University of Cambridge > > Cabinet of Natural History > Embodied knowledge: riding Ottoman horses in Renaissance Italy

Embodied knowledge: riding Ottoman horses in Renaissance Italy

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This seminar starts at 12noon

In the 1490s, the Marquis of Mantua Francesco II Gonzaga successfully imported dozens of horses from Constantinople into Italy. Bolstering his family’s famous breeding enterprise, these purchases involved staggering hardships and testify to the luxury status of Ottoman animals. Over the next decades, a new riding style, manéggio, would be popularized from Naples and disseminated in texts like Federico Grisone’s landmark Gli Ordini di Cavalcare of 1550. While the significance of this burgeoning genre of riding treatises is widely recognized, the place of Ottoman horses and horse ways in these developments has gone underexplored.

Accordingly, I examine the material and discursive engagement of Europeans (primarily Italians) with Ottoman equestrian culture in the sixteenth century. During this period, the characterization of Ottoman horse care and training in European travel narratives and hippological works shifted dramatically. Denunciations of neglect became praises of gentleness and liberty which provided a rhetorical foil for the disciplined control sought in manéggio.

Despite such admiration, the bodily comportment of these mounts often frustrated the expectations of European riders. More than a commercial transaction, then, importing Ottoman animals necessitated acts of translation on the parts of both humans and horses and spurred the growth of cross-cultural riding knowledge. Charting the boundaries of these experiential, embodied, and innovative exchanges, I use alla Turchesca riding in Italy to showcase the active role of Ottoman interlocutors in the production of this knowledge. At the same time, I show how Italy’s writing riders mobilized their command of these skills to claim expertise in the competitive arena of courtly riding schools, thereby consolidating a sense of civilizational difference and, increasingly, of European superiority.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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