down to us by memory, are often cloaked in the misty aura of myth, of innumerable deeds accomplished on horseback, but telling us little or nothing about how medieval knights rode their steeds and how they were tamed, trained and cared for. Yet, as noted by the French historian Nicolas Thouroude (Thouroude, 2007), at least with regard to the late medieval age documents, there is evidence of the existence of a ludic equitation which provided a refined training of the horse. This type of riding found it’s expression in tournaments and jousts which were to celebrate various events involving court rituals and real shows, in addition to combat, in which horses always had a leading role. The equestrian education of the young nobles was indeed considered essential. Ramon Llull in his Livre de l’ordre de chevalerie (1274-1276) recommended that gentlemen insist on instruction for their children on how to ride horses in their very early years, and that during their education, they should also be taught how to care for the animal.

Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, from Grandes Chroniques de France
(Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève 782), c. 1274

In medieval times, we do not find texts which deal specifically with riding techniques. The theme of the care and breeding of the horse is often discussed in encyclopedic works, such as Geopónica (overall work about agronomy, compiled in Constantinople under the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, in the tenth century), or in the Liber de animalibus by Albert the Great (1206-1280), De rerum proprietatibus by Bartholomew de Glanville, called the English (XIII c.), or the Ruralium Commodorum libri XII (1304) by Pietro de’ Crescenzi (COCO – Gualdo, 2008).

Illustration from the Roman de Tristan
(Musée Condé MS 648, fol. 199r), 1440-1460

In this framework, there is a particular importance given to the treatise by Jordanus Rufus of Calabria, miles in marestalla (that is to say an officer of the second order in the imperial stud farm) in the court of Frederick II. Born around 1200, in Gerace or Monteleone di Calabria, he wrote a work transmitted through a manuscript tradition under various titles Mariscalcia equorumLiber de curis equorumCyrurgia equorum (Ruffo, 1999 e 2002). The text was certainly written in Latin, although there are different versions in the various languages: Tuscan, Sicilian, Catalan, Provençal, French and also in German. A Hebrew version has also been identified, which testifies to it’s widespread diffusion. The work is divided into six parts. The first four books are about breeding, feeding, reproduction, hygiene, taming and training, bits and shoeing, and the physical structure of the horse. The last two are devoted to describing diseases, which are divided into natural (Book V), and accidental (Book VI). It is to the latter that the bulk of the text is devoted: fifty-nine chapters, covering various diseases and their treatment. The chapters devoted to taming and training are quite basic, but they give an idea of the equestrian practices of the time and contain precepts that will be found again in later works (some of which are still in use today).

Henry I battles his enemies, Grandes chroniques de France
(Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève 783, fol. 177v), 14th-15th century

Rufus recommends to keep the horse tethered in the stable, in order to prevent him from hurting his limbs, and to prepare for the night, a straw litter up to his knees. There are also dietetic prescriptions to keep the horse neither too thin, nor too fat. It is also suggested to water him with turbid water, because it is considered more “nutritious” («ideoque efficientur equorum corporibus nutribiliores refectiores ad plenum»). The author advises against riding in the evening because, in the cooler hours of the night, it is more difficult for the sweat dry completely before the animal is brought back to the stable. Similarly, he warns against riding in the hottest months of summer, or in the coldest of winter. Shoeing must be done with light steel horseshoes, but he recommends not to shoe the horse when he is too young, in order to avoid damaging his hooves.

Tournament of the Chastel of Brut,
from Romance of the Round Table
(BNF Fr. 112(1), fol. 181v), c. 1470

At the beginning of the training, Rufus recommends to use the lightest bit possible («frenum debile et levius»), making sure to smear it with honey or some other sweet syrup, to make it more pleasant to the horse. Once harnessed, the horse must be led by hand by a groom until he has learned to follow him obediently. Only then he can be mounted, without saddle or spurs, and accustomed to turn to the left and to the right. After about a month he can be mounted with the saddle and trained gradually to trot on plowed soil, so that he learns to raise his feet well. It is also recommended to train him to turn especially to the right because, it is said, horses naturally tend to turn more easily to the left («quod equus est naturaliter pronior a sinistris»). Once trained to trot, the horse can be ridden at the canter, but keeping a collected gait  («in minore et breviore saltu») and only for short distances, to avoid tiring him. He also recommends, both at the trot and at the canter, to keep contact with the bit, and to bend progressively the horse’s neck, in order to control him better and to let him see where he places his hooves. To accustom him to noise and to crowds, Rufus suggests to often ride the horse inside the city, especially in noisy places (for example, near the forges of the blacksmiths), taking care not to punish him if he is initially scared and unwilling, rather gently encouraging him («blandendo ducatur»), in order to prevent that he will later associate noise and movement with punishment,.

