Without horses I’m not even the half of myself. The equestrain passion of Vittorio Alfieri. Part 2

François-Xavier Fabre, Vittorio Alfieri e la Contessa Luisa Stolberg d' Albany, 1796 Palazzo Madama - Torino

François-Xavier Fabre, Vittorio Alfieri and the Countess Luisa Stolberg d’ Albany, 1796
Palazzo Madama – Torino

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

In the first part of this article, we discovered the great passion for horses and horseback riding of Vittorio Alfieri, one of the greatest Italian poets of the eighteenth century. We traced his beginnings in the equestrian field, his first activities, both in the equestrian field and in society in England and the purchase of two magnificent Andalusian horses during a trip to Spain.

Back in Italy, after several years spent traveling the length and breadth of Europe, Alfieri began to show interest in poetry and to outline his first literary works. At that time, the luxury of keeping his beloved horses seemed at odds with his vocation as a writer. In 1773 he even had twelve:

Meanwhile, the continuous and extreme absent-mindedness, the total freedom, the women, my twenty-four years, and my horses, which were up to twelve or more: all these very powerful obstacles to do anything good, soon extinguished my ambition of becoming a writer. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 185)

But soon, a new love affair distracted him from poetry and horses. The love for Gabriella Falletti, wife of Giovanni Antonio Turinetti, Marquis of Piero, was to Alfieri as a long illness, made up of temporary recoveries and inevitable relapses. Finally, in 1775, he was able to rid himself of the turmoil, definitely taking the road of art, but also soothing the wounds of his body and spirit with horseback riding.

I rode out on horseback in the most solitary places and it was the only exercise which proved salutary either to my mind and body. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 194)

Théodore GÉRICAULT, Cavallo inglese nella stalla, 1810-12 Musée du Louvre - Paris

In 1783, Vittorio Alfieri went for the second time in England,
where he bought several horses.
Théodore GÉRICAULT, English horse in a stable, 1810-12
Musée du Louvre – Paris

In the following years, Alfieri, who was Piedmontese, made several trips to Tuscany, to learn to speak and write correctly in Italian. In 1778, he decided to settle permanently in that country and to devote himself entirely to literature. For this purpose, he also decided to donate his possessions to his sister, in exchange for a perpetual annuity. While waiting for the implementation of the donation, Alfieri fantasized about his future. He was determined to cut off all ties with his country of origin and to devote himself to literature, even if that could mean facing poverty. And even in these ruminations, horses had their part:

In the delirium of my imagination, ever fertile in conjuring up gloomy ideas, the mode of procuring a subsistence which more frequently occurred to me, was the commencing horse-breaker, in which I believed myself to be adept. It seemed to me that this would be less slavish, and that I could join with it poetry, as it is more easy to write tragedies in a stable than in a court. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 236)

George Stubbs, Joseph Smyth Esquire on a Dapple Grey Horse, 1762-64 Fitzwilliam Museum - Cambridge

From the second half of the eighteenth century, the English thoroughbred
became the most fashionable breed in Europe
George Stubbs, Joseph Smyth Esquire on a Dapple Grey Horse, 1762-64
Fitzwilliam Museum – Cambridge

As soon as he completed the donation of his property and the financial transaction that was to guarantee him an annuity, Alfieri returned immediately to replenish his stable. For some time, he had started a new relationship with another married woman, Louise of Stolberg-Gedern, Countess of Albany, animator of one of the liveliest literary salons of the time, who then stayed at his side for a lifetime and even after. She is, in fact, buried beside the poet, in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence.

At the beginning of their relationship, the fact that the Duchess of Albany was married imposed on the two lovers long periods of separation. And just to escape the tedium of one of these moments of separation, in 1783, Alfieri set out on a new journey to France and England, to which is linked the most memorable of his equestrian deeds. In fact, Alfieri went to London to buy English horses, which at the time were becoming increasingly popular and, in a few years, they would became the most fashionable horses in Europe.

No sooner had I reached London, than I purchased a race-horse, then two for the saddle, then another, then six carriages-horses. Subsequently, I had the misfortune to lose several colts; but as one died, I purchased two and in March 1784 I had fourteen left. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 268)

George Stubbs, Fattrici e puledri, 1762 Collezione privata

Besides race-horses, horses for the saddle and carriage-horses,
in England Alfieri purchased also some foals.
George Stubbs, Mares and foals, 1762
Private collection

After about four months, when it was already 1784, for Alfieri and his herd came the time to return to Italy. A journey which at the time was already very adventurous. You can imagine what it meant to do it with fourteen horses in tow!

