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]

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