Trends over the ages

1.4 Trends over the ages

Over the centuries, there have been a number of trends in art. Equestrian statues reflect these changing styles. 

1.4.1 Roman times and earlier

The first equestrian statues that fall within my definition were erected in Rome. Unfortunately, the statue of Marcus Aurelius is the only one of these to have survived. There must originally have been at least twenty equestrian statues of emperors and military leaders in that city in the first centuries of our era. Before that time, there were sculptures of the combination of horse and rider, but no equestrian statues as I define them. 

Sculptures of equestrians in Egypt, Assyria and Persia were in high relief, as they were in Greece. The most beautiful examples of the latter are the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum in London. They originate from the Parthenon frieze on the Acropolis in Athens, and date from around 450–400 BC.

Also from Greece is the Jockey of Artemision, a copper sculpture of a young man riding a horse with the reins in his left hand and a whip in his right. This sculpture, dating from around 200 BC, was found in pieces in an ancient shipwreck.

In the British Museum in London, there is a beautiful marble sculpture of an unknown youth on horseback. The young man is naked apart from his military cloak. The sculpture most probably dates from the first century AD and represents a Julio-Claudian prince. It was found in or near Rome in the sixteenth century and then restored by the Italian architect and sculptor, Giacomo della Porta.

The first equestrian statues as defined in Section 1.3 were erected in ancient Rome because the rulers in those times wanted to be immortalized by portraying themselves as equestrians. This was made possible by the availability at that time of the immense artistic and technical craftsmanship needed to make life-size, bronze statues. From the mere fact that it would take more than 1000 years before people were again able to make statues comparable with those of ancient Rome, one may surmise the immense amount of skill required.

All the equestrian statues of the Roman period, with the exception of the one depicting Marcus Aurelius, were destroyed. They were melted down because the bronze was needed for other statues or coins, and most probably in many cases as a result of what is termed the Damnatio Memoriae, a senate’s decision to erase all memories of a former ruler. The survival of the Marcus Aurelius statue is due to the misinterpretation of the identity of the rider, who was at the time thought to be the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great. The splendid Marcus Aurelius statue would set the example for many other equestrian statues in later years. For more about this statue, see Section 2.1.1.

Less well known is another equestrian monument from Late Antiquity: the Regisole (Sun King). It was originally erected in Ravenna, most probably in the fifth century AD. The statue was moved to Pavia in the Middle Ages and was destroyed in 1796 after the French Revolution. A copy by Francesco Messina, based on ancient reproductions, was inaugurated in Pavia in 1937 (see Section 2.1.2). An interesting detail of the original Regisole statue as shown in old images was a dog, standing on its hind legs and supporting the raised front leg of the horse. This statue also had its influence during the Italian Renaissance.

It would last until the Renaissance, until around 1450 to be precise, before an equestrian statue comparable with those of ancient Rome would be erected.

1.4.2 Gothic art

In the Middle Ages, the centuries between Late Antiquity and the Renaissance, the Gothic style was predominant. This style was characterized in sculpture by a tendency towards realism and attention to detail. A number of interesting equestrian sculptures were crafted in that period. The most important of these Gothic sculptures are:

In Milan: Oldrado de Tresseno (the mayor of the city), by the first Gothic artist in Italy, Benedetto Antelami. It is sited in a niche on the façade of the Palazzo di Giustizia, the ancient court building whose construction Oldrado completed in 1233.

In Germany: the Bamberger Reiter in the Bamberg Cathedral, dating from around 1237 (see Section 2.7.4 about this intriguing sculpture). It is interesting to note that the Bamberger Reiter was one of the most important sources of inspiration for Marino Marini, the famous twentieth-century Italian sculptor of equestrians. 

Also in Germany is the Magdeburger Reiter, dating from 1240 and probably representing Otto the Great (see Section 2.7.4).

Quite a number of equestrian sculptures from the Middle Ages depict St Martin or St George. Most of these works are located in churches.

The equestrian statues on the Scaliger Tombs in Verona date from the fourteenth century. These tombs are outstanding examples of Gothic art (see Section 2.1.3).