Accompanied by my numerous caravans, I arrived at Calais, whence I went to Paris; and afterwards, proceeding by the way of Lyons and Turin, repaired to Siena. This journey, which I have described in three lines, was extremely difficult from the great number of my horses. I every day, and indeed at every step, experienced a degree of vexation and embarrassment which embittered the pleasure I should otherwise have derived from my cavalry. One coughed, another would not eat, another fell lame, a fourth became affected with the farey. It was a continued series of disasters, in which I was the greatest sufferer. (ALFIERI, 1877, pp. 269-270)

András Markò, Paesaggio italiano con cavalli al galoppo, 1871 Collezione privata

In the spring of 1784, Alfieri crossed Europe with his English horses to take them to Italy.
András Markò, Italian landscape with galloping horses, 1871
Private collection

The first difficulty was ferrying across the English Channel. To see them crammed into the ship, “dejected and very dirty”, broke their loving master’s heart and then, once they arrived in Calais, they were let down into the sea by means of a hoist because, due to the tide, it was impossible to dock until the next day. The trip then continued through Paris, Amiens and Lyon. But the real deed was the passage through the Alps, through the pass of Mont Cenis. At that time the road was very arduous and, at times, dangerous. For this reason, Alfieri organized the expedition very carefully, sparing no expense.

I therefore took with me to Lansleberg as many men as I had horses: so that each horse had its conductor, who held him close by the bridle. They proceeded one after the other and between every three I had placed one of the guides, who on a mule guarded the three which preceded him. In the midst of this cavalcade was the farrier of Lansleberg, provided with nails and shoes, in order to lend prompt assistance to those which might be unshod, and which was the more to be dreaded from the huge stones over which they had to tread, whilst I myself, in quality of commander in chief of the expedition, rode in the rear mounted on Frontino, the smallest and nimblest of my horses. By my side rode two agile and nimble-footed aides-de-champ, whom I dispatched to the center, to the front, and to the rear with my orders. In this manner we arrived without accident at the summit of Mont Cenis; when we had to descend on the Italian side, I dreaded the mettle of my horses, from the rapidity of their descent. I changed my situation, and, alighting from my horse, walked in the front with the view of retarding the velocity of their march. I placed at the head of this phalanx the heaviest and least spirited of my animals; my aides-de-champ ran before and behind, in order to keep them always at a proper distance from each other; yet, notwithstanding all these attentions, several had their feet unshod; but the dispositions that had been made were so skillful, that the farrier quickly lent the necessary assistance, and they arrived at Novalaise with their feet in very good condition, and absolutely none of them was lame. (ALFIERI, 1877, pp. 270-271)

John Wotton, Lady Mary Churchill alla caccia alla lepre, 1748 Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

Due to their speed and endurance, English horses were soon considered the best hunting horses
John Wotton, Lady Mary Churchill at the Death of the Hare, 1748
Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

With great irony, Alfieri writes that after having so ably directed this passage, he regarded himself “as scarcely inferior to Hannibal, who only passed a little more to the south with his slaves and his elephants” (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 271). Similarly, he admitted the “extravagant vanity” to swell with pride every time that some connoisseur paid a compliment to him on the beauty of his horses. As it happened during his stay in Pisa, in 1785, when he watched the Battle on the Bridge (a typical historical feast), then to the “Luminara” for the San Ranieri festival (June 16) and participated in the public celebrations for the King and Queen of Naples (Ferdinand I of Bourbon and Maria Carolina of Habsburg-Lorraine), on a visit to the Grand Duke Leopold.

During these feasts my vainglory was sufficiently satisfied as I attracted the attention of the bystander owing to my beautiful English horses, which overcome in size, beauty and vivacity any other horse that was there in that occasion. (Alfieri, 1877, part 1, forth epoch, chapter fifteen. Inexplicably this part of the chapter is not translated in the text edited by William D. Howells)

But the writer drew a bitter conclusion. Because that naive pride, coupled with the awareness that in Italy it was much easier for him to be noticed and recognized because he showed off luxury horses, rather than for his literary merits. All in all, since then things do not seem much changed.

