The cheerfulness of the horse. 
Giovanni de Gamboa, a pupil of Pignatelli

Horse attributed to Francesco Allegrini - 1624-63 © Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York
Horse attributed to Francesco Allegrini, 1624-63
© Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

“The cheerfulness of the horse is the most beautiful part of him, and the most valuable.” I think this sentence is enough to guess the great interest, but also the inherent difficulty of a book printed in Palermo in 1606, entitled La raggione [sic] dell’arte di cavalcare (The Reason of the Art of Riding, Palermo, Gio. Antonio de Franceschi). In fact, the sentence expresses a sensitivity towards the animal that many incorrectly consider typical only of modern times. However, it is written with a rough style, which makes the reading of the book quite difficult for the reader of today. But, for certain, it worth the effort because the author, Giovanni de Gamboa, was a pupil of Giovan Battista Pignatelli, the celebrated Neapolitan maestro, considered one of the most prominent figures of the Italian Renaissance equestrian tradition. The book is certainly a minor work compared to those of the better known foreign students of Pignatelli: Salomon de la Broue, who was the first to publish an equestrian treatise in French, and Antoine de Pluvinel, master of riding of the king of France, Louis XIII, and author of the splendid L’instruction du roi en l’exercice de monter à cheval (1625). Nevertheless, Gamboa’s book gives voice, albeit with a hardly intelligible language, to a refined conception of the equestrian art, which has significant similarities to that of his more titled and famous foreign colleagues and sinks its roots in the teachings of Pignatelli.

La Raggione dell'arte del caualcare, composta per lo sig. D. Giouanni de Gamboa, Cavaliero Napoltano - 1606 Frontispiece
La Raggione dell’arte del caualcare, composta per lo sig. D. Giouanni de Gamboa, Cavaliero Napoltano, 1606

Like his master, Giovanni de Gamboa was also from Naples. In the initial dedication of his book to the Sicilian Senate, Gamboa says he formed a company of light cavalry in the service of the city of Palermo and that he maintained it at his own expense for a year, until an officer appointed to its command, came from Spain. He then claims he was captain of another company of light horses in the service of the Prince of Butera, general vicarious of the Kingdom. From his book, we also know that he worked as a horseman in several Italian cities, including Naples, Milan, Turin and Genoa, where he was in the service of the Doria and of the Pallavicini families. In Reggio Emilia (at the time named Reggio of Lombardy), he was then in the service of the governor Count Fulvio Rangoni. Like other contemporary Neapolitan authors, Gamboa also says that Pignatelli devoted himself to the teaching of equitation when, because of his age, he was no longer able to ride.

I have already said many times that knowing this art without knowing how to put it into practice, would be like knowing only one part of it, by means of which one could be helpful to others rather than serve himself; as the old Riders of this profession did, like the happy memory of my Master, Sir Gio. Battista Pignatelli, and others of his age in the city of Naples, who with their very big experience could communicate this art to others, although they could no longer personally practice it because of their age (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 14).

The book is written as a dialogue between the author and Don Antonino Morso, Baron of Gibellina who was a depute of the Kingdom, Captain of Justice of Palermo in 1615-16 and became Marquis of Gibellina in 1619.

Giuseppe Cesari, named Cavalier d’Arpino, Battle between the Romans and the Veienti (detail), Roma, Palazzo dei Conservatori, 1597
Giuseppe Cesari, named Cavalier d’Arpino, Battle between the Romans and the Veienti (detail), Roma, Palazzo dei Conservatori, 1597

Gamboa distinguishes three different aspects of the art of riding: the training, the equestrian technique itself, and the art of bridling, which is to say the art of choosing the right bit for each horse. The first aspect requires a great deal of experience on the part of the rider, as he must be able to adapt the training to the different temperaments and the different inclinations of the various specimens. In any case, Gamboa stressed the need of a gentle and nonviolent approach. Therefore, he claims that the colt to be tamed must first of all be calmed down when he is in the stable.

When it’s time to tame the horse, you must first of all make him as pleasant and docile as possible in the stable, so that he does not disobey and act in a wicked manner due to his fright and fear of man, forcing for this reason his rider to use the lash from the beginning (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 56).

