Dressage Italian Style

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rules-riding-grisone“Italian dressage,” a distinguished clinician recently quipped, “isn’t that an oxymoron — like business ethics? Grisone and Caprilli were geniuses, but there wasn’t much else.” Giovanni Tomassini sets out to correct this widespread perception, with mixed results, in The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art. Inevitably if ironically, though, Tomassini starts with Federico Grisone and ends with Federico Caprilli, a lead I shall follow by speaking first of Elizabeth MacKenzie Tobey’s superlative new edition of Grisone’s Rules of Riding.

The ur-text of manège riding and modern dressage, Grisone’s Gli ordini di cavalcare (The Rules of Riding) was published by G. Suganappo, in Naples, in 1550. Within a decade, Thomas Blundeville brought out a loose English translation, The Arte of Ryding and Breakinge Greate Horses (1560), and many editions in many languages of Grisone’s influential work soon followed. In the excellent and exhaustive introduction to the present edition (the first English translation since Blundeville), Tobey provides a history of the editions and translations of the Ordini, an analysis of Blundeville’s translation as essentially a “reworking” of Grisone’s text, and a discussion of Grisone and the emergence of classical riding in 16th-century Italy. Surveying equestrian texts preceding the Ordini and concluding that most focused on “veterinary medicine and animal husbandry” rather than on “riding and training,” Tobey affirms Grisone’s priority and originality as a thinker and writer on equitation.

The Rules of Riding: An Edited Translation of the First Renaissance Treatise on Classical Horsemanship, by Federico Grisone. Edited English edition, edited by Elizabeth MacKenzie Tobey, and translated by Tobey and Federica Brunori Deigan. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2014. 

The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art: A Survey of the Treatises on Horsemanship from the Renaissance and the Centuries Following. by Giovanni Battista Tomassini. Trans. Tomassini. Xenephon Press, 2014.

italian-traditionThough nearly 500 years of commentary on Grisone’s seminal work leave little to add in a brief review, two points bear repeating. First, commentators often take Grisone to task for advocating harsh, if not brutal or cruel, training methods — his recommendation, to take an egregious example, of dealing with laziness not only by jabbing the horse “continually with the spurs … so that it draws blood near the girth,” but also by repeating the action the following morning when “he will feel the jabs with the spurs more acutely” because the still fresh wounds will be “painful and cold.” Tobey addresses this thorny issue in her introduction with scholarly dispassion, neither condemning nor excusing Grisone’s methods but placing them, instead, in historical context (she also notes, accurately, that Grisone advocates praising and rewarding with equal zeal). Second, commentators generally take Grisone at his word and interpret his repeated references to preparing horses for war as representing his primary objective. As Tobey astutely notes, however, Grisone not only introduces skilled horsemanship as an art in the first sentence of his treatise (and invokes music as its analogy), but he repeatedly links the importance of acquiring skill in that art to social prestige at Court.

Grisone is not an easy read. Modern readers will find many aspects of the Ordini of purely antiquarian interest—such as Grisone’s general anthropomorphism of the horse, or his specific contention that the “four elements or humors” determine the quality and character of a horse, followed by an extended disquisition on how to read coloring and marking as the physical indicators of the humors at work. Modern readers also may find alienating the extreme minuteness of detail, frequency of repetition, and almost constant use of the phrases “as I have told you” or “as I will tell you.” Grisone, however, was not just writing a systematic treatise on riding and training; he was inventing the genre. While he can and does refer to other horsemen as his predecessors, he cannot refer similarly to other treatises on horsemanship. The structure and texture, content and rhetoric, of the genre essentially were his to develop. And develop them he did. For this reason alone, anyone interested in the history of horsemanship must read Grisone, just as anyone interested in the history of poetry must read Milton.

Tobey’s new edition of The Rules of Riding is a thick, sturdy, and handsome hardbound book — comfortable to handle despite its heft, and a steal at the price. Bilingual and highly erudite, it is an exemplary scholarly edition that also welcomes and rewards general readers. The volume presents a transcription of Grisone’s Italian text and Tobey’s and Federica Deigan’s English translation on opposing pages, for example, making it easy for a reader either to compare original and translation or simply to read one or the other. Similarly, in addition to the introduction, its rich apparatus includes profuse footnotes to the text, a 70-page glossary of early equestrian terms, a census of editions of Grisone, and a detailed index; again, the introduction lends itself to either serious perusing or casual browsing, and the generous page layout for the Ordini proper makes it easy for a reader to study, return to study, or simply ignore the footnotes. (Though often abstruse, moreover, the footnotes are rarely pedantic.)

