When the first squad of riders made their entrance into the floodlit courtyard, from the boxes and the stands thronged by the audience, came a murmuring of astonishment that, for a moment, drowned the blaring of the trumpets and the rolling of the drums. Twelve riders, mounted on superb jennets, harnessed with turquoise tack embroidered with silver, advanced wearing costumes and mantles of the same color and high crests made of feathers, so large and sumptuous that it was hard to believe they could support them over their heads, while riding. They were preceded by a procession of eight trumpeters and a hundred and twenty footmen, all dressed in the same colors. They were followed by an allegorical chariot pulled by three singers, who represented the three Graces, but which was actually moved by porters, hidden by the magnificent apparatus. It also carried a child who played the role of the city of Rome, dressed like Cupid. In the meantime, twelve more riders entered from the other side. They were also preceded by a similar procession. However, the colors of their uniforms, as well as the harness of their fiery steeds, were red and gold. They were followed by a chariot, also pulled by three singers, and dressed up like the Furies. It carried another musician who, with threatening attitude, played the role of Indignation.
It was the night of the 28th of February 1656. About two months before, Christina of Sweden arrived in Rome. On the 10th of June 1654 she had renounced the throne and fled in disguise from her country to abjure the Protestant faith and convert to Catholicism. The Pope, Alexander VII, welcomed her triumphantly and ordained magnificent celebrations for the next carnival. Maffeo Barberini, Prince of Palestrina, whose family was finally allowed to return to Rome after their forced exile in Paris due to the enmity of the previous Pope, took the opportunity to offer a great feast in the courtyard of his palace. With that magnificent spectacle, he celebrated the converted Queen and the newfound power of his family.
The long choreography of the initial parade and its complex, subtended allegory was handed down to us by the chronicles of the time and by a big picture by Filippo Gagliardi, who made use of Filippo Lauri’s help for the figures of the riders. The core of the show was an equestrian game that has been very popular since the sixteenth century. It consisted of a simulated battle in which two teams of riders were facing each other, throwing clay projectiles.
After parading in full regalia in front of the audience, the riders wore lighter helmets and freed themselves of their mantles, but remained protected by armor, which covered their torsos and arms, carrying small round shields. Then the two teams, which represented the Roman knights and the Amazons, challenged each other at a distance and simulated a firefight, with guns loaded with blanks. This was followed by another interlude, during which balls of clay were distributed to the riders. Then the joust itself began:
Meanwhile, two riders moved away from their formation and, holding the shields with their left arm and the balls in their right hand, they rushed at full canter against the Amazons, who were lined up, and with martial zest, they threw them the balls, turning quickly to the right, followed by two Amazons who charged them up to their squadron. From there, three riders start chasing the Amazons, who returned to their squad, from which in turn four of them, then five and six, and finally all together came out, making such a beautiful melee, so well done and with such skill, that the eyes of the viewers do not ever sated to contemplate it. (GUALDO PRIORATO, 1656, p. 309)
The fight followed precise rules. The two teams lined up on opposite sides of the field. Then a first squad of riders cantered up to a short distance from the opponents and hurled their projectiles. At that point, the assaulted counterattacked, chasing the other who retreated to their friendly ranks. When, in turn, they arrived in the enemy camp, the pursuers threw their balls of clay against the shields that protected the fugitives and quickly turned their horses, taking flight. At that point, the roles were again reversed.
This type of chivalric game was introduced in Italy by the Spanish, who in turn borrowed it from the Arabs, as evidenced by the habit of playing it while wearing “Moorish” costumes. It took the form of different types of “bloodless” jousts. In addition to the battle with clay balls, also popular was the so called “game of reeds”, in which the riders chased each other throwing reeds with sticky tips, which would stick to the opponent’s armor. At the time of the Aragonese domination of Naples, the same King Alfonso the Magnanimous and his son Ferrante, did not hesitate to take part in these sorts of chivalric games. This happened during the celebrations held in 1452, on the occasion of the visit to Naples by Emperor Frederick III, who came to Italy to be crowned emperor by Pope Nicholas V and to marry Eleanor of Portugal. Preceded by a splendid pageant on horseback, the joust was held on the Piazza dell’Immacolata and the chroniclers of the time did not fail to flatter the rulers, extolling the chivalric virtues of the sovereign and of his son (see LAWE, 2005).
