The Neapolitan horse ( coursier napolitain in French, neapolitan courser in English, corcel napolitano in Spanish) was one of the most prestigious classical riding horses in the world.
During the 17th Century, these baroque horses were the height of fashion throughout Europe. Elite families took great pride in breeding horses throughout the renaissance period. The importance of these horses to Neapolitans is portrayed in William Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’. Nerissa speaks of the Neapolitan prince and Portia replies: “Ay, that’s a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse.”
The first equestrian academy in Europe was established in Naples in 1530 by Federico Grisone: a Neapolitan nobleman that studied under Cola Pagano.
Grisone started an equestrian renaissance by combining medieval cavalry techniques with ancient Greek theories. It should be remembered that before the 1500s, there was no formal equitation education in horsemanship. Grisone’s classical riding school and those that followed it became a sign of status among young noblemen.
Grisone also published the first treatise on classical horsemanship ‘Ordini di cavalcare’ (Rules of Riding) in 1550, which was an international bestseller throughout Europe. Between 1550 and 1623 there were twenty printed Italian editions, fifteen French translations, six English, seven German and one Spanish edition sold. Grisone started a revolution in horsemanship that rippled throughout Europe. Naples was soon considered the greatest city in the world to learn the classical art of equitation.
Soon every European court that could afford it was sending their young men to Naples to study under classical masters like Grisone, Pignatelli and Battista.
In 1568, Luigi Contarino wrote that: “… and to learn this beautiful art of riding, men of all conditions come to Naples from all parts of Europe, some to become perfect masters, and many nobles instead, for their solace, delight and pleasure, as the king of Naples did in ancient times when they lived in the city, especially the Aragonese…”
After a stay that usually began as a teenager and lasted one or two years, the young men returned to their courts showing poise in the saddle, good judgement, quick-wittedness, determination and stoicism. All necessary skills for a member of the gentry to succeed in life.
The horses most suitable to perform classical exercises were strong, spirited, well-balanced and with excellent conformation. Grisone used Neopolitan horses in his academy.
Neapolitan horses were especially suitable for performing the haute ecole or airs above the ground, which were courageous movements designed for warfare combined with highly controlled, refined training techniques.
The popularity of the academy education pushed the Neapolitan horse into the spotlight throughout Europe. Highly sought after, Gervaise Markham – who was head of the royal stables of James I of England (Mary Queen of Scot’s son) described the Neapolitan horse in the Cavalarice of the English Horseman as;
“a horse of a strong and comely fashion, loving disposition, and infinite courageousness. His limbs and general features are so strong and well-knit together that he has ever been reputed the only beast for the wars, being naturally free from fear or cowardice. His head is long, lean and very slender; and does from eye to nose, bend like a hawk’s beak. He has a great, full eye, a sharp ear, and a straight leg, which, to an over-curious eye, might appear too slender — which is all the fault curiosity itself and find. They are naturally of a lofty pace, loving to their rider, most strongly in their exercise, and to conclude, as well in all points that no foreign race has ever borne a tithe so much excellence.”
Horse and rider training took place in an indoor manege or riding hall, where the horse was taught everything from the basics to the haute École – movements in which the horse rears up (levade), jumps up and kicks out (capriole), and even jumps on its hind legs (courbette).
In his Foure Chiefest Offices belonging to Horsemanship, Thomas Blundeville compared horses from Turkey, Barbary, and Europe, and concluded that horses from Naples were the best, as “his limmes are so well proportioned in euerie point”. Because of this quality, Blundeville proposed to import this breed to England to rejuvenate local stock.
Handsome, strong and resistant, large numbers of horses were exported from the Neapolitan provinces to the rest of Italy, as well as to Spain, France, Holland, England, Denmark, Germany, Prussia, Poland, Russia and Austria-Hungary.
Many of these majestic horses were immortalized through art. Wonderful paintings, frescoes and sculptures emerged during the Renaissance period; paying homage to the horses used throughout the kingdom; the pride of Naples.
“The Neapolitan horse is small but very compact and strong; his neck is short and bull shaped, and his head rather large; he is, in short, the prototype of the ancient ‘Bassi Rilievi’ and other Roman sculptures found in the country. He can live on the hard fare, and is capable of an immense deal of hard work; he is frequently headstrong and vicious, but these defects are mainly attributable to harsh treatment, as with proper gentle usage, though always spirited he is generally found to be docile and good-natured.”
The unification of Italy under the House of Savoy in 1860 marked the start of a progressive decline for the noble equestrian culture of Naples. The government dispersed the last of the breeding studs established by the Bourbon king Charles III due to perceived ties with the former rulers.
The Savoy house preferred the german military training style to classical riding, and the fashion for imported English thoroughbreds, Prussian Mecklerburgers and Norman horses eclipsed the local breeds, which slowly faded into oblivion due to lack of interest.
Most historians say the Neapolitan horse went extinct by the end of the nineteenth century. In the 1833 publication by M Gales ‘Sketches of Naples and Rome’ the writer speaks of the dispersed Neapolitan horse studs:
“… and many of the great families had numerous and excellent studs and bred horses of great spirit and beauty. Though these establishments of horses of pure blood are now entirely broken up, the common breed of the kingdom is generally far from bad; while many parts of Calabria and some parts of Apulia and Abruzzi still furnish excellent animals. “
What’s Left Of The Neapolitan Studs Today
Descendents of the Neapolitan include the Murgese, the Lipizzaner and Kladruber breeds. All of these were founded with stallions and mares from the Kingdom of Naples.
The Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish School in Austria continue to show the highly controlled stylized jumps and other movements that were first taught in Grisone’s academy.
Of the six classical foundation stallions of the Lipizzaner breed, three were of Neapolitan blood:
- Napolitano: a bay Neapolitan stallion from Polesina, foaled in 1790
- Maestoso: a grey Neapolitan x Spanish Kladruber stallion, foaled in 1773
- Conversano: a black Neapolitan stallion foaled in 1767
- The Tulipan line (one of two stallion lines recognized in Eastern Europe) is also of Neapolitan descent.