The stars and the horses

Anonymous, The Zodiac Ceiling
in the Hall of the Geographical Maps
of the Farnese Palace – Caprarola (Italy)
Sixteenth century

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Given the wide diffusion of astrology during the Renaissance, it is not surprising that, at that time, the belief that the stars had a decisive influence, not on only on the fate of men, but also on the characteristics of animals, especially of horses, was widely shared. Banned for the first eight centuries of the Christian age by the condemnation of authors such as St. Augustine, the astrological doctrines returned gradually to become popular in European culture, through the mediation of the Aristotelian theories of the Muslim astronomer and astrologer Albumasar (IX sec.). Important figures of the medieval culture, such as Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas, showed great interest in astrology, which over the centuries ended up by permeating popular, as well as university, culture. During the Renaissance, kings and generals kept astrologers in their service. This is the case, for example, of Cosimo de’ Medici with Marsilio Ficino, of the famous Bohemian condottiere, W. Albrecht E. von Wallenstein with Kepler and Seni, of the duke of Milan, Lodovico il Moro with Ambrogio Varese from Rosate (who predicted to Pope Innocent VIII his death, which actually followed a few days later).  During the period in which he taught in Padua, Galileo Galilei produced horoscopes for payment and the famous French astrologer, Nostradamus, was summoned to court by the Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici.

In the fourth book of his monumental treatise, La gloria del cavallo (The Glory of the Horse, 1567), the Neapolitan gentleman, Pasquale Caracciolo, sums up in these words, the belief that the horses would be influenced by the planets:

«As it is necessary (as Aristotle says) that this lower world continually receives his virtues and his rule by the supernal motions; and although all horses are subject to Mars, they also participate of the others». (CARACCIOLO, 1567, p. 280)

Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of the month of March
in the Schifanoia Palace – Ferrara (Italy)
around 1470

Caracciolo then lists the characteristics of the seven “planets” (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), corresponding to the seven ages of man: «infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, manhood, old age, and decrepitude» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 280). According to Caracciolo, each planet affects specific body parts of the animal (eg, Saturn, the right ear, the spleen, the bladder, the phlegm and the bones; Jupiter, the touch, the lung, the ribs, the cartilages, the arteries and the semen, etc.), though, he adds, the authors do not agree on the exact correspondence of their influences. The planets also exert a more general influence on the “complexion” of the animal. Thus, for example, the Moon «makes the animal phlegmatic, mutable and inconstant, not uniform of eyes; greedy eater, dangerous in the water, unfit to discipline and easy to fall ill» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 281), while Venus «gives a lot of grace and loveliness to creatures; especially in their eyes and makes them lovable, witty, lascivious and friends of harmony; with a temperate complexion when she [Venus] is Western» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 282).

Francesco del Cossa, Allegory of the month of April
in the Schifanoia Palace – Ferrara (Italy)
around 1470

The effects produced by the power of the stars then changes depending on the position they assume in the twelve houses of the zodiac. Even the signs of the zodiac determine the characteristics of the animal born under their influence. So the horses born under Aries «are agile and strong: with a fleshy body, thick hairs, small ears, long neck, and thin head» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 289), while Gemini brings «vexed animals, but little lasting in anger: sterile, but eager of high things; virtuous, docile, beautiful, lucky, sanguineous, and of good complexion, because in the month of May the blood is more refined in everyone» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 289). The combination of the influences produced by signs and planets, depending on the astral configuration present at the time of the birth, causes complex effects that, the author himself admits, are «very difficult to investigate: been necessary many subtleties of Astronomical rules, and many minute, but very important circumstances, which can be hardly understood more through divine inspiration than through art» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 294). Caracciolo, however, concludes that, though powerful, the influence of the stars cannot counteract the effects produced by man who, according to his ability and doctrine in the care and training, can ruin the most gifted specimen, as well as improve and correct the most disadvantaged:

«I do not deny already, that it not consist of the man’s free will to use well or badly his instrument: because every day you see a good horse becoming better under a good Rider, than under another: and if he will be less good, certainly he will not go with so much disorder and danger, if he’s ruled by a learned maker, than if the brake is in the hands of a fool and inexperienced» (CARACCIOLO, 1589, p. 293).

Giovanni Maria Falconetto, Sagittarius,
from The Hall of The Months and of the Zodiac
in Palazzo d’Arco – Mantua (Italy)
Sixteenth century

According to the renaissance authors, the stars should be taken into account not only in assessing the characteristics of the different specimens, but also in giving them treatments. In his book Delle razze, disciplina del cavalcare, et altre cose pertinenti ad essercitio così fatto (Races, discipline of riding and other things relevant to this exercise, 1560), Giovan Battista Ferraro warns that treating different parts of the horse, which are under the influence of the Zodiac, should be avoided at certain times:

Following the example of the care of man, the ancients warned that in the care of this noble animal the celestial bodies and lights should be observed; this means that should not be touched with iron, or fire, those parts of the horse which are subjected to the Zodiac, that is the circle of the twelve signs, when the moon dwells in those signs, that rule over the limbs of animals. But being the Horse a Martial animal, this should be even more avoided when the moon, dwelling in more signs corresponding to the limbs, has aspect to Mars (we quote from the revised and extended edition of the treatise in Ferraro, 1602, p. 98).

Giovan Battista Ferraro, Zodiac Almanac
for the care of the horse,
in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo Frenato,
Napoli, Antonio Pace, 1602, p. 99

In short, also according to Ferraro, the signs of the zodiac have an influence on different parts of the horse’s body and for this reason those parts should not be treated when the Moon is in the corresponding sign. The horse is in fact considered an animal born under the influence of Mars and the Moon is considered adverse to him. The author then compiles a real almanac in which he warns “not to touch with iron or fire” the head and neck of the horse when the Moon is in Aries, the shoulders and ribs when it is in Gemini or Cancer, while loins, stomach and back should not be touched when it is in Leo or Virgo. Libra and Scorpio, instead, affect the rump, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces affect limbs, hooves and thighs.

Giovanni Sacrobosco, De sphaera mundi, Venetia, Bartholomeo Zanetti, 1537.

With the progress of veterinary medicine, however, these beliefs were gradually abandoned and already in the text by Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo, infermità et suoi rimedi (Anatomy of the horse, his illness and remedies – 1598) they are no longer taken into consideration.


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

FERRARO, Pirro Antonio, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, Pace, 1602.

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