1.4.3 The Renaissance

The Renaissance is the period in which art was driven by the new notion of ‘humanism’, a philosophy that had been the foundation for many of the achievements of pagan ancient Greece. This movement downplayed religious and secular dogma, and instead attached the greatest importance to the dignity and worth of the individual.

The first still existing Renaissance equestrian statue, reintroducing the grandeur of classical equestrian portraiture, is the statue by Donatello in Padua, Italy, of the condottiere known as Gattamelata (1453). The statue reflects the artistic trends of the Renaissance: naturalism and the careful depiction of forms. 

The statue of Gattamelata is a sharp departure from earlier, post-classical statues such as the Gothic Bamberger Reiter, which lacks the dimension, power and naturalism of Gattamelata. 

The two fake doors in the pedestal are noteworthy. They symbolize the gates to the underworld, lending the feeling of a tomb, though the monument was never a burial place. This can probably be seen as a reference to the funerary equestrian monuments for the condottieri in churches, which were common in those times (see Section 2.1.3).

Nicollo Baroncelli and Antonio di Christoforo, both pupils of Brunelleschi, Donatello’s arch competitor and long-time associate, sculpted the equestrian statue of Niccolò III d’Este in Ferrara, northern Italy. Having been erected in 1451, that statue would have been the oldest surviving equestrian statue since antiquity, had it not been destroyed during the Napoleonic invasions in 1796. (see Section 2.1.4). 

In 1496, a magnificent equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni was erected in Venice. Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1486), said to have been an apprentice of Donatello, crafted the statue. However he died before his masterpiece was cast. Alessandro Leopardi completed this equestrian work (see Section 2.1.4).

There are two marvellous equestrian renaissance sculptures in France that are worthy of mention. 

The first is an equestrian sculpture of Louis XII, a flamboyant Gothic terracotta sculpture placed in a niche above the main entrance of the Blois castle. Guido Mazzoni probably sculpted the original in 1502 and Emile Seure restored it in 1857.

The other is a fine equestrian sculpture in sandstone of Duc Antoine on a rearing horse in a niche above the entrance of the Ducal Palace in Nancy. The original statue by Mansuy Gauvain, dating from 1511, was destroyed during the French Revolution in 1792 and replaced in 1851 with a statue by Jihorné Viard.

1.4.4 Mannerism

It was not until 1594, nearly a century after the completion of the Colleoni statue, that the next equestrian statue was modelled: the statue of the Florentine Cosimo I, founder of the Medici dynasty. This was a masterpiece by Giambologna, a pre-eminent representative of the Mannerist trend in art, which was more expressive than its Renaissance predecessor.

The statue of Cosimo I would soon come to be seen as the standard for European royal courts, as a symbol of monarchic authority (see Section 2.1.5). 

Other equestrian statues designed by Giambologna and completed by his pupil Pietro Tacca were those of Ferdinand I (1608) in Florence, Henry IV (1614) in Paris and Philip III (1616) in Madrid. Tacca’s own masterpiece was the first equestrian statue with a rearing horse, of Philip IV (1640) in Madrid (see Section 2.2.3). 

The first equestrian statue erected in England was the one in London of Charles I by Hubert le Sueur (1633), another pupil of Giambologna. This statue would serve as an artistic reference point for equestrian statues in the UK for more than a century (see Section 2.4.2).

It is evident that one can say the influence of Giambologna was enormous. He, or one of his pupils, created all the equestrian statues erected in the first half of the seventeenth century.

1.4.5 Baroque

Baroque sculptures are characterized by dynamic movement and by the energy of human forms.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) was a universal genius; perhaps the greatest sculptor of the seventeenth century, as well as being an outstanding architect. He originated the Baroque style, the last Italian style to become an international standard. Among the many sculptures he created are two equestrian examples: one of Louis XIV and the marble sculpture of Constantine in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The Constantine statue, completed in 1670, is a scenic presentation, like a sudden entrance onto a stage. It realistically depicts the rush into battle and the gratified amazement of the leader, certain of victory. 