In 1559, the death of King Henry II of France, following an accident in the tournament that was held during the celebration of his daughter’s Elizabeth marriage with Philip II of Spain, gave special impetus to the spread of these types of games on horseback. Europe was, in fact, deeply shaken by the death of the king and, the old tournaments, a legacy of the medieval chivalric culture, were progressively replaced by less bloody games, which required a more sophisticated horsemanship to make the riders’ qualities shine without exposing them to deadly risks. On the other hand, even in this type of test, it could happen that the participants were affected by the excessive heat and the combat transcended in a brawl. This is demonstrated by the recommendation given by Antonino Ansalone, knight of the Compagnia della Stella from Messina, who in 1629 published a book dedicated to equestrian games and shows. Ansalone first noted that those jousts had a playful nature, or at most, were a useful exercise for the riders and urged the participants not to get caught up by an excessive competitive spirit, recommending them to hurl the projectiles at the appropriate time and aiming to the shields and to interrupt the game as soon as it was decreed by the masters of the field:
Since the Carnival games and masquerades, or of any other season, are made for the honorable entertainment of the Cities, and for their magnificence, as well as for the exercise of the Knights, everyone should avoid carrying out the action so that the game has an unfortunate outcome. As it happens when the Riders are taken by too much desire of chasing the enemy, going beyond the limits of the game, without complying with its rules, both in hitting both in protecting themselves with the shield at the right time and ending up coming to blows. So in order that the game has a good outcome, everyone must throw the balls aiming at the shields and at the right time, and not out of time, with force, but without affectation, and at the end of the game, when the Masters of the Field give the signal with musket shots, each Rider must stop his steed and retire in his troop, under the command of his chief. (ANSALONE, 1629, pp. 106-107)
The games underwent further variations. For example, in the tournament held in Florence, the 5th of July 1558, on the occasion of the wedding of Lucrezia de Medici to Alfonso II d’Este, the riders contended for crockpots full of feathers. In order not to break them and to not disperse the feathers, horses and riders had to act with extreme finesse (see MORI, 2011, p. 83). To these same type of bloodless equestrian games belonged the “ring joust”, in which the rider had to insert the tip of his spear in a ring suspended in mid-air while cantering, or the “Quintain”, or “Saracen Joust,” in which the rider had to hit a target placed on a pole, or on the arm of a swiveling mannequin. They were very popular throughout Europe and continued to be practiced for centuries.
Not many know, however, that the type of joust held in the courtyard of Palazzo Barberini, namely that in which the teams fought with balls of clay, is at the origin of the term “carousel”, which later became widespread in the equestrian field and which is still in use to indicate the performances of many riders together, and also the skill exercises of mounted military units. In fact, the balls of clay that the riders threw at each other in Spanish were called alcancias, but in Naples they were called caruselli (a dialectal name survived to indicate the round terracotta money boxes, which curiously, in Spanish, are called precisely alcancias). In Naples, the projectiles of clay were called caroselli, or carusielli because they resembled to a shaved head, that, in Neapolitan dialect, is called caruso. The giostra dei caruselli, or caroselli (“carousels’ joust”), was first brought to Naples by the Aragonese rulers and then also practiced by the Spanish. From there, it spread throughout Italy. «And here is the Neapolitan and genuine origin of the name ‘carusel,’ which was later given to other forms of tournaments, and went to France and there became ‘caroussel» (CROCE, 1922, pp. 194-195). The term, in fact, ended up to indicate extensively the equestrian events in which one or more team of riders perform a complex choreography, demonstrating their skill and the refined level of training of their horses.
It was then in France that these types of events took the most spectacular and famous forms, such as the carousel held from 5 to 7 April 1612 in Paris, to celebrate the Franco-Spanish alliance and the crossed marriages of Louis XIII with Anne of Austria and of Elizabeth of Bourbon with Philip IV. The pick of French nobility took part in it. It was introduced by a pageant of stage machineries, exotic animals, chariots and riders on horseback. The equestrian ballet, which preceded the ring joust and the quintain, was choreographed by Antoine de Pluvinel, Louis XIII’s master of riding and the author of the famous L’instruction du roi en l’exercice de monter à cheval (1625).
If possible, an even more sumptuous carousel was organized in 1662, under the reign of Louis XIV. It was officially to celebrate the birth of the Grand Dauphin, but also to extol the absolute power of the Sun King. It was the most lavish public spectacle of Louis XIV’s kingdom. It was opened by a huge parade of horses and riders, accompanied by a multitude of footmen and attendants. We have a detailed account of it from the official report written by Charles Perrault, academician of France and author of famous fables (yes, he is the author of Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots). A book (see PERRAULT, 1670) enriched by beautiful engravings, which shows us the splendor of the magnificent costumes, made by the best tailors in France, and the beauty of the outstanding horses, richly harnessed.
ANSALONE, Antonino, Il cavaliere, Messina, nella Stamperia di Pietro Brea, 1629.
BALESTRACCI, Duccio, La festa in armi. Giostre, tornei e giochi nel Medioevo, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2001.
CROCE, Benedetto, La Spagna nella vita italiana durante la Rinascenza, 2a ed. riveduta, Bari, Laterza, 1922.
FRANCHET D’ESPÈREY, Patrice , L’équitation italienne, sa trasmission et son évolution en France au temps de la Reinassance, in AA.VV. Les Arts de l’équitation dans l’Europe de la Reinassance. VIIe colloque de l’Ecole nationale d’équitation au Chateau d’Oiron (4 et 5 octobre 2002), Arles, Actes Sud, 2009, pp. 158-182.
GUALDO PRIORATO, Galeazzo, Historia della Sacra Real Maestà di Christina Alessandra Regina di Svetia, &c, Stamperia della Reverenda Camera Apostolica, Roma, 1656.
LAWE, Kari, L’alta scuola equestre aragonese. I re aragonesi di Napoli e l’alta scuola equestre, in “Eos”, editore Fondazione Emilio Bernardelli, Anno 4, 2005, n. 10, pp. 9-18.
MORI, Elisabetta, L’onore perduto di Isabella de’ Medici, Milano, Garzanti, 2011.
PERRAULT, Charles, Courses de testes et de bague faittes par le roy et par les princes et seigneurs de sa cour en l’année 1662, Paris, Imprimerie Royale, 1670.