First Great Equestrian Statues

Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza Capitolina, Rome (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license photo by Rosemania)

The only original Roman bronze equestrian monument that has survived. Few must have been this good.

Marcus Aurelius rides with his feet hanging free because stirrups hadn’t yet been invented.
He looks large in relation to his horse. Perhaps horses were smaller in those days—they often look so in ancient Greek and Roman paintings and sculpture.
No one knows anymore what his gesture meant.

Some experts have speculated that under the horse’s lifted front leg there was a defeated enemy. But that would contradict Marcus Aurelius’ reputation as a philosopher and a man of peace. Also, he is not dressed as a soldier.  In any case, it is possible that there was a figure of some kind under that hoof. For casting requirements the legs of a statue were usually joined to the base; if one was raised, artists made a little figure or ornament out of the support piece for it.

Renaissance artists considered this statue and the lively REGISOLE in Pavia, also of Roman origin, models of excellence.

Regisole (a modern recreation) Piazza del Duomo, Pavia (public domain photo by Superzen)

When Leonardo da Vinci was working on his giant clay horse for the Duke of Milan, he went to Pavia to see this figure and jotted these observations in his notebook:

[Its] movement more than anything else is deserving of praise.
The trot has always been the quality of a free horse.
Where natural vivacity is lacking it is necessary to make accidental liveliness.
The imitation of antique works is better than that of modern. [He seems to have meant that the old Romans imitated Greek work better than his Renaissance contemporaries imitated Roman and Greek work.]

The original Roman figure was destroyed in the nineteenth century. Old engravings show the figure of a dog supporting the horse’s lifted leg.

Engraving of the Regisole by C, Ferreri, 1832 (public domain photo)


This was the first bronze equestrian monument in a thousand years.

Condottiere Gattamelatta (Erasmo da Narni) by Donatello, 1453 (public domain photo by Lamré at the Swedish Wikipedia project)  Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy

The Florentine sculptor Donatello got the commission from the city of Padua in 1445.  They wanted a monument to honor their Condottiere Gattamelata.

Erasmo da Narni (called “Honeycat”) was one of the despots of the time, someone who took power by force, and he seems to  ride as though in a slow, almost intimidating, victory procession. His horse is strong and heavy.    Donatello is more interested in the general shapes of the horse than in its movement, and in showing cold power than liveliness or individual personality. The horse is an obedient servant, like the state itself.

The Condottiere rides stiffly, looking straight ahead. He wields symbols of power: the baton in his hand, the giant sword at his side.

A ball supports the lifted leg—a pleasing device that was imitated many times in later statues of horses. It is an ingenious invention: better than a pointless figure or a box which might seem an obstacle, the ball adds to forward motion. Did its explanation as a globe, the one Gattamelatta rules, come as an afterthought?

COLLEONI by Verrocchio

Verrocchio was Donatello’s student. He got an order from the city of Venice to make a  monument to their Condottiere Colleoni.

Condottiere Colleoni by Andrea Verrocchio (cast in 1493) Campo di San Zanipolo, Venice (public domain photo)

Verrocchio gave more life to his statue.  Colleoni leans back haughtily and throws a mean look to the left as he rides. He doesn’t just sit on the horse, he controls it. The wrinkles in the horse’s skin, mere designs in Donatello’s horse, here show twisting and the contraction of muscles. Everywhere there is articulation.   It is the first Renaissance horse with a leg off the ground: no vanquished foe, no doggie to hold it in the air.

Such a huge bronze cast was a real achievement in those days before there was much experience.  The sculptor had to invent not only his clay figure but also a way to cast it.  This meant he had to design it with the casting in mind. Many postures that look good in a drawing are unrealizable in bronze. A sculptor, like an architect, must always deal with the limitations of his material—he can’t simply dream in stone or bronze.  So a great bronze figure was also an ingenious piece of engineering.  Verrocchio died before this one was cast. It was a man named Alessandro Leopardi who brought it off in 1493.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Failure

Leonardo began to make a colossal monument for the Duke of Milan.  He made sketch after sketch of a horse and rider and let his imagination fly. He counted on his powers of invention to solve any problems that might come up at bronze-casting time.  Liveliness was what he liked.  In some of his drawings, like this one for a later monument, the horse stood right up on its hind legs—the front legs were supported by a cowering enemy.

