Horses were frequently represented in the cultural production of pre-modern Western societies. Paradoxically, because they are so common, the horse is an easy image to dismiss in favor of the exploration of more exotic themes, which explains why the horse often becomes an invisible beast of burden. The telling message of a modern Italian idiom dalle stelle alle stalle, meaning “from the stars to the stalls”, is used to describe a dramatic fall from grace into the muck of a stable. What’s evident at the current Boboli Gardens’ Limonaia exhibition, however, is that horses are more likely to be used as symbols of power, prestige and status.
This show, titled A Cavallo del Tempo, which contains about 100 artifacts including spurs, stirrups, bits, armor and a rare example of an early fifth century BCE Etruscan cart, which was buried with its horses, puts the theme of human control of equines at the forefront. Modern industrial societies are far removed from the heterogeneous web of meanings that horses had in other historical contexts. In the Boboli Gardens, this vast subject matter has been reconstructed as a sampling of 2,000 years in the history of the human-horse relationship. A Herculean task, it is made more manageable with a focus on the Italian peninsula that is divided into five distinct epochs from the Iron Age (the horse was not domesticated until the fourth millennium BCE) through the Middle Ages. The interior space of the wide but shallow, late eighteenth-century lemon house is utilized to create a narrow pathway that funnels visitors forward on a seamless chronological march.
Emerging from the sun-drenched gardens into the darkest of rooms, cast in shadows and filled with vibrant red-lined display cases, proves a dramatic shift. The visitor is treated to the signs and sounds of a video projecting life-sized horses in motion. In our increasingly urban world, horse studies are often marginalized as a romantic view of the rural past, but that is not the case at the Boboli’s presentation in this ode to human use of the horse in a distant past.
Philosophical considerations of the human and animal relationship are not new. Both Plutarch and Plato, to name only two well-known philosophers, argued that animals were rational, and perhaps even virtuous. Until recently, historians paid the equine little mind. Animals were commonly rendered as objects, making the horse unremarkable to scholars. The value of carefully trained and bred horses has been limited too often to the context of war, and while that is surely an element in this particular exploration of the theme, they are not just another commodity. A more complex cultural significance becomes clearer as you stroll through the Limonaia.
This exhibition does not fall into the trap of anthropomorphism, poetic nostalgia or sentimentality. It does not fail to show that the horse was commonly anthropomorphized as a warrior in his own right. While these notorious Renaissance examples are not mentioned in the show, Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano (1438) at the Uffizi and Da Vinci’s lost The Battle of Anghiari (1505) fresco are better-known examples of this trend.
As you proceed on this chronological march it becomes increasingly clear that the horse was (and still is) associated with an elite socio-economic status. The horse is a privileged servant among domestic animals. Whether we see humans and horses riding into war or taking a journey in this life or into eternity, the modern viewer becomes aware of our own class consciousness. These images are an effigy to aristocratic vestiges of power. They are symbolic of an antiquated elite vice.
But vice can be exceedingly entertaining and you cannot help but long for the story to continue. It ends abruptly in the Middle Ages with a comment on the Western use of the stirrup and the divergent foundations of the Arab and Berber breeds. If we were to look further, the Italian Renaissance was marked by new interest in obsessive record keeping of both the lineage and the victories of horses in the palii (races). Xenophon, a student of Socrates who is notably absent in this exhibition, was revisited in the Renaissance as the go-to manual for horse training. This reconsideration of training techniques culminated in Federico Grisone’s 1550 guide Ordini di Cavalcare (Rules of Riding), which served as the foundation of modern dressage. Reaching the highest expression of elite horse training would have been a welcome addition to this presentation.
Even though the show falls short of presenting the complicated acquisition, training and subsequent breeding of the gifted or purchased horses in early modernity, a spotlight is cast on horses as objects used in displays of power by the humans who controlled them.
If nothing else, A Cavallo del Tempo reminds us that if an object in the past is not recognized as a present concern, it runs the risk of being invisible. History looks very different if we at least consider the horse as subject.
A Cavallo del Tempo. L’arte di cavalcare dall’Antichità al Medioevo
Limonaia, Boboli Gardens
Until October 14