Equitation formed an important part of the education of young nobles, who trained in mounted combat in order to be able to fulfil their responsibilities to sovereign and state. In the early sixteenth century, riding academies began to be established in Italy for this purpose. Early examples of academies may have simply been a masterful rider professing his art to others seeking to learn from him. As time went on, this teaching was formalised in purpose-built schools.
Illustration from second edition of Antoine de Pluvinel’s “L’Instruction du Roy” (Paris: 1625). King Louis XIII on horseback. Original in British Museum.
Young nobles in France who aspired to learn the art of riding began to travel to Italy to study. One such student was Antoine de Pluvinel, who trained under Giovanni Battista Pignatelli in Naples. In 1594, Pluvinel returned to his home in Paris to establish the first French riding academy, and would later tutor a young Louis XIII.
Pluvinel’s academy is an important example because it did not only teach riding. Like many of this period, his also taught students a classical curriculum of music, dancing, mathematics and drawing (see van Orden, 2005 & 2020). It was believed that this encyclopaedic study of the arts helped to develop a consummate rider, by perfecting the body, heart and mind. He based this approach to teaching on the Academy of Poetry and Music, which was established nearby in Paris in 1570 by Jean-Antoine de Baïf and Joachim Thibault de Courville.
The academy of Poetry and Music had the aim of “reviving measured poetry and music in the fashion of the ancients” (Yates, 1947). Reconnecting the arts with ancient traditions was a foundational idea in the humanist musical tradition in this period, and was based on schools of philosophy derived from Pythagoras and Plato.
From their observations of the heavens, the ancients had deduced that the celestial bodies followed circular pathways. The regularity and rhythm of these planetary movements were discovered to be based on mathematical principles. Equally, in their study of music, the ancients discovered that underlying mathematical principles distinguished the different tones on instruments. It was believed that musical and mathematical principles formed the foundation of a universal order and harmony in the cosmos, and represented a tangible manifestation of an unknowable Creator. It was further believed that this knowledge was given to humanity by gods, so that the human soul could return to it’s heavenly origin through contemplation of divine principle.
These ancient ideas were passed down through history in the philosophy of Plato and Pythagoras (see Heninger, 2013). By reconnecting with these ideas, Renaissance humanists believed that number, geometry and music has a deep profundity.
In humanist academies, the classical arts were taught and cultivated together as an encyclopaedic whole, with music and number being key to their connection. Poets and musicians sought to create and compose their works in the fashion of the ancients, believing that their measures and modes are in harmony with the fundamental music of the universe. Through the act of listening and performing, these arts were thought to help elevate the mind away from the transient concerns of the mortal world toward a higher contemplation.
In fine art, painters created perspective in their compositions through the study and application of geometry. Study of the human body became key to deciphering the mysteries of divine proportion in nature.
Dance masters wrote about the intimate relationship between dance and music; that dance is music embodied in movement; and therefore, if dance is performed according to ancient measures, it is “a realisation of the proportions that govern all the cosmos” (Nevile, 2004).
The art of riding was contemplated and professed in the same way, which can be witnessed in the equestrian treatises written by riding masters of the period.
The writing of treatises became an important means by which riding masters disseminated their ideas and methodologies. Studying these texts offers us important insights into the ideas that were cultivated within the academic environment. For example, in Cesare Fiaschi’s treatise written in 1556, he describes that like the other classical arts, riding is based on musical principles, and that “horses have a special sensitivity to rhythm and measure, because they share with humans the same memory for the universal harmony that the human soul dreams to find again.”
Claudio Corte, another riding master writing in 1562, describes that “we want the consummate rider to have so many virtues and conditions that he will fly in the sky, will remain in the air, and those who will want to see him in action will have to contemplate him as Plato’s Ideas.” The ‘Ideas’ refers to archetypal principles existing in the heavens, and for the sixteenth century rider, represented a moral and aesthetic perfection with which to compare one’s own art.
This search for higher principle can also be observed in the diagrams of manege patterns contained in several works, such as Pasquale Caracciolo’s 1568 treatise. His diagrams closely resemble symbolic representations of the order of the cosmos based on Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy (Heninger, 2013).
Why is all this important for us to understand today?
In order to understand the inner meaning of art in classical riding, it is essential that we understand the ancient philosophical traditions that it is founded upon. Otherwise, riding becomes a hollowed out shell of what it was truly intended to be.
This encyclopaedic academic pathway for equestrians is largely absent from the modern world. In order to understand how it shapes the development of the classical rider as an artist, I am engaged in ongoing, first-hand study of the classical arts together with daily riding practice. The insights that I gain through this experiential research are shared in books, with additional resources made available in the library. This study is only made possible with the support and guidance of my tutors:
Classical riding – mentored by Minette Rice-Edwards, who was a long-term student of Danny Pevsner. Minette also rode with Arthur Kottas, and Nuno Oliveira. Our work is steered by visiting clinician Ross Harper-Lewis, who learned under Nuno Oliveira for many years;
Fine art drawing – initially learning with fine artist Desmond MacMahon, whose guidance blossomed independent study of the works of the old masters;
Philosophy – independent study of ancient and Renaissance philosophy.
I am also working on new English translations of sixteenth-century Italian equestrian treatises, such as those discussed above. These will be made available in the relevant library section of this website, together with further recommended reading. This work would not be possible without the support and guidance of Italian language tutor and paleographer Matthew Coneys.
Caracciolo, P. (1568) ‘Discorso de ‘freni et de maneggi‘. Bibliotecha National de Espana. (http://bdh.bne.es/bnesearch/detalle/bdh0000070944#)
Corte, C. (1562) Il Cavallarizzo. Pavia. National Central Library of Rome. (https://archive.org/details/bub_gb_TyT-K8-0glYC/mode/2up)
Fiaschi, C. (1556) Trattato De Caval. Bologna. British Library.
Heninger Jr., S.K. (2013) Touches of Sweet Harmony: Pythagorean Cosmology and Renaissance Poetics. Angelico Press, NE Tacoma, WA.
Nevile, J. (2004) The Eloquent Body: Dance and Humanist Culture in Fifteenth-Century Italy. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.
van Orden, K. (2005) ‘From Gens d’Armes to Gentilshommes: Dressage, Civility, and the Ballet à Cheval’. In The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline and Identity in the Early Modern World. Edited by Karen Raber and Treva J. Tucker. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
van Orden, K. (2020) Music, Discipline and Arms in Early Modern France. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Yates, F.A. (1947) The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century. Studies of the Warburg Institute, London. Kraus Reprint, Liechtenstein.