Then the rider can begin to ride him with a padded saddle, which is to say with a lighter and softer saddle than those that were employed at the time with trained horses. Gamboa underlines that it is important to proceed gradually, so that the horse understands what the rider asks him, without bothering him, but rather encouraging him and taking care not to tire him too much in order to preserve his good will to work:

you have to ride him [the young horse] very slowly, with many caresses, avoiding to beat him, so that he does not become discouraged or rebel, because he does not understand the will of the man, or because of the anger he conceived for the offense [he received from the rider], but you should ride him with skill and patience in order to reassure him and that he finally agrees to let you ride him (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 56).

Two horses - Attributed to Francesco Allegrini - 1624-1663 © Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York
Two horses, attributed to Francesco Allegrini, 1624-1663
© Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York

Like Marco de Pavari (see the article in this blog: Marco de Pavari and the dominion of pleasantness), Gamboa suggests to distract the horse, when the riders first mounts him, by giving him grass to eat. Then, he should be induced to move the first steps showing him the grass from a certain distance. An experienced horse can be placed near the colt to reassure him or, even better, he should be lead from the ground by the groom who takes care of him every day. Gamboa insists that the young, untrained horse should not be overtaxed, both to avoid damaging his health and to not dishearten him. He adds that, at the beginning, it is better to make the young horse trot on a straight path, and not on a circle, which is much more tiring for him. In fact, he explains that often the young horses that are trained too early on the circles, tend to adopt wrong attitudes (excessive inside bend of the neck, croup on the outside, exc.), which is difficult to correct, taking much time on the part of the trainer. In any case:

all the actions you want from him must be obtained without beatings, but with skill and art (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 58).

Anthony Vand Dyck, Study for an Equestrian Portrait, Possibly that of Albert de Ligne, Count of Arenberg, 1628-32 © Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York
Anthony Vand Dyck, Study for an Equestrian Portrait, Possibly that of Albert de Ligne, Count of Arenberg, 1628-32
© Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York

“Art” here means primarily the theoretical knowledge of horsemanship. According to Gamboa, in fact the theory provides general concepts that allow the rider to understand the causes of the defects of each specimen, so that he can then apply to them the appropriate practical remedies. The theoretical understanding of the principles of the equestrian art also facilitates learning how to ride. And it is because they ignore the theoretical basics of horsemanship that, according to Gamboa, many riders act blindly, using violent means, resulting in demoralizing and exhausting the poor animals.

I remember that I saw riders giving such lessons, straining and beating the poor horses, who could not understand what their horseman wanted from them. And when they were very anguished and tired and dejected, they were dismounted and sent back home so tired and sorrowful, that they inspired me great compassion (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 10).

A horse that is dejected and exhausted, because he is subdued with brutal means, will never be able to show the beauty of an animal that is calm and moves in unison with the will of his rider:

a melancholic horse will never make as much a fine showing as a horse who is lively and cheerful, so the discerning Rider must make him like that, with every care and art (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 10).

Peter Paul Rubens, St. George Fighting the Dragon, 1606-10 Museo del Prado, Madrid
Peter Paul Rubens, St. George Fighting the Dragon, 1606-10
Museo del Prado, Madrid

This results in common sense rules, which are still fully valid today. For example, the correct attitude of head and neck should be taught to the horse gradually. If you want to immediately induce the flexion with force you will get the opposite effect, causing the inevitable resistance and defense of the animal. Similarly, Gamboa argues that the horse that tends to bring the head down and to lean on the bit must be ridden with the cavesson only, making him trot uphill and downhill, in order to let him find his natural balance. Instead, the author warns,  those who believe to solve this problem by changing the bridle are wrong. Any horse, concludes Gamboa, can be trained to the chivalric exercises, which he will perform according to his natural abilities. So it is up to the rider to have the competence to evaluate the horse’s aptitudes, adjusting his training in order to highlight his best qualities:

as the art and skill of the rider can overcome everything, if he [the horse] has not enough strength to perform a certain exercise, it does not mean that he hasn’t also for an easier one. Because the defect comes from us, as we do not know how to apply to him those exercises that would conform to his nature and inclination, but we want that nature and him adapt to our follies and to our thoughtless rules. (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 74).

For this reason the training must be guided by two fundamental criteria:

above all keeping in mind to not excessively tire him, and the other: always begin teaching him the easier things, so that obeying and understanding is lighter to him (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 79).

Anthony Van Dyck (attributed), Man Mounting a Horse Attributed - Anthony van Dyck, around 1630 © Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York
Anthony Van Dyck (attributed), Man Mounting a Horse, around 1630
© Metropolitan Museum of Art – New York

At the beginning of the training, the rider should first aim toward obedience, without worrying about correctness and attitude, but being content that the animal shows his good will. Then he can gradually “adjust” him, that is to say, he can little by little accustom him to a correct posture. The rider must always avoid tiring him too much, making sure that the animal understands what is required, since strength is of no use,

to make him [the horse] do what his intelligence does not understand (de Gamboa, 1606, p. 80).

