New Book: Privileged Horses: The Italian Renaissance Court Stable

Privileged Horses: The Italian Renaissance Court Stable

Sarah G Duncan

‘A pioneering study of equine culture from c.1450-1600’ 

Published November 2020 – Stephen Morris Publishing 


Borso d’Este’s retinue, when he travelled to Rome in 1471 for his investiture as Duke of Ferrara comprised 700 lavishly dressed attendants, 700 horses and mules, 320 hounds and a number of falcons and leopards. (It’s said Borso wore cloth of gold and jewels even when hunting, and was more sumptuously equipped than any lord who had ever entered Rome.) 

At the heart of the Italian Renaissance court was the horse, a valued commodity and a privileged animal: ‘second only to man’ for intelligence and God-given magnificence. In war and peace, in tournaments and games and especially in politics and society the finest horses, often in numbers hard to conceive, raced, cantered and pranced across the Renaissance stage. 

Monarchs, princes and magnates forged alliances through the gift of thoroughbreds or succumbed to exotic imported breeds renowned for their exclusivity or prowess in the field. And in an age in which arts and philosophy flourished, the courtly art of maneggio reached new heights of sophistication – borrowing from the scientific study of horsemanship in classical Greece and engaging the great Italian artists and horsemen of the day, from Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of the horse’s anatomy and stabling to Claudio Corte’s treatise on equine care and training.

Focusing on the period 1450-1600, Privileged Horses explores how the finest horses invested Renaissance princes with opportunities for flaunting their wealth – public processions and palii, hunting parties and exclusive entertainments for courtiers and visiting dignitaries and elegant court stabling. A beautiful, home-bred horse or, preferably, a stable-full of such horses was a key to opening diplomatic channels, cultivating friendships and impressing all levels of society: 

Duke Alfonso d’Este sent his groom Girolamo Sestola to England with a superb horse together with gold trappings, three trained falcons and a leopard, hoping Henry VIII could persuade Pope Leo X to restore Modena and Reggio to the Duke.

Perfection was power. Creating and maintaining the perfect horse was breathtakingly expensive. Condottiere, prince or prelate – owners demanded beauty, dedication and immaculate planning in every aspect of the horse’s care and presentation. Renaissance architects such as Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, and leading horsemen such as Pasqual Caracciolo, Carlo Ruini and Claudio Corte (who spent time as riding master in the English court of Elizabeth I), applied themselves to the task, creating not only spectacular buildings but also a body of work in equine care, art, politics and philosophy. 

The elements of perfection were widely debated and could be maddeningly elusive. The horse was an independent spirit who would just as happily throw a prince as a commoner but could also reward the skilled rider and gave 

 honour, not only in combat, in war, assaults, duels and other similar things, but extending to magnificent festivals, public and private games, such as jousts, tournaments, running and breaking the lance and such as… killing bulls, fighting lions, bears and leopards, in hunting and performing maneggio, either with or without fancy dress, in front of lords and crowds of people.

The court horse was housed in magnificence, in ornate and ever more autonomous stables often with complex water and fodder supplies. Fodder required dry storage; fabulous caparisons needed expert maintenance and the horses, wrote Leonardo da Vinci, required ‘a pool so they can splash about after a journey’. Stables were to face south and designed so that no sunlight fell directly onto the horses within. Mangers and hayracks were positioned to make the horse stretch his neck, and space for stalls was carefully calculated and allotted. 

Increasing wealth enabled owners to invest lavishly in their stables. No longer simply part of the villa or castle, the stable became independent of but complementary to other great court buildings, built to resemble a basilica, Greek temple or cloister. Eye-catching exterior decoration and palatial interiors (though sometimes not large enough for the biggest entourage) competed for attention with the villa itself, and greatly enhanced the owner’s status. The portico at a Gonzaga stud farm stable served as a theatrical space in which horses could be displayed ‘one by one’. The Bentivoglio stables in Bologna had a portico matching their seignorial palace on the opposite side of the large piazza – a statement of elegance and intent. 

By drawing on Renaissance treatises, court ordinances and stable records and by collating a range of important stable buildings, the book makes a significant contribution to the cultural history of the Renaissance horse. Sarah Duncan has visited most of the stables featured, travelling from Naples and Rome, through the hills of Tuscany and Umbria to Mantua, Milan and Vigevano. Some are lost to all but a surviving wall; others are splendid still as visitor attractions, museums or offices. By meticulous research the author brings to life the equine culture of the Renaissance, describing the people, court stables and horses at their most extravagant. 

Raphael sketches the ‘ideal’ anatomy; a groom shows a horse that shines like a mirror and dances over the ground; the farrier-surgeon employs exotic herbs, prayer and magic to cure sick and disobedient horses. Court horses commanded a vast knowledgeable, dedicated and well-regulated staff who lived as a quasi-religious community, dedicated and indentured, of grooms, trainers, saddlers, bit-makers, virtuosi in equine health and even astrologers. From the prescriptions of pioneering equine scientists to stable hands stealing food from the horses’ mangers, Privileged Horses opens new windows on Renaissance life. The court stable is a place of authority and subservience, expertise and obedience – a co-existence of enormous wealth, creativity, scientific endeavor and whole lives dedicated to creating the perfect and most privileged of animals.


Privileged Horses: The Italian Renaissance Court Stable contains illustrations by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and other contemporary masters. Pages from treatises, account books, stable records and architectural drawings of the time are reproduced. There are maps, diagrams and photographs. 

There is also:

A summary of the stables, their current status and a description of each, with location maps.

2. A glossary of equestrian terms 

3. Notes on currency, weights and measures

Illustrations attached (please ask for higher resolution copies)

1. Decorative horse tails in Taddeo and Federico Zuccari’s, I fasti farnesiani: The Truce of Nice c.1559. 

2. Giovanni Butteri, The Return from the Palio, 16th century. 

3. Leonardo da Vinci, sketch for an ideal stable, c.1485-1488. 

4. Accounts for the Este Saddle maker, Master Domenicho, Iv, detail. On  8 March 1554, the account records a wooden toy horse for five-year-old ‘Don Aluigi’ – Ercole II d’Este’s youngest son, Luigi

For interviews, review copies, illustrations and more contact:

Stephen Morris  0208 946 8705;  07831 425610;

Sarah Duncan  0207 223 9620;

Privileged Horses: The Italian Renaissance Court Stable

Sarah G Duncan

288 pages softback, superbly illustrated in colour and mono

ISBN 978-1-9160953-6-6    £30.00

Published by animalhistorygroup

The Animal History Group is a research network open to all postgraduates, academics, museum workers and other professionals whose work engages with animals within history. We foster connections between those active in this field within the London area and beyond, with the goal of inspiring, creating and developing new knowledge about the place of animals within history. You can follow us on Twitter at @AnimalHistories or email us at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: