Snapshots of a medieval knight. Mastino II della Scala and the “a la brida” seat

Equestrian statue of Mastino II della Scala (before 1351) Civic Museum of Castelvecchio Verona - Italy

Equestrian statue of Mastino II della Scala (before 1351)
Civic Museum of Castelvecchio
Verona – Italy

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

When, in 1329, Mastino II della Scala inherited, along with his brother Alberto, the lordship of Verona from his uncle Cangrande, the good fortune of the Della Scala family was at its peak. Young and ambitious, Mastino II (1308-1351) wanted to further expand the domains of Verona, showing courage and valor, but not as much prudence and diplomatic skills as his predecessor. In fact, his lust of conquest caused alarm for the other Italian powers that joined forces against him and defeated him repeatedly. He finally managed to save his rule but, after ten years of being in power, his dominions were reduced only to Verona and Vicenza. At his death, in 1351, he was buried in a magnificent Gothic tomb in the funerary complex of the so-called “Arche Scaligere” (Scaligeri’s Tombs), next to the Church of Santa Maria Vecchia. The tomb is crowned by a famous equestrian statue, the original which has been preserved since 1986, in the Civic Museum of Castelvecchio in Verona (Italy).

The knight was armed with spear and shield

The knight was armed with spear and shield

The statue, made by an anonymous artist, around 1350, from a single block of limestone, portrays the lord and leader in the moment that precedes the attack in a duel. The knight is armed with spear and shield and protected by a hauberk, namely a tunic of metal mail, and by greaves, thigh-pieces, gloves and by a helmet surmounted by a winged mastiff. The horse is entirely covered by a voluminous damask caparison, on which the coat of arms of the Della Scala (a silver ladder in red field), is displayed both on the horse’s neck and cheeks. The headstall is topped by a helmet with a dog’s head similar to that of the rider.

He was protected by a hauberk, namely a tunic of metal mail, and by greaves, thigh-pieces and gloves

He was protected by a hauberk, namely a tunic of metal mail, and by greaves, thigh-pieces and gloves

The extreme realism and accuracy in the details of the statue gives us a chance to look closely at the seat of a medieval knight. In particular, it gives us the opportunity to see represented one of the horseback riding techniques which was typical at the time and that we find described in the book of the Portuguese king Dom Duarte (1391-1438), Livro da ensinança de bem cavalgar toda sela (a previous article of this blog is dedicated to the different riding techniques in use in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance: you can read it by simply clicking on the following link: “A la brida” and “a la gineta”).

The Della Scala's coat of arms was depicted on the horse's caparison, on the saddle and on the knight's surcoat

The Della Scala’s coat of arms was depicted on the horse’s caparison, on the saddle
and on the knight’s surcoat

Mastino II rides standing in the stirrups. His position is facilitated by a special type of saddle, with a high and wraparound cantle, into which the rider leans his gluteus, and by a massive saddle bow which supports him and also protects his belly and his legs in battle from the blows of his opponent. The rider’s legs are straight, with his feet brought slightly forward.

The saddle had a high and wraparound cantle and a massive saddle bow

The saddle had a massive saddle bow and a high and wraparound cantle

This is clearly one of the two techniques of the so-called “a la brida” style described by Dom Duarte. This way of riding a horse consisted exactly in keeping the legs stretched, but it was used in two different styles. One consisted in riding deeply seated, keeping the feet forward; the other style instead consisted in standing up in the stirrups, never sitting on the saddle. According to Dom Duarte, this second technique was older and, in fact, the statue of Mastino II precedes, by more or less seventy years, the book of the Portuguese king.

The rider mounts standing in the stirrups, leaning on the cantle

The knight rode standing in the stirrups
and leaning on the cantle

Looking at the profile of Mastino’s statue, we notice that the rider just grazes the seat and especially makes use of the support of the cantle and the stirrups. There is no trace of the strap, mentioned by Dom Duarte, with which some horsemen used to fasten the stirrups to each other under the horse’s belly, in order to prevent them from separating

The feet were kept parallel to the sides of the horse and slightly forward

The feet were kept parallel to the sides of the horse and slightly forward

The rider keeps his feet parallel to the sides of the horse to avoid accidentally hitting him with his long spurs. Given the position of the feet and the bulk determined by thigh-pieces and greaves, the contact with the sides of the animal was not easy at all. This explains the length of the spurs’ shanks, which today seem to us inconceivable.

