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]

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