The role of the horse and of jousting in Renaissance culture
 (part 1)

Benozzo Gozzoli, Detail of the fresco of the Magi Chapel
in Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, 1459

di Giovanni Battista Tomassini

This is the first part of the text of the lecture I gave at the Biblioteca Malatestiana of Cesena, on the 19th of May 2019, in the context of the events related to the Giostra d’incontro (Jousting) of 16 June 2019.

In 1459, Cosimo de’ Medici entrusted Benozzo Gozzoli with the task of frescoing the private chapel of the Medici family in their palace on the Via Larga, in Florence. On the walls of the chapel, Gozzoli represented the Procession of the Magi, but at the same time he also made an extraordinary “family photo” of his client. For the sake of brevity, I will not go into the description of this fascinating work, and will just focus on the prominent figure of the glittering procession of knights represented in the fresco. Although the critics, in this regard, are not unanimous, many of them have recognized in the character who is mounted on a splendid and richly harnessed gray horse, an idealized portrait of the young Lorenzo de’ Medici, who we remember as the Magnificent.

In this portrait, Benozzo concentrates very effectively, the ideal values ​​that, at that time, characterized a prince. The elegance of the figure, the beauty of the face, which was intended as a mirror of a noble soul, the naturalness of the attitude, the richness of the garments and of the horse’s harness, all show a clear message: this is a prince (you must not forget that the Medici were bankers and not condottieri and therefore they feel even more a sense of urgency to affirm their social condition). However, there is another attribute that underlines the characterization of this character and it is the horse.

Contrary to a widespread, but completely wrong common thought, the horse was not the “means of transport” of the time, but something profoundly different. In fact, at that time very few could afford to own horses. The care and maintenance of these animals were extremely expensive and they were, therefore, the exclusive prerogative of a restricted elite. Moreover, in medieval times, the horse had been a formidable military instrument. At a time, when there was mainly close combat, a man on horseback had an overwhelming advantage over the one who was a foot. The right to own horses was therefore strictly regulated and attributed as an exclusive privilege for nobles.

Benozzo Gozzoli, The fresco on the eastern wall of the Magi Chapel
in Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, 1459

In this regard, it is sufficient to consider how, over time, there has been a progressive assimilation between the meanings of the words “knight” and “noble”. As early as the thirteenth century, Giordano Ruffo stated in his treatise on the art of treating horses that

“no animal is nobler than the horse, because through him, princes, great men of influence and wealth, and knights are distinct from ordinary people” («nullum animal sit equo nobilius, eo quod per ipsum principes, magnates et milites a minori bus separantur»),

and he added that

“no one can be properly recognized as a gentleman among individuals if not through him” (“nullum animal sit equo nobilius, eo quod per ipsum principes, magnates et milites a minori bus separantur”). (RUFFO, 1999, p. 2)

In the second half of the sixteenth century, Pasquale Caracciolo – a Neapolitan gentleman author of a monumental treatise, entitled La gloria del cavallo (The Glory of the Horse, 1566), in which he summarized the equestrian knowledge of the time – clearly shows how the identification between “knight” and “noble” was still fully valid and universally recognized in the Renaissance.

“No doubt that the name cavaliere [‘knight,’ but also ‘rider’] came initially from the military life, because it did not properly mean anything but ‘mounted soldier’ […] But then, as derived from the first meaning, you can already see the ancient habit of calling cavalieri [‘knights,’ or ‘riders’] those that, being born of noble blood dedicate themselves to the exercises of chivalry and lead a splendid and magnificent life. (CARACCIOLO, 1566, pp. 42-43)

Pasquale Caracciolo, La Gloria del cavallo, 1566

Therefore, not only was the knight of noble origin, but he devoted himself to martial exercises and he lived a splendid life, that is, he lived surrounded by luxury. This is a clear portrait of the ruling class of the time, a portrait of those kings, dukes and counts who founded their power on military strength, on wealth, but also on a universally shared ideology that placed them in a “natural” condition of superiority over the people. So much so that, for kings, this superiority was sanctioned by a divine right. The knight embodied this ideal of superiority, an ideal that was celebrated in public events, such as the jousts and the so-called “cavalcades” (i.e. in the parades on horseback that were held through the city streets for special occasions, or events). In short, the horse was an integral part of the representation of power and, for this reason, there was practically no secular public ceremony that did not portray a leading role for this animal. Pageantries and jousts were shows that staged the power of a social class: the nobles. They did it through a code whose essential elements were pomp and daring. In both, the horse played a leading role, since it was a luxury to own valuable animals and precious harnesses and, it was through their knighting skills, that the participants demonstrated their value.

