In 1519, when the Aztec people first saw the mounted riders of Hernan Cortez's small army, they believed the horse and rider to be one single strange double-headed creature. The unique bond that exists between a horse and its rider had metamorphosed itself in their eyes into a living centaur. This archetypal and somewhat mystic union between man and horse forms the central and most common theme of Marini's sculpture and was used by him to evoke a powerful sense of ancient wisdom permeating the modern age of spiritual uncertainty. Piccolo cavaliere celebrates the mystery of this union by invoking the power of raw primitivism.
Marini once observed that the most powerful source for his horse-and-rider image was that of the crowds of people fleeing Milan on horseback before the advancement of the Allied armies at the end of the Second World War. Evidently, the timeless image of the horse and rider impressed itself on Marini as a dramatic and poignant contrast to the collective anonymity and impersonality of a modern mechanized army on the march. In addition, the fact that in their panic and despair, people resorted to this more ancient but more personal, practical and animistic form of transport would also have impressed an artist who considered Etruscan and Egyptian art superior to the more derivative arts of Ancient Rome, the Renaissance and even classical Greece.
Piccolo cavaliere is one of the equine sculptures that Marini executed in the 1940s which use a reductive simplicity of form to celebrate the ancient and sacred relationship between man and horse in the attempt to convey this mystic union as a single, tangible and very material presence. Owing much to the elegant and simple forms of ancient Etruscan sculpture as well as to the modern Etruscan-influenced sculpture of Arturo Martini, many of these 1940s works, including Piccolo cavaliere, deliberately contrast the earthy materiality of the united man/horse figure with a deep sense of spirituality.
This sacred marriage between man and nature was one that Marini believed was under threat from the modern world. "The whole history of humanity and nature lies in the figure of the horse and rider in every period," Marini wrote. "Since my childhood, I have observed these beings, man and horse, and they were for me a question mark. In the beginning there was a 'harmony' between them, but in the end, in contrast to this unity, the violent world of the machine arrives, a world which captures it in a dramatic, though no less lively and vitalizing way (quoted in Marino Marini, Pistoia, 1979, pp. 29-30.) Recalling the simple archaic beauty of Etruscan art, Piccolo cavaliere uses a simple elegance of form to articulate this theme of Man and Nature and to invoke a sense of the mystery and primal energy of the ancients.