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Art&Cavallo: horses in history through art

20 November 2020

Un approfondimento sul rapporto uomo-cavallo attraverso le opere d’arte di diverse epoche storiche

Thanks to the work of Roberto Martusciello Cinquegrana of the Department of Historical Equitation at Fitetrec Ante, with the support of the Archaeological Museum of Naples, the Stibbert Museum of Florence, the Capodimonte Museum in Naples and the Palazzo d’Avalos Museum in Vasto, a new section has been added within the scope of the equestrian-themed Art&Cavallo 2020 exhibition investigating the relationship between people and horses through works of art from different historical periods. A journey in time focusing on the role of horses in history through the history of art.

A perspective Timeline highlights the artistic transitions from Roman to Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque equitation through characteristic paintings and sculptures of each period. A journey through Italy’s major museums that helps us understand equitation today thanks to the horsemanship of the past.


Roman period

Roman equitation was characterized by not having stirrups and horses no higher than 150 cm at the withers. The Roman “Equites” were essentially made up of Germanic auxiliaries. One of the most important references in Graeco-Roman ethology certainly concerns Xenophon, a Greek mercenary who wrote The Art of Horsemanship around 350 B.C. which in many instances highlights ethical and still modern aspects of equitation.


“Anyone who in times of war expects to rely on generous and imposing horses should refrain from tormenting their mouths, spurring and whipping them, as many others do under the impression they are cutting a fine figure… By using the reins to force horses to raise their heads too high, instead of allowing them to see clearly ahead actually makes them blind; and by spurring and beating them, they become increasingly nervous to the point of even becoming dangerous … Yet if horses are taught to move by holding them lightly at the mouth, to raise their necks and bend their heads in a natural way, they themselves will be pleased and proud.”


Cavallo Mazzocchi – Fusione di frammenti di bronzo della Quadriga di Ercolano (Museo Archeologico di Napoli)


Statua equestre di Marco Nonio Balbo ( Museo Archeologico di Napoli)


Renaissance period

The use of stirrups arrived in the West around the VII century A.D. thanks to the Pannonian Avars. The riding position and, consequently, military action on horseback became more incisive. Countless treatises on veterinary medicine and farriery were published in Mediaeval and Renaissance periods that described and characterized knowledge about the use of horses. Grisone, Fiaschi and Pignatelli – to mention just a few authors and masters of equitation – dedicated several writings to the preparation of horses. It was in this period that equitation began to emerge as an art and no longer merely as a military skill. Peaceful and prolonged exercises mitigated the ardour of these noble animals and soothed rather than excited them.

“If anyone believes that galloping often and quickly to tire and calm a horse, believes quite the opposite of what actually is the case. In this way, fiery horses become as agitated as angry men.” (Xenophon)


Baroque period

Many of the treatises published in late-Renaissance and Baroque periods focus on artistic aspects of horses and no longer exclusively on war but also theatrical and equestrian entertainment. For example, the spectacles that the Sun King (Louis XIV) hosted in the Palace of Versailles are truly famous. The relationship with horses was also influenced by gentle and ethical taming.

Messere Antoine de Pluvinel, the maestro of King Louis XIII, was fond of saying: “It is far better to teach things with gentleness than with constraint … If a horse refuses to obey, a good rider must discover what is preventing obedience… We must spare the whip and be lavish with caresses … ”

Francois Robichon de La Gueriniere, a maestro in the 1700s, often said: “One must love horses, be vigorous and bold, and have a great deal of patience. These are the main qualities that define true Horsemanship.”


Sella della fine del XVI secolo (Museo D’Avalos di Vasto)


Francesco Liani, ritratto equestre di Carlo di Borbone (Museo di Capodimonte di Napoli)