Study for the Trifulzio monument Royal Library, Windsor

But finally he decided that so much liveliness couldn’t be—or was inappropriate for such a monument. And he brought his horse down, though he did still lift a leg or two.

Study of a horse by Leonardo, c. 1490 Royal Library, Windsor (public domain photo)

After a long, long time he finished the clay horse—only the horse, which was 23 feet tall—and started figuring out how he was going to cast it. He sketched and sketched and invented armatures and frames and fire pits and channels for the bronze to flow through.  And when he was finished he sketched some more. But he couldn’t figure out how to do it. He spent, according to one report, sixteen years horsing around.  Schadenfreude got the better of Michelangelo, who seems to have ridiculed him for being stuck like that.   The great inventor and Merlin Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t able to cast his own statue!

The clay horse stood around until some French soldiers destroyed it. Now no one knows exactly what it looked like and it is a shame that someone’s homage to him, though well-shaped and just as large, should be considered Leonardo’s Horse.

Only Leonardo could show us a horse by Leonardo.

Tacca Did the Trick

The two Renaissance statues by Donatello and Verrocchio were the models for a hundred and fifty years. What could be better?  They seemed to have done everything that could be done in bronze.  Then, in 1660, Pietro Tacca surprised everyone with this spectacular figure of the Spanish King Philip IV.

Philip IV of Spain by Pietro Tacca (1634 -1640) Palacio Real, Madrid, Spain (public domain photo by Luis García (Zaqarbal)

Tacca found a way to make the king’s bronze horse stand up on its hind legs.  There is nothing at all holding up the front part of the figure.  Tacca got his idea from this painting by Velasquez, where the horse and rider seem to almost float.

King Philip IV of Spain by Diego Velasquez, c. 1634-1635 Prado Museum, Madrid (photo ceded to the public domain by The Yorck Project)

But how do you make a heavy chunk of bronze do the same?  What keeps it from falling?
Tacca, like Leonardo with his horse, thought and thought about it. He finally asked his friend, the great Galileo, for advice.  “Easy,” said the genius. “Make the front part hollow and the back solid bronze.”  In fact, as the British sculptor Robert Mileham wrote, statues are everywhere more or less hollow. But Tacca must have profitted from Galileo’s advice.  The horse’s tail, which drops to the ground, serves as a counterweight.   In any case, the statue surprises and delights, even if you think you know how it was brought off.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Balbo


This entry was posted in art, art history, bronze casting, Diego Velazquez, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Renaissance, sculpture, Spain, Velazquez, Verrocchio and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to First Great Equestrian Statues

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Well worth the time it takes to read this Swallows. I know that you’ve written about some of these before. The Verocchio I think? But it’s really enjoyable to read through this entire post looking at all the styles over time.

    If I were walking rather than driving as I pass a number of horse sculptures in Philadelphia I’m sure I’d stop and spend a bit more time looking at them. In my car though I think stopping would soon land me in the hospital if not the police station……………… But the next time I pass a horse sculpture I’m sure I’ll look a lot more closely.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken: There’s a nice one I used to have plenty of time to contemplate because my car was often held up next to it in a morning traffic jam. They took down the last one of General Franco here in town not long ago. I guess his was about the last one of that kind. Reagan was a rider..maybe somewhere he’s on a bronze horse, though not as president but as a cowboy.

  2. Your comment about Marcus Aurelius and his lack of a stirrup led me to look up the history of stirrups. I came across some very interesting information indicating that the stirrup was the great weapon enabling the Muslim conquest. I also read some very interesting information about Charles Martel and his battle tactics of how he turned back the Muslim conquest of Europe. What I read said that if he had not succeeded, that all of Europe would be Muslim today.