John Wotton, La caccia del Visconte Weymouth: Mr Jackson, Henry Villiers e Thomas Villiers, con cacciatori e segugi 1733-6 Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

English horses were very popular because higher and more spirited
than the average horses of the time.
John Wotton, Viscount Weymouth’s Hunt: Mr Jackson, the Hon. Henry Villiers
and the Hon. Thomas Villiers, with Hunters and Hounds, 1733-6
Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Vittorio ALFIERI, Life of Vittorio Alfieri, Boston, J.R. Osgood, 1877 [I slightly changed the translations of some quotes, as the text edited by William D. Howells is sometimes quite far from the original in Italian]

Without horses I’m not even the half of myself. The equestrian passion of Vittorio Alfieri. Part 1

François-Xavier Fabre, Portrait of Vittorio Alfieri, 1793, Museo degli Uffizi - Firenze

François-Xavier Fabre, Portrait of Vittorio Alfieri, 1793,
Museo degli Uffizi – Firenze

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Given the perverse imagination of those who draw up the syllabus, I do not know if today he is still studied at school. To be honest, when I was in high school, they did everything to make him unpleasant to me. They presented him as the “poet of the heroic will”, strutting in the pose of fierce opponent of every tyranny, author of indigestible tragedies in verse. It was, fortunately, at the university that I discovered that Vittorio Alfieri, one of the greatest Italian poets of the eighteenth century, had a much more interesting and adventurous life than I imagined. Above all, reading his beautiful autobiography, Vita di Vittorio Alfieri da Asti, scritta da esso (Life of Vittorio Alfieri from Asti, written by himself, published posthumously in 1806), I discovered his deep passion for horses. It is clear that this significantly contributed to change my opinion of him.

The many anecdotes of equestrian topics scattered throughout his life are very interesting and fun, not only because they reveal the inclination toward horses of one of the great poets of the Italian literature, but mainly because they attest to the importance of the horse in the customs and the culture of the time.

Pietro Longhi, Passeggiata a cavallo, 1755-60 Museo del Settecento, Ca Rezzonico - Venezia

Alfieri began to ride at the age of fourteen.
Pietro Longhi, The horseback ride, 1755-60
Museo del Settecento, Ca Rezzonico – Venezia

Son of the Count of Cortemilia, Vittorio Alfieri was born in 1749 and lost both his parents when he was still very young. In 1763, at the death of his uncle who had been his tutor and had always restricted his activities , Alfieri was finally able to realize his dream of “going to the Riding School”, that he had always “ardently” desired. The prior of the Royal Academy of Turin, where the young count was pursuing his education, knowing his “great anxiety” to be instructed in the art of riding, offered to indulge him in this respect, if he would enroll for the degree of Master of Arts at the university. Alfieri accepted without delay and immediately set about to pass the exam.

Thus then I became, I know not how, in less than a month Master of the Arts; and was immediately permitted to take my first lesson in riding – an art in which I became extremely expert in a few years. I was then below the middle size, and very meagre; my knees, which are the pivots of equitation, were extremely weak; but my passion for this exercise, and the determination of my will, supplied the place of strength. In a short time my progress was extremely rapid, particularly in the art of ruling the horse by the mutual consent of hands and mind,and in that of understanding the impulses and the temper of the horse. To this agreeable and noble exercise I owed the return of my health, the increase of my growth, and a certain vigor of constitution, which was soon visible to every eye. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 105)

When the young Count finally came into possession of his property, he started to lead a good life, and he spent the most part of his time riding on low-quality rented horses, in the company of other scions of noble families. Following the marriage of his sister Giulia, in 1764, Alfieri obtained a wider liberty to spend his money. So he decided to acquire his first horse.

He was a very beautiful white Sardinian horse, extremely handsome in his whole form; but specially in his head, neck, and chest: I was extremely fond of this animal; even now I never think of him without experiencing the most lively emotions. My attachment was so excessive that when he labored under the slightest malady, which not infrequently happened, because though fiery, he was yet of a delicate constitution, sleep and appetite both forsook me. My fondness, however, when mounted on him, did not prevent me from teasing and tormenting him, according as the whim and caprice of the moment exerted their influence on my mind. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 110)

George STUBBS, William Anderson con due cavalli da sella, 1793 Royal Collection - Windsor

In 1768, Alfieri went for the first time in England
and he was immediately struck by the beauty of English horses.
George STUBBS, William Anderson with Two Saddle-horses, 1793
Royal Collection – Windsor

In 1768 Alfieri went for the first time to England and in that country he especially liked “the roads, the inns, the horses, the females” (Alfieri, 1877, p. 142). At that time, a growing interest in the English institutions, culture and fashion was spreading throughout Europe. England was felt to be a model of modernity and progress. It was a real “Anglomania,” which affected also the equestrian field: in a few decades, the English thoroughbred became the most popular breed and, in addition, new equestrian techniques were adopted, such as the rising trot, called precisely “English trot”.

