Equestrian traditions of the Roman Carnival during the Renaissance

Il gioco dell'anello era molto praticato sin dal Rinascimento Bartolomeo Pinelli, Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1822
The ring joust was widely practiced since the Renaissance
from Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1822

di Giovanni Battista Tomassini

This is the text of the lecture I gave on Tuesday, February 28, 2017, during the final symposium of the 9th edition of the Roman Carnival. I am especially grateful to the Associazione Carnevale Romano for inviting me, once again, to the beautiful Biblioteca Angelica to tell the stories of this great collective ritual of the city of Rome. For more information: http://www.carnevaleromano.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/Carnevale-Romano-454618444667202/?fref=ts

On Thursday, February 24, 1536, about a year and a half after the election of Pope Paul III, the people of Rome started, once again, to celebrate the Carnival after many years, during which in the city disfigured by the Sack of 1527, there had been very little to celebrate. On that day, all the municipal authorities gathered at the Campidoglio (where the Roman Senate had its seat): the Senator of the Roman people, the Conservatori, the Caporioni and the Priors, the Mayors, the Constables, and the representatives of the Guilds. All of them wore their most elegant clothes and were armed with the weapons of the town militia. As one of the few civic events in the Holy City, the Carnival pageant was, in fact, an opportunity to show the military pride of the city and was exploited by the aristocracy to show off the signs of its wealth and power. For this reason, the horses and the other attributes of chivalric dignity, such as the more luxurious weapons and clothes, played a leading role in the event.

Cavaliere con costume e bardatura "alla romana" da parata. Libro dei disegni di Filippo Ursoni, 1554 Royal and Albert Hall Museum - Londra
Knight “alla romana”
The design book of Filippo Ursoni, 1554
Royal and Albert Hall Museum – Londra

The pageant moved toward the “Campo in Agone”, that is to say towards Piazza Navona, according to a strict order of precedence. After the representatives of the Rioni (i.e. the Wards, or city districts) there were the so-called Giocatori (the Players), namely the champions of the Wards themselves who were going to take part in the knightly trials during the afternoon and in the following days. There were eight for each Ward, each of them was accompanied by eight grooms. Among them, we read in an anonymous account of the time, addressed to Girolamo Orsini d’Aragona, Duke of Bracciano::

“two of them were riding beautiful horses and were dressed in the ancient style, with beautiful helmets and many gems, pearls, chains and other beautiful ornaments, on their chest and head, among which there was one in particular whose gold and precious stones it was said that valued at more than thirty thousand scudi” (FORCELLA, 1885, pp. 22-23).

This description gives us an idea of the magnificence associated with the presence of horses in the parade, which was evident both because of the precious ornaments (thirty thousand scudi for only one piece of jewelry) and because of the beauty and the value of the animals themselves. It should then be noted that the Statutes of the City of Rome of 1360-1363, specified that the Giocatori (Players) belonged to the social category of the so-called cavallarocti, i.e. those who could contribute to the urban militia with a mount. They, therefore, came from the corporations of the major arts and from the baronial aristocracy, which is to say, from the richer social strata of the Roman society.

Corsiero d'Italia con bardatura "alla leggera" Filippo Ursoni, 1554 Royal and Albert Hall Museum - Londra
Italian courser “lightly” harnessed
The design book of Filippo Ursoni, 1554
Royal and Albert Hall Museum – Londra

The following description of the Caporioni emphasizes even more the quality of the horses participating in the parade on which the Caporioni were mounted:

“on beautiful lightly harnessed horses, three by three, with their pages also proceeding three by tree, on horseback, dressed in their livery and armed with lances and shields of the two Caporioni” (FORCELLA, 1885, p. 23).

In this case, the horses were “lightly” harnessed, that is to say, they were unarmored and without the other protection typical of the steeds of the so-called “men at arms”.