For the statue of Louis XIV, Bernini chose to make the features resemble those of Alexander the Great. Bernini’s pupils finished the statue after his death and by the time it reached the French court, tastes had changed. No one liked Bernini’s exuberance and all the Baroque fuss anymore. The statue was first put into storage and then finally given to the French sculptor Girardon to update. He turned Louis into the Roman hero Marcus Curtius, but he was not tremendously successful. The old marble statue now stands in a far corner of the gardens in Versailles (see Section 2.3.1).

Two other Italian Baroque artists who created equestrian works were Francesco Mochi (1580–1654), who modelled the two masterly equestrian statues of Allesandro and Ranuccio Farnese (see Section 2.1.5), and Agostino Coraccini, who sculpted the marble Charlemagne equestrian standing in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, opposite the Bernini sculpture of Constantine. 

An outstanding Baroque sculptor in Germany was Andreas Schlüter, the creator of the first equestrian statue in that country: the statue of Friedrich Wilhelm der Grosse Kurfürst (see Section 2.7.1).

French Baroque sculptors of the period include Francois Girardon, Jean Joseph Vinanche and Jacques Saly. French artists were very much sought after in England, Denmark, Germany and Russia in the eighteenth century. This illustrates that the skills needed to create large bronze statues were still quite rare at the time. 

The first equestrian statue in Portugal, of Joseph I by Joaquim Machado de Castro, is also representative of the Baroque style (see Section 2.2.7).

1.4.6 Neoclassicism 

Neoclassicism, the predominant movement in European art during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, reflected a desire to rekindle the spirit and forms of classical art from ancient Greece and Rome.

The movement proved to be a fertile art trend for equestrian statues inspired by the Marcus Aurelius example, varying from straightforward copies to more Baroque versions. 

It is fair to note that a statue can be a lookalike of the Marcus Aurelius statue in all of its details (for example no stirrups, a saddle cloth, simple tunic, no armour, the rider looking ahead with his right arm slightly raised, the horse with its right leg raised), but nevertheless miss the charisma and magic of the original; a combination of restfulness and authority. 

Some of the neoclassical statues do, however, have the quality of their own charisma.

The equestrian statues by Antonio Canova of Carlo III di Borbone (1819) and Ferdinand I (1829) both in Naples, and of Poniatowski in Warsaw (1829) and Maximilian I in Munich (1839) by Bertel Thorvaldsen, are outstanding examples of Neoclassicism.

Antonio Canova (1757–1822) was an Italian sculptor famous for his marble sculptures. 

Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844) was a Danish sculptor who spent most of his life in Rome. His patrons resided all over Europe. Upon his return to Denmark in 1838, Thorvaldsen was received as a national hero. The Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen houses his works, among which are plaster models of the Poniatowski and Maximilian I statues.

Some of the other equestrian statues that are characteristic of Neoclassicism are the statues of Franz I by Balthasar Moll in Vienna, the first equestrian statue in the Western hemisphere, Charles IV by Manuel Tolsa in Mexico City, and the statue of Carlo Alberto by Abbondio Sangiorgio in Casale Monferrato, Italy. 

In the UK, the statues of William III in London by John Bacon, and of George III in Liverpool and Windsor by Richard Westmacott, can be classified as neoclassical (see Section 2.4.3). Similarly in France, the statues of Louis XIV in Lyon by Francois Frederic Lemot and of Louis XIII in Paris by Charles Dupaty and Jean Pierre Cortot (see Section 2.3.1).

1.4.7 Modern times

With regard to equestrian statues, from the second half of the nineteenth century there were no clear art movements to distinguish between, as there had been in the previous centuries. That does not mean that there are no modern equestrian statues. On the contrary, there are some noteworthy examples of contemporary works. 

To mention a few:

Hernando de Soto by Fortunato da Silba (1984) in Barcarrota (Spain)

Borrell II by Subirachs, a controversial Spanish sculptor and painter, whose best-known work is probably the Passion facade of the Basílica de la Sagrada Família in Barcelona.

Goncalo Mendes de Maia by de Carvalho, in Maia, Portugal, another outstanding example of an original modern equestrian statue (see Section 2.2.7). 

In the next chapter I will pay attention to a number of other important sculptors of equestrians, not mentioned in this chapter.