The resistances and the defenses of the horse, says Gamboa, can arise either from the excessive ardor, excessive fatigue, or weakness, of the animal. It is essential to understand the reasons why the horse rebels, or disobeys, in order to use the appropriate remedies. Which, however, must not be violent, but they must calm the horse that is too fiery, correct the one who simply does not understand the man’s request, or train the weak. This is just the reason why so many different exercises were invented: to offer to the experienced rider a range of instruments to be used according to requirements.

Aelbert Cuyp, Grey Horse in a Landscape, XVII sec Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
Aelbert Cuyp, Grey Horse in a Landscape, Seventeenth century
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

The concept of training proposed by Gamboa is quite original and shows explicit affinity with the doctrine of Pluvinel, though not with the techniques. Also, the French master insists on the need to avoid all gratuitous forms of violence, because only the horse that is willing to work can show all his beauty:

(if it is possible to do without) you must not beat [the horse] at the beginning, in the middle, or in the end [of the training], being much more necessary to train him through sweetness (if possible) that through rigor, as the horse who works with pleasure, shows much greater grace than the one who is compelled by force (Pluvinel, 1625, p. 24).

A concept that Pluvinel repeats with the same insistence of Gamboa, so much so that he argues that if a horse could be trained and be ridden only by force, he would give up riding, as brutality will deny any grace to the rider and deprive the horse of every virtue:

if horses would not go by other aids than the kicks of the spurs, I frankly confess that I would give up the exercise of chivalry, as there is no delight riding a horse only by force: because man will never have good grace as long as he will be forced to beat him and a horse will never be nice to see while performing his exercise, if he does not take pleasure in all his acts (Pluvinel, 1625, pp. 35-36).

Antoine de Pluvinel, L'instruction du roy en l'exercice de monter à cheval, 1625 Plate 8, Part I
Antoine de Pluvinel, L’instruction du roy en l’exercice de monter à cheval, 1625
Plate 8, Part I

Although Gamboa’s book was published nineteen years before that of Pluvinel, it seems to me impossible to imagine a direct influence between them. It is much more reasonable to assume that the strong affinity of the respective conceptions of the training is due to the common root of Pignatelli’s teaching. And that the Neapolitan master was inclined to the gentlest possible approach to the horse, it is witnessed also by his other famous pupil, Salomon de la Broue, who recalls how his teacher used mainly the bit that, at the time, was considered the lighter, the so-called simple cannon:

Several envious or not very skillful often blamed that great and important character, Sir Giovan Battista Pignatelli, since he wasn’t very dedicated to the diversity of the bridles and cavessons and they nearly pretend that one could think that he ignored their effects. On the contrary, what once made me admire his knowledge and that moved me the most to seek and to serve him, is the thought that, as he made the horses so obedient and so easy to manage and showing so beautiful airs in his school without however commonly using any other bit than an ordinary cannon and a common cavesson, his rules and his experience should have much more effect than the ways of those that apply so much to the artifice of an infinity of bridles (LA BROUE, 1610, p. 18).

Even if it is penalized by a confused and sometimes almost incomprehensible style, Gamboa’s book proves to be extremely significant. Not only because it shows once again how inaccurate is the cliché that the Italian horsemanship during the Renaissance was indiscriminately characterized by particular brutality, but because, on the contrary, it documents the clear elements of continuity between the Italian and the French tradition, whereas many authors have seen a rather sharp break between the two schools.

 Stefano della Bella, Two horses, around 1649,  ©  The National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Stefano della Bella, Two horses, around 1649,
© The National Gallery of Art, Washington.


LA BROUE, Salomon de, Le Cavalerice François, 3° édition, reveue et augmentée de beaucoup de leçons et figures par l’autheur, Paris, A. l’Angelier, 1610.

DE GAMBOA, Don Giovanni, Raggione dell’arte di cavalcare, nella quale si insegna quanto conviene di sapere ad un cavaliero a cavallo, Per Gio. Antonio de Franceschi, 1606.

PLUVINEL, Antoine de, L’instruction du Roy en l ’exercice de monter à cheval, desseignées & gravées par Crispian de Pas le jeune, Paris, M. Nivelle, 1625.

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