This article is also available in Italian
I report an interesting article on the ancient Sicilian horses, written by Davide Alessandra, graduating in law and student of archival, palaeography and diplomacy at the school of the State Archives of Palermo.
He also refers to documents from the State Archives of Palermo, an immense source of information on Sicily. I had there the opportunity to look at and photograph the “huge book” that Garibaldi gifted to the city of Palermo when he finally “had courage enough” to return to the city after the very bud surprises the Sicilians had after the arrival of the “Italians”. If I remember well was seven, eight years, or more, after the conquest of Palermo during the “Expedition of the “Thousand”. In that large and thick book are collected photographs and personal data of all the “GARIBALDINI” who landed in Marsala in 1860 to conquer South of Italy!
The article below gives some news about the possible use of Sicilian mares for the “construction” of the English thoroughbred (when Spain banned the sale of horses outside the nation). Other figures on the issue could perhaps come from the archives of the Royal Palace of Ficuzza, needed of profound studies.
Certainly, Sicilian horses have always had great relevance. Not for nothing, in the ancient Olympic Games of Athens, the “horses of Syracuse” often won numerous races, as the ancient sources tell us.
Unfortunately, especially in the last 30 years, the best horses born in Sicily have often been sold off outside the island, depleting a genetic heritage of absolute value.
Here is the text of Davide Alessandra’s article:
In the Middle Ages, the structure of the horse, that of the classic steed, had developed to be able to bear the heavy armour used by the knights, which could weigh up to thirty kilos, to which was also added the weight of the rider himself; So you can imagine the extraordinary force that those animals had to be equipped with. However, when the way of waging war changed and the soldiers’ equipment was lightened, a horse race with different characteristics became necessary: light, fast and agile. These characteristics were embodied by the Sicilian horse, the so-called “Ginetto”.
The Sicilian horse, between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, had a considerable increase in breeding and trade, also contaminated by Spanish blood and carrying the characteristics of the Berber breeds (arrived by the thousands during the conquest of Sicily by Muslims). Benedetto Salamone writes that: «The Sicilian horse of ‘500 was a horse enriched with Spanish blood, elegant, tall, very distinguished and between ‘300 and ‘500 becomes the most important horse in Europe. He is a war horse, winner on all fields with remarkable economic results» (B. Salamone, Il cavallo indigeno siciliano. Il gentile siciliano da sella, Lampi di Stampa, 2013, p. 94).
The export of Sicilian horses created a considerable economic incentive for those who dedicated themselves to this trade. The Sicilian attention for the horse has deep roots, albeit with different edges according to the times. In 1268, King Charles of Anjou founded the Equestrian Order of the Crescent Moon, which decayed following the expulsion of Angevin; reformed by the Aragonese and perpetuated by the Habsburgs in 1595, the foundation was reached, by Giovanni Ventimiglia, Marquis of Geraci, of the Academy of the Order of the Star, in the city of Messina. A school of excellence where horse training and the art of war were taught, becoming one of the most renowned in Italy.
In the 1500s, the horse was no longer the exclusive prerogative of the feudal nobility but extended and spread among the wealthiest social classes. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, ships loaded with horses departed from Sicilian ports to the most disparate destinations: England, France and Spain, both towards the courts of the most important Italian states: Rome, Mantua, Florence, Milan and Ferrara.
During that time, we witnessed a significant increase in exports of horses to England, «They were embarked from the ports of the island with the Spanish mark. The English were unaware of this alteration and used them for the production of the Pure Blood, the period in which they were the crossbreeding works» (Ivi, pp. 75-76). It may be that the British were unaware of this operation in Sicily. However, still, from a letter addressed to the Viceroy of Sicily, to the Master “Portulano”, to the Secretaries and Master Procurators of Palermo, Messina and Termini Imerese, found in the State Archives of Palermo, we can say that Henry VIII, king of England, wanted five Sicilian horses to be delivered to him in his stables. The order contained in the letter to a certain “Hermano Inglisi”was: “with the simple presentation of the letter in question was to be allowed to extract from the ports and of this kingdom five horses for England to his king of the kingdom of England, free and exempt of all rights…” (Aspa, Tribunale del Real Patrimonio, Lettere Viceregie, vol. 220, c. 46r, 29 July XIII 1509).
Henry VIII Tudor loved horses, tournaments and rides so much that he participated in them. Many historians speculate that his madness may have been caused by repeated brain trauma due to horse falls. Let us ask a question: is it possible that the blood of the Sicilian race has contributed to forming that of the English Pure Blood? Based on the document, it is a plausible hypothesis since in the early ‘500, as also stated by Salamone, the experiments for the formation of the mythical Pure Blood had begun.
The Sicilian race was to be in vogue also with the ecclesiastics if, in 1514, the cardinal of Aragon was permitted to export eight mares, four horses and two mules to every part he deemed (Aspa, Tribunale del Real Patrimonio, Lettere Viceregie, vol. 235, c. 33v, 18 November III 1514). Luigi d’Aragona was the son of Enrico d’Aragona and Polissena Ventimiglia di Geraci; his father died at the tender age of four years and inherited the title of Marquis of Gerace, a town in the province of today’s Reggio Calabria. In 1492 Luigi married Battistina Cybo, grandson of Pope Innocent VIII (born Giovanni Battista Cybo). Still, the marriage was annulled after the latter’s death and the election of Pope Borgia, Alexander VI. Louis took his vows. In the Consistory of 1494, he was created “Cardinal in pectore”. He was an important personality, in contact with the most influential families of the time, like the Este and the Gonzaga: maybe possible he learned from them the value of Sicilian horses. Hard to believe, he was still, though on his mother’s side, a Ventimiglia of Geraci. In 1424, arrived in Mantua, from the distant Castelbuono, capital of the state of the Ventimiglia of Geraci, about forty Sicilian horses, which the marquis used to create the mythical race that dominated the primary city horse races. The “Raza nostra de casa”( Our home breed is what Francesco Gonzaga liked to call it and was almost certainly made up of Sicilian horses.
The Gonzagas owned a multitude of horses. They bred all the races, but the precious Berber was coveted by all the rulers, so much so that Henry VIII would insistently ask Frederick II, first Duke of Mantua, to send him them. The marquises loved the Berber race so much that he asked the painter Giulio Romano that the walls of the splendid “Palazzo Te” of Mantua «to be painted with their Sicilian horses» (B. Salamone, Il cavallo indigeno siciliano. Il gentile siciliano da sella, Lampi di Stampa, 2013, p. 81).