At dawn on Friday, May 18, 1565, the sentinels of the Knights of Malta saw on the horizon, the sails of the Turkish fleet, commanded by Admiral Piyale Paşa. The fleet consisted of approximately one hundred and seventy vessels: galleys, galleass and galliot, eight large transport mahon and dozens of smaller boats, carrying supplies and horses. The Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), was launching an attack on the Christian stronghold at the center of the Mediterranean with one of the largest armies hitherto ever seen. The news of the siege threw Europe into dismay and caused a real panic in nearby Sicily. The siege lasted nearly four months, but in the end, the brave resistance of the Maltese knights got the better of the powerful Ottoman army, which was rejected back into the sea, after suffering heavy losses.
Nevertheless, in Sicily the final victory of the Christians did not dispel the widespread feeling of an impending threat. It seemed urgent to form a militia ready to repel possible assaults on the coasts and to uphold the honor of the Sicilians, rivaling in value with the Spanish rulers. It was, therefore, with this purpose that soon after the siege of Malta, the viceroy of Sicily, García Álvarez de Toledo y Osorio (1514-1577), founded, an equestrian academy in Palermo in which the nobles could practice horsemanship and military disciplines, but also study mathematics, geography and navigation. The academy was named Congregazione dei Cavalieri d’Armi (Congregation of the Knights of Arms) and San Sebastian became its patron saint, while the Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (the Admiral’s Bridge) was chosen as its emblem. The Admiral’s Bridge is a twelve arches bridge dating from Norman times, which at that time, was on the eastern borders of the city of Palermo (today it is visible from Corso dei Mille). It was probably chosen as a symbol of the city’s glorious past and because its name (“Admiral’s”) evoked one of the top military positions of the Norman army. The Latin sentence Et suos hic habet Oratios (“And here it has its Horatius”) was the academy’s motto. It referred to Horatius Cocles, the Roman hero who (in 508 BC) defended the Sublicio Bridge, blocking by himself the Etruscan army, led by Porsenna, which was marching towards Rome. The sentence means that, like Rome, «also Palermo had its Cocles, virtuous and brave men in arms able to defend the city from any danger» (BILE, 2011, p. 30).
A public ceremony held on San Sebastian’s Day sanctioned the establishment of the Congregation. A pageant of the knights traveled through the streets of the city following the blessing of the academy standard:
January 20, 1567 – The day of Saint Sebastian the standard of the Academy’s knights was blessed and in the evening, the knights, completely armed with cold steel, escorted it throughout the city, holding torches. The illustrious Marquis of Avola was the Academy’s general, Baron Fiumesalato the counselor and Mr. Carlo Marchisi the standard-bearer. (PARUTA – PALMERINO, 1869, p. 27)
That same day, the knights gave the first public demonstration of their skills in a joust, organized at the Pian della Marina (now Piazza Marina, at the end of Corso Vittorio Emanuele, in Palermo). At that time, jousts and carousels represented the main occasions for the nobles to demonstrate their skills in martial exercises in times of peace. In this sense, jousts and pageants played an essential political and social role. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the growing strategic importance of firearms and the military role of the infantry had, in fact, drastically reduced the role of cavalry and fed into the nobility, “the frustration that comes from being nominally knights but with little chance, if not in carousels and tournaments, to prove themselves to the world” (Antonelli, 1997, p. 194).
In Sicily, as indeed in the rest of Europe, jousts were very frequent and were very popular shows. So much so that the Senate of the city of Palermo, decided to build an “Aringo”, i.e. an ephemeral wood amphitheater, which could hold up to twenty-five thousand people, with boxes reserved for the vice royal court and the representatives of the Senate. “Every opportunity was good to organize these choreographic shows of arms: the celebration of a victory or of a wedding; a peace or an alliance or another important political event, such as the visit of a king or a prince; but sometimes they were also an occasion to find husbands for maidens, or to allow young riders to stretch their limbs after the inertia of a long winter and keep them in constant exercise and always ready to use weapons “(MANSELLA, 1972, p. 16). These chivalric trials had their peak in the sixteenth century, but they continued to be practiced, with great pomp, even in the next century, as evidenced by the superb plates that illustrate this article and which are from the report devoted by Pietro Maggio to the jousts held in Palermo during the celebrations for the wedding of the King of Spain, Charles II, with Maria Luisa of Bourbon-Orléans, in 1679. The report was published in 1680 under the title Le guerre festive (The festive wars: Palermo, Giuseppe Barbera and Tomaso Rummulo & Orlando).
On October 10, 1567, with another solemn public ceremony, the Congregation took possession of Palazzo Ajutamicristo, on the borders of the walls of Palermo (now in Via Garibaldi), not far from the Admiral’s Bridge. The pageants was led by Ottavio del Bosco, appointed general of the Congregation, who was escorted by armed pages on horseback, each of them bearing the insignia of his lord. “In the palace, the knights gathered in the morning for mathematics lessons, and during the day to ride horses” (NARBONE, 1851, p. 101). The statutes of the Congregation (Maurizio Vesco has recently published their frontispiece in VESCO, 2016) regulated minutely the tasks, the meetings, the ceremonies and the devotions, and fixed the requirements for the aspirants, as well as how to behave in the presence of the Viceroy. Academics practiced daily for two hours in the riding arena, divided into two classes. The session of the most experienced was open to the public, while the extraneous could not be present for that of the novice riders (see MAYLÄNDER, 1926-30, vol. I, p. 523).
In 1620, the Congregation changed location and moved to another building just in front of the Senate Palace, so that the knights could defend the Senate more effectively and promptly if necessary. In case of an alarm, the knights were required to gather, fully armed, at the Admiral’s Bridge, and each of them had to bring with him a similarly armed companion. The Academy, however, was abolished in 1636.
Soon after the establishment of the Congregation, the academy turned to Lombard armorer, which at the time was among the best in Europe, to supply the knights with war and parade weapons. A few years ago, the deputy manager of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, Umberto Bile (who died in 2013), discovered that the most valuable pieces of Capodimonte’s armory did not belong to Alessandro, or to Ottavio Farnese, as it was believed for at least two centuries, but they went back just to the knights of the Congregation. During the seventeenth century, some of the most valuable weapons of the knights of the Congregation were transferred to the armory of the Castle of Canicattì, where they were stored for about two centuries. After some years, the memory of their origin was lost and they were erroneously considered dating back to Roger I the Norman (around 1031 – 1101). In 1800 Giuseppe Bonanno and Branciforte, prince de la Cattolica, gave to Ferdinand of Bourbon a shield, a sword and a burgonet (helmet), which were considered the weapons belonged to the “Great Count” Roger I, conqueror of Sicily in 1062. Bile demonstrated that they, obviously, were the burgonet, the shield and the sword of extraordinary workmanship, which are the most valuable and famous pieces of Capodimonte’s armory. The iron, embossed, damascened and golden shield depicts Horatius Cocles on horseback, facing the enemies, while the Roman soldiers are demolishing the Sublicio Bridge, to prevent the Etruscan from entering in Rome. It is the same Roman hero summoned by the motto of the Congregation of Palermo. The beauty of such weapons gives us an idea of the magnificent elegance of the knights who drilled in the Sicilian academy.
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