    • 100swallows says:

      Lynne: It’s odd to picture all those Roman cavalry riding like Indians (except they did have a saddle). The Emperor, sitting so flatly and with his legs spread, looks like he’s coming on a donkey. Did you ever try to ride without a stirrup? Churchill says when he was training as a cavalry officer he had to ride without a stirrup or bridle (I think) and with his hands behind his back. At a gallop! Describing his cavalry charge at Omdurman, he says when you are in the saddle you are the king of the battlefield–no one dares to come near. But as soon as your horse is wounded or your saddle is loose or one of your bridle straps is cut you become everyone’s target (like life, he says).

  3. Ken Januski says:

    I’ve never read anything about Churchill but more and more recently I come across references that make me think I ought to. Now I have one more reason. But not enough time in the day………..

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: My Early Life, written when he was 56 or so. Great reading, find the time. His First World War book-– World Crisis--is even more instructive.

  4. Chris says:

    These are all rather grand and a very interesting post,nice to see;-)

  5. judithweingarten says:

    Not that it’s directly relevant to your post but stirrups are almost certainly an invention of steppe nomads, perhaps Mongols. They seem to have reached Europe ca. 600 CE brought by the (pre-Muslim) Turks.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Judith. Funny that it took so long for someone to invent the stirrup. Was war (combat) the mother of its invention, do you think?

      • judithweingarten says:

        It seems self-evident but wasn’t as long as mounted warriors used straight double-edged swords. Stirrups seem to have come about together with the development of one handed, curved blades (the ancestor of the scimitar) that originated in Central Asia and were widely used by the Turkic peoples of the region and by the Mongols. I discussed the change in swords at Zenobia’s Terrible Curved Sword but admittedly didn’t connect it with the invention of stirrups.

        • 100swallows says:

          Thanks again, Judith. The crusaders saw the advantages of the stirrup but not of the curved sword. Maybe it wasn’t effective against heavy armor. When that disappeared Western cavalry finally adopted it. Is this right? How did you become a sword specialist? Duels?

          • judithweingarten says:

            As I remember, it was the long bow that finished off the heavy-armoured warrior. In Europe, the sabre design was adopted first by cavalrymen in eastern Europe, then slowly moved west.
            All archaeologists need to know something about weapons: war is, alas, always part of the human story. But sabres and scimitars are a bit out of my time frame :-)

  6. Maille says:

    What a wonderful blog! I’m really glad that I could find it, totally by a chance. Recently I was also passing through the equestrian statues, specially in renaissance period. But I have never seen ‘Philip IV of Spain’ by Pietro Tacca. It’s absolutelly the most beautiful equestrian statue, ever!
    Thanks for a good repetition! :)
    I’ll visting your page with a pleasure (of course if u don’t have anything against)



    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks a lot; Maille! Visit my blog all you want, you’re welcome. Maybe some day you can come to Madrid and see both the Tacca statue and the great Velazquez painting in the Prado Museum.

  7. Pingback: Two Famous Equestrian Statues | The Best Artists

  8. Allison Davis says:

    Hi there, I am working with my niece in Fairbanks Alaska who is comparing the Marcus Aurelius to the Colleoni…I love your blog but she needs to cite to a source. Because you remain somewhat obscure, do you have a source or two (besides Wiki) she could site to? Thanks for your help.

    • 100swallows says:

      Allison Davis: Giorgio Vasari is the sole source for most of the good stories and many of the facts about the great artists. Tell your niece to include in her bibliography his biographies (in Lives of the Great Artists)of Donatello, Verrocchio, Leonardo and Michelangelo. There is a quote in the post from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and I think something about Colleoni from Jacob Burchhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Off-hand I don’t remember where the Galileo story in the Tacca comes from; I will try to find it. Some of the observations come from my own experience with bronze casting (not that I’ve ever made a big equestrian figure!).