This fine piece of scholarly bookmaking also boasts impeccable bloodlines. The editor and her co-translator are not only horsewomen, but also instructors of Italian language, literature, and culture: personally familiar with the subject matter, then, they are also expert scholars, professional translators, and writers with a good feel for Early Modern prose. (Disclosure: after agreeing to review this volume, I discovered that Drs. Tobey and Deigan are colleagues of mine at University of Maryland, though neither is personally known to me.) The institutions behind the book are equally impressive: the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, supported Tobey’s research in its incomparable equestrian holdings, and the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University underwrote what is surely an expensive publishing venture with a limited market.

giorgioGiovanni Battista Tomassini’s The Italian Tradition of Equestrian Art represents a different kind of scholarly work. It is a monograph rather than an edition, a book about books, or, in the words of its subtitle, “a survey of the treatises on horsemanship from the Renaissance and the centuries following.” The author of one of the volume’s two Forewords accurately describes it as “not about ‘how to ride’ but instead about the history of equestrian art,” and Tomassini widens that scope in his introduction: “Whenever possible I tried to investigate the intersection of equestrian history with cultural and political history.” Put differently, Tomassini explores two subjects in his study — equitation and its history and writing about equitation and its history — in their interactions with each other and with their social, cultural, and political contexts.

Tomassini’s premise is that “the culture of the Italian Renaissance represented a true turning point in the tradition of equestrian knowledge” and that Naples became “the capital of Renaissance equitation.” His argument is that “between the 15th and 17th centuries in Europe occurred the slow metamorphosis of the knight-warrior still of medieval style into the modern horseman-courtier.” Tomassini unfolds this argument through a comprehensive survey of the principal Italian authors and treatises — he counts eight published works in the 16th century and 14 in the 17th — with particular attention paid to Grisone, Cesare Fiaschi, Claudio Corte, and Giovan Battista Pignatelli. Tomassini is very good on Fiaschi’s doctrine of harmony in equitation, Corte’s more literary treatment of the figure of the horseman, and, in a chapter on several writers, on Alessandro Massari Malatesta’s turn-of-the-century overview of 16th-century methods for training the horse for war.

Tomassini presents Grisone as less original, though no less foundational, than does Tobey. The distinction matters: Tomassini asserts that Grisone did not invent equitation (as Tobey too acknowledges), but he also does not credit him with inventing the equestrian treatise. The devaluation lacks persuasiveness—the principal precursors cited, Xenophon’s On Horsemanship and Dom Duarte’s The Royal Book of Horsemanship, Jousting & Knightly Combat, differ as much from the Ordini as they do from one another — but it serves two of Tomassini’s key points. First, Tomassini argues that the epochal shift in the 16th century from manuscript to print culture benefited Grisone immensely. The Ordini in print circulated on a completely different scale than did precursors in manuscript, so, whether original or not, it “took on the value of founding a new tradition of works dedicated to the horse and its riding.” Second, Tomassini argues that Grisone’s current champions focus on his originality, in effect, to deflect attention from his harshness, “minimiz[ing] the brutality of Grisone’s methods” and “emphasizing his role as the beginner of the new literary genre of treatises on horsemanship.”

xenephonLike Tobey, Tomassini is both a rider and a writer who can draw on his avocational experience as well as vocational expertise. Unlike Tobey, he is a journalist rather than a professional scholar. On the plus side, as a result, Tomassini’s scope is wide and his narrative is brisk and well told; on the minus side, his scholarly tact is a bit heavy and his innumerable footnotes are often extraneous and pedantic. Tomassini also shares the fate of the self-translator: his English text is perfectly serviceable, but infelicities in idiom and syntax make it less than pleasurable. The volume itself, like most Xenophon Press offerings, shows well. Its large format and its ample illustrations — well selected and well produced — make for a very attractive book marred only by a somewhat cramped page layout.

Has Tomassini made the case for the importance of Italian dressage? Yes and no. He certainly has demonstrated the critical role that Italian treatises played in the formation of modern horsemanship in the 16th and 17th centuries. He also grants, however, that Italy already had begun to lose its “hegemony” over the equestrian field early in the 17th century — a hegemony that shifted decisively to France in the 18th. Italy enjoyed a second burst of innovation in the late 19th century, due to rapidly evolving developments in fire power that provoked changes in cavalry tactics, and, hence, in training of horse and rider. Emerging from that context, Caprilli would mark the high water point, in Tomassini’s view, of an Italian equitation that today “does not enjoy good health.”

These two books form an invaluable pairing for anyone interested in the Italian contribution to horsemanship. A new edition of Piero Santini’s compilation, The Caprilli Papers (1967)— out of print, scarce, and costly—would round out a fine trilogy.

Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and a John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library & Museum in Middleburg, Virginia, for academic year 2017-18.

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