The Marino Marini Foundation has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Marini’s Cavaliere of 1951 is a sculpture of and for its time, moreover one that had been in the making for nearly three millennia. “I like going to the source of things,” Marini declared. “I am interested in a civilization at its beginning. I have always looked for the part that was the kernel of a civilization, for example, the Etruscans.” Horse breeding and training flourished in ancient Etruria, the neighboring rival state of early Rome. The town of Pistoia in Tuscany, Marini’s birthplace, lay in the heart of this region. “There is the whole story of humanity and nature in the figure of the horseman and his horse” (quoted in S. Hunter and D. Finn, Marino Marini : the Sculpture, New York, 1993, pp. 15 and 22).
The horse and rider became Marini’s chief theme, a singular achievement for which he will forever be best known and admired. This dual subject in its various configurations, ranging from the naturalistic to the abstract, from roundly antique to sharply modern, proved capable of generating a compelling allegorical narrative for the post-war years, a myth come alive that is as timeless in its history as it is a commentary on our own era.
The posture of man and beast in the present Cavaliere signifies the dramatic climax of this story. The shudder felt from a sudden upward thrust of the horse’s neck and head, as if the creature were angrily bellowing when faced with some assailant, has stunned the rider, who loses his balance and is about to tumble backwards, his startled eyes for a split second raised to the heavens above. What has angered or frightened the horse—has it or the rider been wounded? This catastrophic, fateful moment is so convincing that we anticipate in our mind’s eye the rider thrown and fallen to the ground; we witness the cause, the action, and the effect, all three acts of this tragedy in motion, declaimed in a single sculpture.
“I had been fortunate in renting a studio, when I was a beginner, in Monza near Milan, where my neighbors owned a big livery stable,” Marini recalled to Edouard Roditi, who interviewed the artist in the late 1970s. “I made the most of the opportunities offered me and drew and modeled horses almost every day” (quoted in E. Roditi, Dialogues on Art, Santa Barbara, 1980, p. 36). Marini’s first equine subjects, sculpted during the mid-1930s, reflect the balance, steadiness, and stillness of such objects in classical antiquity. “Until the end of the Fascist era and the war, I continued to hark back to the sober realism of the Etruscan funerary figures, of the sculptors of some Roman portraits, especially the earlier ones” (ibid., pp. 36-37).
Marini was also drawn to later equestrian figures such as Campione’s 14th century monument to Bernabò di Visconti in Milan. “Equestrian statues have always served, through the centuries, a kind of epic purpose,” Marini said. “They set out to exalt a triumphant hero, a conqueror like Marcus Aurelius in the monument one still sees in the Capitol in Rome and that served as a model for most of the equestrian statues of the Italian Renaissance” (ibid., p. 35). The ethos of the Fascist era applauded the revival of the myth of the exemplary hero.
“In the past fifty years, the ancient relationship between man and beast of burden has been entirely transformed,” Marini continued. “The horse has been replaced, in its economic and its military functions, by the machine, the tractor, the automobile or the tank. It has become a symbol of sport or luxury, and in the minds of most of our contemporaries, is rapidly becoming a kind of myth... Romantic painters were already addicted to a cult of the horse as an aristocratic beast. They saw in it a symbol of adventure rather than as a means of transport... In Odilon Redon’s visionary renderings of horses and later in those of Picasso and Chirico, we then see the horse become part of the fauna of a world of dreams and myths... My own work has followed a general trend in this evolution, from representing a horse as part of the fauna of the objective world to suggesting it as a visionary monster arisen from a subjective bestiary” (ibid., pp. 35-36).
The catastrophic events of the Second World War, the blunt-force reality of the horror and misery suffered by man and beast alike, destroyed this evocative world of myth and dreams. The retreating German army in Italy ran on requisitioned horse power; the hapless animals suffered horribly from the shells, bombs, and bullets of the advancing Allied liberators, or else starved for lack of sustenance. From a train Marini caught sight of a stricken horse rearing up in terror, as Picasso had painted in Guernica. The cruel slaughter of these innocent and defenseless creatures, once champions of the ancient battlefield, impressed upon Marini’s conception of the horse and rider a new urgency, a desperate awareness of the myth imperiled.
The monumental version of an earlier Cavaliere, created in 1948 (Carandente, no. 313), seemed to represent a welcome end to this calamitous period in Italian history. This variation on the horse and rider theme, by this time for Marini the most engrossing line in his work, “bears traces of the artist’s classicizing mood,” Sam Hunter wrote. “The rider, head thrown back and arms enfolding his torso, appears restful, consumed in a self-absorbed dream state. This jarring configuration hints at the phallic significance of the conjoined horse/rider image, and that underlying meaning becomes more explicit in Marini’s later, more agonized oeuvre” (op. cit., 1993, p. 25).
The horse has been indeed invested with sexual symbolism, and is often plainly depicted as such, since humankind first painted these magnificent creatures on the walls of caves. “From the most ancient times men have associated the horse with the sun and waters,” Patrick Waldberg wrote. “Whenever a horse figures in ritual ceremonies, its function is to assure the fertility of the entire population. It is everywhere a symbol of creation, of inspiration, of movement... The animal’s outstretched head continuing the neck, sometimes level with its back, the whole tracing one stiff line modified by barely a perceptible camber—that was there for anyone to notice and to reproduce... From one subject to another, we see Marini, breaking that horizontal, lift that neck and head—and it becomes suddenly clear; the upstraining head and neck of the horse seem to turn into a phallus, a phallus belonging to the rider, himself wonderstruck by the miracle” (op. cit., 1970, pp. 182-183).
The response to the end of the war Marini that scripted into the 1948 Cavaliere, however, was only a momentary aside, a short-lived respite in the course of events. “Developments in the post-war world soon began to disappoint me,” Marini explained to Roditi, “and I no longer felt any such faith in the future. On the contrary, I then tried to express, in each one of my subsequent equestrian figures, a greater anxiety and a more devastating despair... As soon as it seeks to express anxiety, sculpture also wanders away from the ideals of classicism” (op. cit., 1980, pp. 39 and 40).
“It is a feeling, deep within me,” Marini shared with Roditi, “that must be related to what the Romans felt, in the last days of the Empire, when they saw everything around them, a whole order that had existed for centuries, swept away by the pressure of barbarian invasions. My equestrian figures are symbols of the anguish that I feel when I survey contemporary events. Little by little, my horses become more restless, their riders less and less able to control them. Man and beast are both overcome by a catastrophe similar to those that struck Sodom and Pompeii.
“So I am trying to illustrate the last stages of the disintegration of a myth of the individual victorious hero, the uomo di virtù of the Humanists. I feel that it will soon no longer be possible to glorify an individual as so many poets and artists have done since the Renaissance. Far from being heroic, my works of the past twelve years [since the end of World War II] seek to be tragic... The horseman and horse, in my latest works, have become strange fossils, symbols of a vanished world, or rather a world which, I feel, is destined to vanish forever” (ibid., p. 38).