Cavallo armato e "uomo d'arme", entrambi protetti da armatura metallica. Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, 1602
Armed horse and “man at arms”,
both protected by a metal armor
Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, 1602

The Caporioni Prior and the Conservatore ended the first part of the parade. Thirteen allegorical chariots followed them, one for each Rione (Ward). They celebrated the victory of the Roman consul Paulo Emilio, the winner in the second century AD, of the third Macedonian war. His story is told in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and his name was considered allusive to the name of the Pope (Paul III). Other authorities and high-ranking personalities, finally, ended the parade. All of them were mounting “big beautiful harnessed horses.” Giuliano Cesarini, Gonfalonier of Rome, came as the last one, with a splendid dress and mounted on a “beautiful horse”, as equally beautiful specimens were those mounted by his retinue.

The pageant arrived at the Castel Sant’Angelo where the Pope awaited and where a concert was held in his honor. Then the parade went back to Piazza Navona, where the participants drew up in good order. A ring joust then began. This was a kind of knightly trial in which the riders had to insert the tip of their lance in a ring suspended by a ribbon, while cantering at full speed. It was very popular at that time and it is still practiced today in many parts of the world, as for example, during the Oristano Carnival, in Sardinia. In this case, riders dressed with suggestive masks, must seize a star with a central ring, with the tip of their sword. In one of his plates, Bartolomeo Pinelli has handed down to us a variant of this kind of joust, practiced in the surroundings of Rome at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The ring was suspended under a vat filled with water. In this case, if the rider missed his target and bumped the vat with the lance, the water poured down on him and his horse (see the picture at the beginning of this article).

La Corsa della Stella
The Sartiglia at Oristano
Picture from www.paradisola.it website, by Domenico Corraine

The martial and chivalrous character of these demonstrations is underlined in the Nuptiali, a key text for the memory of the Roman festivals, written by Marco Antonio Altieri, in the first two decades of the sixteenth century. In particular, he underlines the virtues shown by the Roman aristocracy on the Campo di Agone, “practicing the manly principles” (ALTIERI, 1873, p. 26), i.e. doing the knightly exercises. He also highlights the appearance of “an infinite number of valiant gentlemen, on their harnessed horses” (ALTIERI, 1873, p. 114) during the pageants from the Campidoglio to Piazza Navona, on the Thursday before Lent.

The next day, Friday, February 25, 1536, a real encierro was held in Rome. The Caporioni ordered their Constables to lead thirteen ferocious bulls, one for each Ward, through the city streets. On Saturday, these animals were displayed on the Piazza del Campidoglio. This practice is not surprising. At the time, in fact, bullfighting was wide spread, not only in Rome, but also in many other areas of Italy. Bullfights are well documented, for example, in Naples, particularly favored by the Spanish viceroy Don Pedro de Toledo (1484-1553), who had a real passion for them and he personally took part in them. There were bullfights also in Tuscany. According to Benedetto Croce, those held in 1584 in Siena and Florence during the visit of Prince Vincenzo Gonzaga, heir to the throne of Mantua, were particularly memorable. The fact that the herdsmen conducted the bulls through the city streets was normal, considering the lack of other means of transport at the time. It was for centuries the only way also to bring the animals to the slaughterhouse, as we see in one of the plates of Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli (Different costumes invented and engraved by Bartolomeo Pinelli), dated 1822.

Buoi condotti dai mandriani attraverso le vie di Roma Bartolomeo Pinelli, Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1822
Bulls lead by herdsmen through the streets of Rome
from Costumi diversi inventati ed incisi da Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1822

On Sunday, February 27, they all finally gathered at the Campo di Testaccio, to the south of the city and on the left side of the river Tevere. Here the Giocatori (Players) preceded the Caporioni,

“dressed and armed like the previous Thursday. Once on the square, that is to say the Campo di Testaccio, the Players began a beautiful tournament, running across the square, two by two, then four at a time, so that they never rested.” (FORCELLA, 1885, p. 30).

In this case also, the “tournament” consisted of ring jousts. During the tournament, the Conservatori prepared six carriages covered with red cloth, each carrying a cage containing a live pig. Then three “palios”, i.e. three pieces of fine cloth, were exposed: one of gold brocade lined with ermine, one of crimson velvet, lined with green taffeta, the third of blue damask. Afterwards, there were three horse races: that of the barbs, that of the jennets and that of the mares. In the palio, the horses competed riderless, that is to say, without jockeys. The barbs were the lightest and fastest horses at the time, mainly of oriental blood. Jennets were, rather, the precious Spanish horses: small, agile and spirited.