  9. will says:

    The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius is a good subject to get into some aspects of Roman Art. From an anatomical point of view, it is far from being faultless: the head’s horse is too small, his neck is much too short and too bulky. The rider is too large, and his legs in particular are too long ( this is all the more noticeable that Romans rode different sorts of horse breeds and not necessarily small ones as Greeks did). We could go on like this. Let’s just mention the left front leg which sticks out from the bulk of the front like a toothpick out of a sausage! (the elbow is simply ignored..)
    But there are positive aspects indeed:

    First, movement. The horse is trotting at what horsemen call ‘trot passager’, which is an energetic gait where legs are lifted higher than in trot, and which requires a strong impulsion from the horse. It is an elegant and majestuous gait.. I would not think that the question of whether a lying enemy could have been intended beneath his front left leg is quite relevant since the horse is not at standstill, but moving with good stride.
    The head of the horse expresses his fiery temper well.

    Second, the Emperor’s seat. He rides without stirrups (which were indeed invented earlier in Mongol borders of China, but not imported to Europe yet). But Churchill was absolutely right when writing that riding without stirrups is a key feature of learning how to ride. The whole point of elementary riding training is to acquire a good ‘seat’, i.e. to be in harmony with the horse movements, to move with him rather than to be stuck onto him. For getting to this objective, the rider needs to acquire a relaxed body, with legs hanging low under their own weight. Should you skip this long, tedious and at times painful training, you end up with riders blocked on their stirrups, contracted in their back and unable to ‘be with his horse in harmony’. The Emperor has indeed a good seat here, and the sculptor has succeeded a handsome contrast between the energy of the horse and the tranquil, relaxed attitude of the rider.
    Marcus Aurelius’ hands are also worth a comment. The left one is very likely holding the reins, and the half open fingers show a remarkable delicacy in the contact with the horse mouth, thus softening the effect of the Roman curb which was brutally severe. The right hand, I would think, is making a gesture of apeasement and protection over the Empire.
    On the whole, attitude and movement, in my view, are the components of the beauty of this statue. It translates the majesty of the Emperor superbly, and his control upon his mount evokes his power and control upon the Roman world with efficient truth.
    Of course, we are far away from the astonishing perfection of the Parthenon Frieze and the Head of the Silene Horse (but how to do better than Phidias and the Greeks!!!)
    But in this masterpiece, we feel the Roman formidable power, and the calm and noble character of Marcus Aurelius. It is a work of art that has left a long lasting mark in the European culture. For example, several equestrian statues of the Sun King were inspired fom this one. Louis XIV wanted to be represented riding ‘à la romaine’, without stirrups, in reference to Marcus Aurelius’ unrivalled prestige.

    • 100swallows says:

      Will: I cannot do you justice, Will, by answering in kind. This is a wonderful comment (essay), full of a knowledge that far surpasses my own. I can only read and learn. I wish it were true that this is a good forum. As you see, few feel knowledgeable enough to answer you. You have done for me what I mean to do for my readers: to make them look more closely at a particular work of art. And inform or teach them. I have read my Churchill (is that from My Early Life?) and seen pictures of the Sun King’s horses. But I am sorry to say I am not a rider, nor have I spent time observing or drawing horses except while watching them on parade or in paintings. But I can see that what you write is competent and your remarks are right on. Saludos and apologies for my silence these days.

  10. will says:

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Swallows.
    To conclude my little post above on the more general point of view of Roman Art compared to Greek Art, there is a enlightening verse of Virgil:
    “Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
    Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento.”
    “Others will know better than you how to give bronze all the graces of life
    As for you, Roman, remember that your lot is to reign over the peoples”

    It fits particularly well to Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, does not it?

  11. Sam Hart says:

    Hi enjoyed reading this , I looking at the possibilty of writing a disserataion on equine sculpture for my degree….in all very inspiring many thanks.

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