Horsemanship and the nobleman's education

The central role of the horse in the aristocratic culture of the 17th century is something which we tend to forget. The nobleman lived in symbiosis with the horse - more or less in the same way as certain people today live with and for their cars. The horse cannot be ignored as the aristocrat solemny progress, in ceremonial choreography, at festivals, pageants, hunts, funerals and weddings.

This is brilliantly illustrated by the greatest of the Baroque equestrian ballets, that which took place in Vienna in 1667 to mark the Emperor Leopold I's marriage to Margaret of Spain. Among other things, the 1,300 horsemen formed geometrical figures and flowers, to the ceaseless accompaniment of trumpets, kettle and base drums and a hundred strings. Towards the end a star was formed with the Emperor, on horseback, as its central point, before the horsemen galloped off to the strains of a thundering, warlike ritirata.

A knowledge of the basics of riding was an essential part of the young nobleman's earliest upbringing. This stage was completed before he entered an academy for young noblemen, known as a collegium illustre, where he would study advanced riding skills - piaff and pirouette, the courbette and the capriole.

Riding was one of the "noble exercises" of the nobleman's academies, along with fencing and dancing. There were also other subjects outside the current university curriculum, above all modern languages and frequently fortification. The latter was a form of preparation for military service, but at the same time a natural part of an aristocratic culture which was geometrical through and through. Geometrical patterns of movement were described in courtly dancing, in fencing and in riding. Additional subjects could be taught, especially when the academy was united with university, as for example in the case of Collegium illustre in Tübingen, which had a high international standing during the 1620s and 1650s, when many young Swedish noblemen made it their destination.

The heyday of the European academies for the nobilities was during the second half of the 17th century, but they were deeply rooted in the previous century, when the Italian Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, Il cortegiano (1528), inaugurated a spate of writings on the young nobleman's way to the proper aristocratic way of life. Body and soul must develop parallel. Wisdom and bravery, and civil and military proficiency were key concepts. There were different versions of the complete man of the world in the 17th century - a gentil-homme, an honnête homme, a gentleman - but under him, most of the time, was a horse.

The courtly way of life centering on the horse achieved architectural expression in many places. Stables were built to resemble castles, and they also accomodated museum collections, libraries etc. Physical and intellectual exercises took place under one and the same roof. The erudite Landgrave Wilhelm IV of Hesse had a centre of this kind built in Cassel in 1591-93. That project was completed by his successor, the Landgrave Maurice, who added a court school which in 1618 was upgraded to a noble academy.

A new art of riding, dictated by new ideals both military and courtly, evolved in 16th century Italy, mainly under the aegis of Federico Grisone. From the riding school which he founded in Naples in 1532 there spread throughout Europe a new kind of maneggio, the "airs" of the haute école. Italian riding masters were much in demand, and Grisone's pupil Sigismondo Locatelli (d. 1582), for example, if we are to believe his epitaph in Ferrara, was invited to enter the service of the King of Sweden.

Books about the new horsemanship, written by Grisone himself and by his pupil Cesare Fiaschi, were published and written from the mid-16th century onwards. Without the Italian School, the German Georg Engelhard von Löhneysen could not have published his book on bits, Von Zeumen, in 1588 and his two-volume Della cavalleria in 1609-10. The first of the new books of horsemanship in France, a three-volume folio work by Salomon de La Broue, appeared in 1593-94. Still more influential was de La Broue's rival Antoine de Pluvinel (1522-1620), riding master to three kings of France and the founder of a noble academy whose pupils included Cardinal Richelieu.

Pluvinel amalgamated riding and music to form a grandiose courtly display, the equestrian ballet, and a famous performance of this kind took place in 1612 at Place Royal in Paris. The culmination of the art was to occur at the 1667 imperial wedding celebrations already mentioned. In dressage be introduced work between the pillars and - in relation to the Italian school - methods more gentle to the horse, in the spirit known to us from that classic of riding literature, Xenophon's Of Horses and Riding (about 360 BC). In Pluvinel's dressage, the spurs were less important than gentle movements of the hand and the long whip. His methods were above all disseminated through the posthumously published Maneige royal, Paris 1623-24; subsequent editions entitled Instruction du roy en l'exercice de monter a cheval, with 62 beautiful engravings by Crispin de Passe and an instructive dialogue between teacher and pupil, i.e. Pluvinel and the young Louis XIII.

This book went through many editions and translations. An edition dedicated to Christian IV of Denmark was already published in Braunschweig in 1626, and in 1628 Matthaeus Merian the Elder published the book in Frankfurt am Main. Maneige royal is one of the lovliest books in the literature of horsemanship, though the director of the Antwerp riding school at about the middle of the century, William Cavendish (Duke of Newcastle), rivalled it with beautifully engraved balotades and caprioles (after originals by Abraham van Diepenbeck) in the folio volume La méthode nouvelle et invention extraordinaire de dresser les chevaux (Antwerp, 1658).

Pluvinel's Parisian academy was to have numerous French successors, down to Louis XV's L'Académie des Tuileries, which was directed by Francois Robichon de la Guérinière, author of the standard manual of riding in the 18th century, the École de cavalerie (1733). The French academies were a prime destination for young European aristocrats on the Grand Tour.

The future King of Sweden, the Count Palatine Karl Gustav (later Charles X), put the finishing touches to his aristocratic education in Paris in 1639-40, and Count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, later to become a leading Swedish politician, did the same in Angers in 1642. Already in 1623, Christian IV of Denmark converted the Sorö school into a noble academy, where the pupils included six of his own sons. In Germany such academies flourished following the stagnation of the Thirty Years' War, one of the most important of them being founded in Wolfenbüttel in 1687.

A collegium illustre existed in Stockholm between 1626 and 1629. It was organised by the erudite Johan Skytte, the former tutor of King Gustavus Adolphus. In this first Swedish bid to establish a noble academy, an attempt was made to give the scions of the aristocracy a fairly comprehensive literary education. Queen Christina's academy at Rörstrand, Stockholm, focused more on "noble exercises". For a two-year period at mid-century, young noblemen were taught modern languages, dancing, fencing, fortification and riding. The academy establishment included thirty horses for the young noblemen and twenty-one for their teachers.

Projects for noble academics in both Stockholm and Uppsala were broached during the 1660s by the supremely aristocratic regency of the period. The plans for the capital came to nothing, although the Chancellor of the Realm, Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie, saw the possiblity there of employing personnel and horses from the royal stables for teaching. In Uppsala, though, the Angers alumnus secured the establishment of a kind of collegium illustre incorporated with the university.

For many years during the 18th century, riding instruction was directed by Johan Leven Ekelund, who, tradition has it, would preface his lectures: "When God created man, He also created the horse". Rumour had it that he was the son of Peter the Great. But this aristocratic privilege of education was increasingly called into question, as witness a remark by the Professor of Astronomy, Daniel Melanderhjelm:

Riding at the stables, always going about in this riding habit, whip in hand, was endemic among the nobility.

Gustav III did his best to encourage aristocratic horsemanship, as was only to be expected of a King infatuated with ancestry and tournaments. But, although the title of "akademisk stallmästare" (Academy Riding Master) has survived down to the present day, it was already apparent during the decades following the death of Gustav III that academic riding instruction for the aristocracy had had its day. It belonged to the 17th century, the century of the collegium illustre.