Le tauromachie si svolgevano in un'area delimitata ai piedi del Monte di Testaccio Etienne Du Pérac, La festa di Testaccio del 1545, incisione. British Museum - Londra
The bullfights were held in a designated area at the foot of Monte Testaccio
Etienne Du Pérac, La festa di Testaccio del 1545, engraving,

At the foot of Monte Testaccio, an area of the field was designated by tying together wagons and erecting boxes and stands, creating a sort of big arena. The chariots with the pigs were then run downhill from the Monte and the bulls were released in the arena. The hunt then began. A cruel rite, halfway between the corrida de toros and the Coliseum’s venatio (hunt in Latin). At this stage, the horses were playing a major role, since the bullfight was mainly fought on horseback.

Bullfights, or as they were called at the time, “bulls hunting” was so popular that in 1500, during the papacy of Alexander VI (1431-1503), the son of the pope, Cesare Borgia, fought a bullfight in an arena that was set, no less, than on Saint Peter’s Square, on the day of the feast of St. John (June, 24). The same event took place two years later when, during the celebrations for the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d’Este, on December 31, 1502 a horse race and a bullfight were held in St. Peter’s Square. The tradition to hold bullfights in the Vatican continued even with the pontificate of Julius II (1443-1513). On Shrove Tuesday of 1510, for example, there were horse races in the Vatican and a bullfight in the Belvedere courtyard. However, many contemporaries considered bullfighting in the Vatican as an excess of worldliness in the heart of Christianity, as for example, Erasmus of Rotterdam who expressed his indignation in his Responsio ad Petri Cursii defensionem (1535).

I tori venivano liberati sul Monte Testaccio e irrompevano nell'arena correndo lungo la discesa Hendrick Van Cleve III, Mons Testaceus, , Festa a Testaccio, incisione di Philipp Galle, 1557-1612 (c.).
The bulls were released on Monte Testaccio and swarmed into the arena running down the slope
Hendrick Van Cleve III, Mons Testaceus, engraving by Philipp Galle, 1557-1612 (c.).

The “Games of Testaccio” ended with Pope Paul III, with a final massacre in 1545. Subsequently, the axis of the Roman Carnival returned in the Via Lata, now Via del Corso, where Pope Paul II already moved it in 1465. On 1 November 1567, Pope Pius V (1504-172) published the apostolic constitution De salute, with which he forbade bullfights and condemned animal cruelty by man, but unfortunately without any real effect.

I stop here. From these few examples, you can easily understand the central role that the chivalrous dimension held in the context of the Roman Carnival. A feature that the Carnival in Rome maintained into later centuries, in which it was characterized, for better or for worse, by the famous Race of the Barbs, that went from Piazza del Popolo to Palazzo Venezia.

A bullfight in front of the Palazzo Farnese, Hendrick Van Cleve III, engraving by Philipp Galle, 1557-1612
A bullfight in front of the Palazzo Farnese, in Rome
Hendrick Van Cleve III, engraving by Philipp Galle, 1557-1612


ALTIERI, Marco Antonio, Li nuptiali, pubblicati da Enrico Narducci, Roma Tip. C. Bartoli, 1873.

CROCE, Benedetto, La Spagna nella vita italiana durante la Rinascenza, 2a ed. riveduta, Bari, Laterza, 1922.

FORCELLA, Vincenzo, Tornei e giostre, ingressi trionfali e feste carnevalesche in Roma sotto Paolo III, Roma, Tip. Artigianelli, 1885.

GUARINO, Raimondo, Carnevale e festa civica nei Ludi di Testaccio, “Roma moderna e contemporanea”, XX, 2012, 2, pp. 475-497.

L’History talk alla Biblioteca Angelica nelle immagini di Barbara Roppo e Robbi Huner

11 - Biblioteca Angelica 312 - Biblioteca Angelica 413 - Biblioteca Angelica14 - Biblioteca Angelica 215 - Biblioteca Angelica16 - Biblioteca Angelica 2

19 - Biblioteca Angelica 217 - Biblioteca Angelica 218 - Biblioteca Angelica 2

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