Equus frenatus. The book about the Giannelli Collection of ancient bits

Guilded bronze bit France - Restoration (1814-1830)

Guilded bronze bit
France – Restoration (1814-1830)
Picture © Michele Ostini

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Sumptuous. With a very accurate editorial format and beautiful images, which perfectly render the value of the portrayed pieces. But, at the same time, it is also a work with a significant scientific content. Equus frenatus, the book that finally shows the Giannelli Collection, is not only a beautiful package, designed to show off what is certainly one of the most important private collections of ancient bits in the world, but it is also a unique research tool for anyone interested in the history of equestrian culture. In fact, the essays in the book not only describe the most valuable pieces of the collection, but they also present the state of the art knowledge about the evolution and use of the bit through the centuries.

I have already told you, in a previous post to this blog, of the splendor of the Giannelli Collection of ancient bits on the occasion of the beautiful exhibition that was held last summer in Travagliato (you can read the article by clicking on this link: The Giannelli Collection of ancient bits on display in Travagliato). It is an exceptional collection, gathered over decades of research. It ranges from the first bone cheek pieces from Central Asia, dating back to the second millennium BC, progressing up to refined chiseled bits of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The collection has accumulated more than 500 pieces, most of them very valuable.

Cover

Book cover

In the introductory essay, Claudio Giannelli presents all of his expertise on this complex subject. He summarizes, in an extremely clear and accurate way, four millennia of the history of bits, following the chronological development and contextualizing the different types of bits of each period and to the civilization from where they came. The result is a charming and very interesting overview. Giannelli’s historical documentation also underlines, that the parable began with the first bronze snaffles, used two thousand years before Christ by the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, moving on to the artistic bits from Luristan, to those from ancient Greece and the Roman period, and on to the very severe medieval and Renaissance bits, ending with the return, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to the simpler mouthpieces, advocated by Federico Caprilli and by his “natural system of horsemanship.” “Therefore, – Giannelli writes – we notice a return to basics with an increasing use of the normal articulated snaffle, certainly the lighter mouthpiece and the most respectful of the horse’s delicate mouth, provided that it is always combined with patience, progressive work and, above all, love for the horse” (p. 40).

The most special areas of the Gianelli Collection are two. First and foremost, the magnificent bits from Luristan, true masterpieces in bronze, made with the technique of lost wax casting, by a civilization that flourished between the second and first millennia BC in the southwestern region of what is currently Iran. The Giannelli Collection is probably the largest and most important collection of these very special artifacts in the world. Equally unique is the collection of Villanovan and Etruscan bits. Even in pre-Roman Italy (IX-VIII century BC.), the practice of burying the dead with grave goods, that frequently included horse bits, was widespread. The bits were mostly snaffles, with cheek pieces representing stylized horses, that today look curiously modern. These two areas of the collection are described in the essays by Manuel Castelluccia, archaeologist specialist of the Ancient Near East, Caucasus and Iran, and by Chiara Martinozzi, archaeologist, specialist of the Etruscan civilization. Both provide a rich historical and cultural framework in which they place the production of these bits and the description of their various types.

Luristan bit with zoomorphic shanks Luristan - around I millennium BC Picture © Michele Ostini

Luristan bit with zoomorphic shanks
Luristan – around first millennium BC
Picture © Michele Ostini

The most compelling feature of the book is that the bits are not just shown and described, but they are always placed in the historical and cultural context in which they were used. So the chapter about ancient Greek bits, written by the same Giannelli, is preceded by an interesting historical overview of Greek cavalry by Giuseppe Cascarino, who is also the author of the chapter about Roman cavalry. It was exactly with the advent of Roman civilization that bronze bits were replaced by those made of iron. The use of this more perishable material makes the findings of this age particularly rare. The Giannelli Collection has several of them in excellent condition. In the Roman era, the bits began to change. The first bits with long shanks appeared. These bits had a complicated and (at least in my opinion) still obscure functioning principle. The headstalls were complemented by the so-called psalion, a sort of metal halter that prevented the animal from escaping the action of the bit by opening his mouth. The Giannelli Collection includes also some rare specimens of the so-called “hipposandals,” which were also in use at that time.  These were a type of metal horse boots that were secured to the hooves of the horse with leather straps,