Jacques de Gheyn II after Hendrik Goltzius,
Harquebusier, 1587

It should also be noted that between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, in the military field, a series of changes took place that, paradoxically, reduced the importance of the horse and cavalry in battle, and exalted their symbolic value. Already in the battle of Agincourt, in 1415, the use of the long bow by the English archers had shown the vulnerability of the French cavalry. The following advent of firearms sanctioned the drastic decline of the tactical value of cavalry, in favor of infantry and artillery. Now, any boor could kill a prince on his prized steed by shooting him with a harquebus (on this subject see PARKER, 1988). And it is no coincidence that Ludovico Ariosto, who sang the epic of cavalry, wrote these verses about the harquebus:

“O loathed, O cursed piece of enginery,
Cast in Tartarean bottom, by the hand
Of Beelzebub, whose foul malignity
The ruin of this world through thee has planned!
To hell, from whence thou came, I render thee.”

These changes produced a remarkable sense of frustration among the nobles, who thus saw their social role and their prestige partially reduced. For this reason, they became even more attached to the symbols of their social status and, among these, especially to the horse (see DOMENICHELLI, 2002).

Andrea Mantegna, Detail of the fresco in the Camera Picta, Castello di San Giorgio, Mantova, 1465-1474

It is also for this reason that horses and equitation played a leading role in the great cultural revolution that produced the transformation of the medieval knight into the modern court-gentleman, that we today call the Renaissance. When we generally consider this crucial cultural phase, we usually think of the arts, or of architecture, literature, and perhaps music, but certainly not horseback riding. Instead we should consider the art of riding a horse as one of the crucial elements of this cultural process. If, for example, you consider Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtyard, which is the most explicit manifesto of that cultural and anthropological revolution, you will be surprised to discover that it is all woven with references to equitation and to the chivalrous culture. And just because the Italian culture had a pivotal role during the Renaissance, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, even in Italy, horseback riding reached a level of extreme technical refinement (at least for the standards of that epoch), so much so that almost all European courts that could afford it, had an Italian horseman and horses from the prestigious Italian stud farms, such as those from the Kingdom of Naples, or those of the Marquises and then Dukes of Mantua. It is therefore not surprising that, at the mid-point of the sixteenth century, the first equestrian handbooks, at that time called treatises, were printed in Italy.

(click here to read part 2 ->)

Federigo Grisone’s Gli ordini di cavalcare is known to be the first equestrian treatise ever printed, in 1550


ARIOSTO, Orlando Furioso, translated by William Stewart Rose, The Project Gutenberg EBook, 1996

CARACCIOLO, Pasquale, Gloria del cavallo, Venezia, Gabriel, Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1566

Cavaliere e gentiluomo. Saggio sulla cultura aristocratica in Europa (1513-1915), Roma, Bulzoni, 2002.

PARKER, Geoffrey, The military revolution. Military innovation and the rise of the West. 1500-1800, Cambridge-New York, Cambridge University Press, 1988 (tr. it. La rivoluzione militare. Le innovazioni militari e il sorgere dell ’Occidente, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1990)

RUFFO, Giordano, Nelle scuderie di Federico II imperatore, ovvero L’arte di curare il cavallo, a cura di M.A. Causati Vanni, Editrice Vela, Velletri, 1999.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Gerd altenhöferreply
10/06/2019 at 21:13

Thank you giovanni for another piece of historical ‘enlightenment’ in the field of social meaning of riding culture!

11/06/2019 at 04:51
– In reply to: Gerd altenhöfer

Dear Gerd,

I’m very glad of your appreciation. Unfortunately, in this period my job leave me little time for my researches in the field of equestrian culture. But I hope I will soon return to my studies and that you will keep on following my blog.

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