We find the same seat of the rider in the equestrian tomb of Bernabò Visconti (1363) Museum of Ancient Art of the Sforzesco Castle Milan - Italy

We find the same seat of the rider in the equestrian tomb of Bernabò Visconti (1363)
Museum of Ancient Art of the Sforzesco Castle
Milan – Italy

We find the same kind of seat in the equestrian statue of Bernabò Visconti (1323-1385), who was lord of Bergamo, Brescia, Cremona, Soncino, Lonato and Valcamonica and ruled Milan with his brothers Matteo II and Galeazzo II, from 1354. It surmounts his tomb, now in the Museum of Ancient Art of the Sforzesco Castle in Milan, but in the past it was placed behind the main altar of the now demolished Church of San Giovanni in Conca. The work is, more or less, a decade later than that which portrays Mastino II. It was carved in 1363, by Bonino da Campione (1323-1397). It shows the condottiero mounted on a mighty courser. The seat of the rider is almost identical to that of the statue of Mastino II. He rides his horse in a standing position, leaning against the high cantle of the saddle and keeping his legs stretched out.

Details of the Bernabo Visconti's monument, taken from the book Society of Antiquaries of London, Archaeologia. Volume 18. London- Society of Antiquaries of London, 1817

Details of the Bernabo Visconti’s monument, taken from the book Society of Antiquaries of London, Archaeologia. Volume 18. London- Society of Antiquaries of London, 1817

Note that, in the Visconti monument also, the bit is precisely represented. The horse is harnessed with a kind of full cheek snaffle, with double reins. Probably the additional rein had only a safety function and was used just in case the main one got broken, or was cut during a duel, or in battle. In fact, it is simply kept on the horse’s neck and is buckled to the same ring as the other rein.

In the Visconti monument the horse is harnessed with a kind of full cheek snaffle, with double reins

In the Visconti monument the horse is harnessed
with a kind of full cheek snaffle, with double reins

The Scaligeri Tombs in Verona offer us a further testimony of the truthfulness of Dom Duarte’s description of the riding techniques in use in the late Middle Ages. Next to Mastino II’s tomb, just above the door of Santa Maria Antica, there is the tomb of his predecessor, Cangrande (1291-1329). Even in this tomb the sarcophagus is surmounted by an equestrian statue, whose original is preserved in the Castelvecchio Museum. Cangrande appears in an attitude much less martial than his nephew. He looks to be portrayed during a break, before or after a fight. He keeps the helmet fastened on his shoulders and shows a benevolent and smiling expression on his face. He sits deeply in the saddle, keeping his feet forward, up to the horse’s shoulders. His knees are almost stretched out.

Statue of Cangrande della Scala (about 1340) Museum of Castelvecchio Verona - Italy

Statue of Cangrande della Scala (about 1340)
Museum of Castelvecchio
Verona – Italy

Cangrande’s riding position is exactly the one described by Dom Duarte in the second chapter of the third part of his treatise. The different seat shown in the statue of Mastino II may induce us to think that knights adopted a standing position in the stirrups during fights in order to better manage the long spear, but they would sit on the saddle, with their feet forward, during travels and pageantries.

The statue of Cangrande shows the other type of seat of the

The statue of Cangrande shows the other type of seat of the “a la brida” style

It is certain that the sitting position, with feet and legs stretched forward, became the most used in the following two centuries by heavy cavalry. We find it in many equestrian portraits of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The position of the feet will be then gradually moved back to ensure a more effective and precise use of the lower aids with the advent of academic riding.

The tombs of Mastino II (left) and Cangrande (right) at Santa Maria Antica in Verona

The tombs of Mastino II (left) and Cangrande (right) at Santa Maria Antica in Verona

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

Rider in the

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

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

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

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

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

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

In the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The

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

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

In the

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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