With regard to the study of the evolution of bits, the Middle Ages are definitely a difficult period. The artifacts from this period are few, as are the written sources, while the iconographic sources are difficult to interpret. The philologist and historian, Patrizia Arquint, describes this period with his usual accuracy and clarity, offering a survey in which, despite the caution due to the relative scarcity of data, the historical outline is complemented by the technical description.

“Prometopidion”: frontplate with “psalion”
Bronze – Roman era
Picture © Michele Ostini

The Renaissance is, in contrast, the era in which more importance is given to the bit and the “art of bridling”, i.e. the art of choosing the most suitable mouthpiece for each horse was considered a key to showing the competence of the true rider. This is clearly testified by the equestrian treatises that began to be published since the mid-sixteenth century. Most of these works include a series of drawings of bridles, whose bewildering variety was designed precisely to suit the different types of horse, under the illusion of correcting any possible defect with the use of specific instruments. In fact, given the severity of their action, it is probable that those bits produced quite the opposite effect. Nevertheless, from the manufacturing point of view, they are real works of art.

Wrought iron Renaissance bit, pierced and engraved Germany - Seventeenth century

Wrought iron Renaissance bit , pierced and engraved
Germany – Seventeenth century

The flourishing of the new literary genre of the equestrian treatise is evoked in an essay by Mario Gennero, curiously focused on Claudio Corte’s Il cavallerizzo (The Horseman), which is one of the most interesting books about horsemanship of the sixteenth century, but is also one of the works which devotes less space to the art of bridling, while other authors of the time write at length about this subject. It is certain that the technical capacity of the Renaissance “bit makers” was amazing. By virtue of the strong progress of iron metallurgy, the craftsmen of the time, as Alessandro Cesati wrote in his essay, were able to make, with simple tools, such as files, hand drills and chisels, “artifacts that looks like small iron sculptures: art objects which sometimes are so refined that they make one almost completely forget their original function” (p. 188).

One of the most incredible pieces of the Giannelli Collection: Wrought iron Renaissance bit , pierced and engraved. There are only two other known similar specimens. Sixteenth century Picture © Michele Ostini

One of the most incredible pieces of the Giannelli Collection: Wrought iron Renaissance bit , pierced and engraved. There are only two other known similar specimens.
Sixteenth century
Picture © Michele Ostini

The final essay by Pierre Desclos has the merit of describing the complexity of the Renaissance bridles from the technical point of view and of explaining the progressive simplification of the bits during the following three centuries. Particularly interesting is the section devoted to the three main parts of the bit (the mouthpiece, the shanks and the curb chain) and to the complex technical terminology used in the treatises of the period, to which is also devoted a very useful glossary.

Finally, it should be pointed out that this work was made possible by the decisive contribution of the Fondazione Iniziative Zooprofilattiche e Zootecniche (Zooprophylactic and Zootechnical Initiatives Foundation) of Brescia, which has been funding scientific, experimental and cultural activities related to veterinary and biomedical sciences for sixty years. Since 1979, the Foundation has also been active in the field of scientific publishing. This book is number 100 of its series of monographs and it is a worthy climax of the Foundation’s meritorious commitment in the promotion of culture and scientific research.

Villanovan bronze bit Ninth - Eight centuries BC

Villanovan bronze bit
Ninth – Eight centuries BC

To buy the book

Unfortunately the book, which is available only in the Italian edition, is not distributed through normal commercial channels.

Anyone interested in buying it, can request it by sending an email to this address: c.giannelli@alwicom.net.

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

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