There has never been just one horsemanship. The use of the horse for different needs, and by peoples who lived in different latitudes, led to the development of different techniques, which co-existed in the same era, sometimes influencing each other. Therefore, trying to identify the features of the equestrian art in a given time is always somewhat arbitrary. But it is also true that the widespread circulation of the first printed equestrian treatises in Europe in the mid-sixteenth century, significantly contributed to standardize the equestrian practices and to establish a “canon” of exercises which remained in force for more than a century, identifying the “good standard” of Renaissance equitation. It was especially Cesare Fiaschi, from Ferrara, author in 1556 of the Trattato dell’imbrigliare, atteggiare, e ferrare cavalli (Treatise on bridling, training and shoeing horses) to systematize the different practices in use at the time, establishing rules that can be found to be substantially identical in the treatises which followed in the second half of the sixteenth century. Fiaschi not only listed and described in words the different exercises, but tried to make his explanation clearer through drawings that showed the attitude of horse and rider, in addition to the outline of the path they followed. Unique to Fiaschi’s treatise is that the explanation of some exercises is not only accompanied by the plan showing the layout of the exercise and the image of the horse and rider who perform it, but also a musical score that indicates the rhythm of the exercise. The rider had to sing while performing the exercise, or at least he had to keep the musical measure of the melody in his mind.
The exercises indicated by Fiaschi can be divided into two main categories: those related primarily to a military purpose, the so-called “maneggi”, and those with a more aesthetic and virtuosic trait, which we might call “presentation airs” which consisted, for the most part, in what we now call “school jumps”, or “airs above the ground.” In this article we will deal with the first, i.e. the “maneggi,” deferring further description and explanation of the “jumps” to a subsequent article. With the term “maneggi”, Fiaschi and other Renaissance authors intended to include different variations of what, in more recent times, was called in the French style, passade. It was a fundamental exercise in the art of fighting on horseback which consisted of cantering on a straight line (which the Italian authors called “repolone”), after which the animal had to stop and turn in the shortest possible space, in order to immediately run another charge in the opposite direction. It served the purpose to go against the enemy – armed with a lance, a sword, or a pistol – and to attack him again after the first ecounter. In order to turn the horse in the shortest space and as quickly as possible, he was stopped at the end of the charge with the so-called “posate”. The horse was induced to collect the canter more and more, bringing the weight on the haunches, relieving the front legs until he lifted up from the ground, at which point he was turned, pivoting on the hind legs. Even in this case, the French terminology has prevailed over the centuries and, what the Italian masters called “posata”, is now more familiar to us with the name of pesade.
According to a classification already present in the previous treatise by Federico Grisone, Ordini di cavalcare (Orders of riding, 1550), Fiaschi distinguished the different maneggi depending on the way the horse was stopped and of the way the half-volte, at the end of the repolone. was performed. He then listed the “maneggio di contra tempo” (air of counter-time), in which the horse was first held in the direction opposite from that in which he had ultimately to do the volte, and was then turned on the straight line with a half pirouette.
…at the end [of the repolone] you held him [the horse] a lot (which is not done in the other exercises) in the opposite direction to that in which you want to turn him, as the drawing shows, then you turn him without making him move his feet from the place where they are until he is back on the straight path (Fiaschi, 1556, II, 2, pp. 88-89.)
Then followed the maneggi “di mezzo tempo” (of half time) and “di tutto tempo” (of full time), in which the horse performed one or more pesade at the end of the straight line and then turned on his hind legs performing, also in this case, a half pirouette.
And the measure and the way, as I intend it, of these times, both of the half and of the full time, is when riding the horse you hold him on the straight line and you turn him, without giving him time to make a pesade […];I call this measure of half time. But when you give him the time to make the pesade, I call it full time… (Fiaschi, 1556, II, 3, pp. 91-92.)
The “maneggio detto volte ingannate” (the so-called misleading voltes) was then particularly curious. It consisted of pretending to turn at the end of the straight line to one side and then performing the half pirouette to the other side, creating a quick change of direction.
Then followed the “maneggio con una volta e mezza” (with one and a half volte) – in which the horse performed a full pirouette and half before heading in the opposite direction from which he came – and the maneggio called “volta d’anche” (volte of haunches), in which the horse performed a reverse pirouette on the front legs. This last type of exercise was considered particularly useful for “tilts” (jousts that were held with a wooden barrier that separated the contestants) and duels, because it allowed the rider to overtake the opponent from behind, while he was still turning his mount.
It is clear that the distinction of these different ways of performing the same exercise of the repolone, or passade, did not have an immediate utility on the battlefield, or in the course of a joust (maybe just with the exception of the “volte of haunches”), but rather represented a stylization to bring out the degree of obedience of the horse and the skill and expertise of the rider. It is in fact hard to imagine that during a confrontation in which a knight in armor risked his life, he could take care of performing a “half-time” or a “misleading volte”, while it is likely that these different exercises were used in the training phase, to refine the docility and readiness of the animal, and on public occasions, to make the skill of the rider shine. Fiaschi also indicated some exercises still in use in modern dressage. The first is that of the “volte raddoppiate” (doubled voltes). It was what today we call pirouette. From the description of the author, we can recognize the characteristic aid of the outside leg, which contains the haunches, in order to make the horse pivot on the inside hind leg.
Likewise, you have to put the spur to his belly from the side where he is not turned, holding it in that place as long as you do not stop to turn to that way. […] But I say that the hind feet of the horse should not move from the middle of the circle until he has finished the voltes that you want him to do (Fiaschi, 1556, II, 7, p. 104.)
Another exercise which is still in use today is what we now call piaffe. Fiaschi recommended to finish the repolone with it instead of the pesade, taking care that the horse relaxed the jaw, chewing the bit:
Instead of which [i.e. the pesade], not so much in this as in every other exercise, it is good to hold him [the horse], which is done on the straight [line], and make him do as most of the horses from Spain do, as one begins to hold them, go with their haunches to the ground. And while he is held, he should remain in motion, that is to say now with one, now with the other arm raised; also taking care that he chews the bridle so that it makes sound, because in doing so in addition to being beautiful to watch it will be safer, and no one will find fault with this (Fiaschi, 1556, II, 7, p. 106.)
Finally the counter-canter on the voltes, which the author suggested as an exercise useful to make the horse stronger and more resistant and which is still in use today to improve collection and straightness:
And when in this way whether they trot or canter, if it will be done on the right hand, the left shoulder and arm will have to go forward [lead], and if on the left the right shoulder and arm similarly. And this exercise is extremely profitable, not only for young horses, but also for those who are not [young], because it is of use in a lot of effects to the younger to teach them and to help them improve their endurance, while to the older to keep in their memory what they have learned and maintain their strength (Fiaschi, 1556, II, 7, p. 108.)
To be continued…
to read the continuation of this article, please click here -> part two
BARRY, Jean-Claude, Traité des Airs relevés, Paris, Belin, 2005.
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.
TOBEY, Elizabeth, The Legacy of Federico Grisone, in AA. VV., The Horse as Cultural Icon: The Real and the Symbolic Horse in the Early Modern World, Leiden, Koninklijke Brill, 2011, pp. 143-171.