In occasione del secondo soggiorno in Inghiterra, Alfieri ebbe una tumultuosa relazione con la moglie del Visconte Ligonier,Joshua Reynolds, Lord Ligonier, 1760© Tate Modern Gallery - Londra

During his second stay in England, Alfieri had a tumultuous relationship with the wife of Viscount Ligonier.
Joshua Reynolds, Lord Ligonier, 1760
© Tate Modern Gallery – Londra

After traveling in various European countries, in 1771 Alfieri returned to England and there he fell in love with Penelope Pitt, wife of Viscount Edward Ligonier. It was a passionate and thwarted love for a beautiful woman, that the young Italian count lived with romantic enthusiasm, giving vent to the turmoil of his heart, risking the most reckless equestrian deeds. One morning, while on horseback in the company of a friend, in spite of the protests and warnings of his companion, he decided to jump the fence that divided a lawn from the street. However, on the first attempt, the horse hit the fence and fell to the ground, together with the rider. There and then, the young daredevil believed to be unharmed. He jumped back in the saddle and, ignoring the screams of his companion, he cantered again towards the obstacle, and this time he finally cleared it. But he did not enjoy that triumph for long. Gradually, he began to feel an increasing pain in his left shoulder. The ride back seemed endless. At home, the surgeon labored and caused him to suffer for a long time to fix his broken collarbone. The love affair with the lady ended with a duel and a public scandal. The young enthusiast suffered the disappointment of discovering that, before him, the beautiful intriguer had had a love affair with a groom and the whole affair was spread by the gazettes.

Thomas Gainsborough, Penelope Pitt, Viscontessa Ligonier, 1770 The Huntingto Library, San Marino - California

Vittorio Alfieri’s love affair with Penelope Pitt
ended up with a public scandal.
Thomas Gainsborough, Penelope Pitt, 1770
The Huntington Library, San Marino – California

Alfieri then took to the road again, traveling to Holland, France and then to Spain, where he immediately purchased new mounts.

Before leaving Britain I had disposed of my whole stud, except the most beautiful animal, which I left in charge of the Marquis Caraccioli, and, as without horses I’m not even the half of myself, I purchased two a few days after my arrival at Barcelona. One of them was a Carthusiam from Jerez, a beautiful golden chestnut; the other one was a Cordovan hacha, and though somewhat smaller, was full of spirit. I had always longed to possess Spanish horses, which are very difficult to export from their country; my heart therefore bounded with joy on becoming master of two of the most beautiful of their kind. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 172-173)

Ginés Andrés De Aguirre, Mercato di cavalli, secolo XVIII Museo del Prado - Madrid

In 1771, Alfieri purchased two horses in Spain:
a Cordovan and a Carthusian of Jerez.
Ginés Andrés De Aguirre, horse market, eighteenth century
Museo del Prado – Madrid

And his love for the beautiful Carthusian horse was such that traveling on the road to Zaragoza and Madrid he says:

I performed almost the whole of this journey on foot, with my Andalusian courser, which accompanied me like a faithful dog, and appeared to understand whatever was said to him. How great was my delight on being alone with him in the vast wilds of Aragon. (ALFIERI, 1877, p. 174)

After almost a year, the journey finally came to an end. Returning to Barcelona, Alfieri had to part with his beautiful Andalusian, with whom he had traveled for more than thirty consecutive days, coming from Cadiz. Being “a great enemy” of selling his horses, he decided to give them both away: the Cordovan to the “very pretty” daughters of a landlady, the Carthusian to a French banker, who lived in Barcelona, with whom he had already become acquainted at the time of his first visit to the city.

to be continued >

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Vittorio ALFIERI, Life of Vittorio Alfieri, Boston, J.R. Osgood, 1877 [I slightly changed the translations of some quotes, as the text edited by William D. Howells is sometimes quite far from the original in Italian]