Frontispiece of the French edition of Lorenzo Rusio’s Hippiatria sive Marescalia (Parigi, Christianum Wechelum, 1532). This later work was significantly influenced by Jordanus Rufus’s treatise

Nevertheless, there are also suggestions that today make us shudder. According to Rufus, when the horse has attained his full adult dentition, his four canine teeth (scaglioni) must be pulled out, because they are considered adverse to the mouthpiece («a pluribus nuncupantur freni morsui continui adversantes»). According to the author, this operation would also have the advantage of keeping the horse from getting too fat and, if he is wild, to appease his ardent character. The bit to be used with the colt is the one that, in later periods, will be called “cannon”, consisting of two transversal bars and one in width «ad duas barras extransverso et una per longum composita est»). The author then mentions other stronger bits, with twisted or grooved mouthpieces, or with a shovel that acts on the palate, but he advises not to use them because he considers them too strong and, for this reason, he does not give much attention to them. He stresses that, once the right mouthpiece for the sensibility of the animal is found, it must not be changed with others of different shape, so as to not ruin the horse’s mouth. The horse must be trained to stop and to respect the bit before working him at a faster pace. The canter must be practiced progressively for longer distances, without abuse, to prevent the horse from getting too tired and becoming resistant. Similarly, he must be urged forward frequently to avoid that he becomes lazy.

Horse’s anathomy, from Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo infermità et suoi rimedii, in Bologna, presso gli heredi di Gio. Rossi, 1598

Rufus’s text had a wide diffusion and has had considerable influence on the chapters devoted to the cure of the horse by Pietro de’ Crescenzi and on the subsequent treatises about the art of farriery1 by Lorenzo Rusio (about 1340) and by the Florentine Dino Dini (1352-1359), up to the Anatomia del cavallo infermita et suoi rimedii ((Anatomy of the horse his infirmity et remedies, 1598), the work of the Renaissance precursor of veterinary medicine Carlo Ruini. 1 It’s important to notice that, at the time, the farrier was not only the horseshoer, but also the veterinarian.

Bibliography

AA.VV. 2011  Cavalli e cavalieri. Guerra, gioco, finzione, edited by F. Cardini and L. Mantelli, Ospedaletto-Pisa.

COCO, Alessandra – GUALDO, Riccardo 2008 Cortesia e cavalleria, la tradizione ippiatrica in volgare nelle corti italiane tra Trecento e Quattrocento, in I saperi nelle corti. Knowledge at the courts, Firenze, Sismel-Edizioni del Galluzzo, (Micrologus XVI), pp. 125-152.

GUALDO, Riccardo 2005  Ippiatria in Enciclopedia Federiciana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, Vol.  II, pp. 81-86.

LULLO,Raimondo 1994  Libro dell’Ordine della Cavalleria. Italian edition with Catalan parallel text, edited by G. Allegra, Carmagnola, Arktos Edizioni.

RUFFO, Giordano 1999  Nelle scuderie di Federico II imperatore, ovvero L’arte di curare il cavallo, edited by M.A. Causati Vanni, Editrice Vela, Velletri. 2002

Libro della mascalcia, edited by P.Crupi, Soveria Mannelli, Rubettino Editore.

THOUROUDE, Nicolas 2007  Les prémices d’une equitation ludique à l’aube de l’epoque modern (XIVe -XVe siècle), in AA.VV., À cheval! Ècuyers, amazones & cavaliers du XIVe au XXIe siècle, edited by D. Roche and D. Reytier, Paris, Association pour l’académie équestre de Versailles, pp. 33- 47.

You may find a remarkable collection of links to pictures about the Medieval and Reinassance material culture on Larsdatter.com