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.


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.