Galloping Neapolitan ghosts

The Neapolitan horse was sadly lost during the last century when industrialism, war, and erroneous breeding led to a slow but steady decline in the Italian bloodlines and eventual dispersal of the kingdoms studs.
The high stepping Neapolitan horse was one of the most elegant breeds ever developed in Italy, and in the 17th Century, these baroque horses were the height of fashion throughout Europe.

Frederico Grisone, an Italian nobleman founded the first riding academy in Naples around 1560. His training concepts were based on the writings of Xenophon, a Greek commander whose works were rediscovered in the Renaissance during the 16th century.

It should be remembered that before the 1560’s, there existed no formal equitation education in Haute Ecole and horsemanship. Grisone’s school and those that followed it became a sign of status amongst young nobles.
To perform the movements of the Haute Ecole, or high school, a special type of horse was required. Compact,short in the back, agile and spirited – these horses needed to exhibit a flashy yet natural grace in each of the highly controlled movements.
The popularity of an academy education pushed the Neapolitan horse into the spotlight throughout Europe. Highly sought after, Gervaise Markham, who was head of the royal stables of James I of England (Mary Queen of Scot’s son), described the Neapolitan horse in the Cavalarice of the English Horseman as;

"a horse of a strong and comely fashion, loving disposition, and infinite courageousness. His limbs and general features are so strong and well-knit together that he has ever been reputed the only beast for the wars, being naturally free from fear or cowardice. His head is long, lean and very slender; and does from eye to nose bend like a hawk's beak. He has a great, full eye, a sharp ear, and a straight leg, which, to an over-curious eye might appear too slender -- which is all the fault curiosity itself and find. They are naturally of a lofty pace, loving to their rider, most strong in their exercise, and to conclude, as good in all points that no foreign race has ever borne a tithe so much excellence."

The Lipizzaner breed, a horse closely associated with the Spanish Riding School, was founded on Neapolitan bloodlines.

Today one can watch the well-trained stallions demonstrate the Haute Ecole movements of classical dressage, including the highly controlled, stylized jumps and other movements that are known collectively as the ‘airs above the ground’ – movements that were initially taught in Grisone’s academy on Neapolitan horses.

Of the six classical foundation stallions of the Lipizzaner breed, three were of Neapolitan blood:

  • Napolitano: a bay Neapolitan stallion from Polesina, foaled in 1790
  • Maestoso: a grey Neapolitan x Spanish Kladruber stud stallion, foaled in 1773
  • Conversano: a black Neapolitan stallion, foaled in 1767
  • The Tulipan line (one of two stallion lines recognized in Eastern Europe) is also considered to be of Neapolitan descent.

Seven of the ten biggest cities in Europe during the renaissance were in Italy and the Kingdom of Naples extending all the way down to Sicily.
Wealthy noble families took great pride in breeding horses throughout this renaissance period. The importance of these horses to Neapolitans as a status symbol is represented in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. When Nerissa speaks of the Neapolitan prince, Portia replies

“Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse”.

In the 1833 publication by M Gales 'Sketches of Naples and Rome’ the author speaks of the now dispersed Neapolitan horse studs:

"... and many of the great families had numerous and excellent studs and bred horses of great spirit and beauty. Though these establishments of horses of pure blood are now entirely broken up, the common breed of the kingdom is generally far from bad; while many parts of Calabria and some parts of Apulia and Abruzzi still furnish excellent animals. “
Many of these majestic horses were immortalized through art.

Wonderful paintings, frescoes and sculptures emerged during the Renaissance period; paying homage to the horses used throughout the kingdom; the pride of Naples.
M- Gales describes how Neapolitan horses were still in existence in 1833, and of excellent quality.

“The Neapolitan horse is small but very compact and strong; his neck is short and bull shaped, and his head rather large; he is, in short, the prototype of the ancient ‘Bassi Rilievi’ and other Roman sculptures found in the country. He can live on the hard fare, and is capable of an immense deal of hard work;- he is frequently headstrong and vicious, but these defects are mainly attributable to harsh treatment, as with proper gentle usage, though always spirited he is generally found to be docile and good-natured."

The disappearance of a national treasure

The Neapolitan horse disappeared completely during the 20th century due to the introduction and popularity of lighter boned breeds such as the English thoroughbred. The breed was thought to have died out in Italy by the mid-1950’s.

Two separate back breeding programs of the Napolitano horse exist in Italy today and the breed is now apparently recognized by the Italian government.

Spanish scientists used cloning to successfully recreate an ibex that disappeared in 2000, and in Poland, another group is trying to clone the aurochs using DNA from bone and teeth samples. But for a species to survive once it's brought back to life, it must have enough genetic variability to reproduce.

"A population needs to be adaptive," says Johan van Arendonk, a professor of animal breeding and genetics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, adding “the Dutch project probably needs to produce at least 100 animals to succeed in the long term."

“Back-breeding is possible because much of the genetic material of the extinct wild ancestors and subspecies survived in the domestic progeny or in surviving related subspecies. This can result in animals that resemble the original extinct ancestor or an extinct subspecies. Back-breeding has an advantage over cloning in that it creates a whole population, rather than just an individual animal." (Maas PHJ)

Though still in the early stages, the current back-breeding programs are using selected lines of Murgese, Lipizzaner and other Italian breeds that are descendants of the Neapolitan studs to recreate the Neapolitan horse.

Giuseppe Maresca is a coffee merchant from Naples, and horse breeder who has dedicated his life to chasing the last remaining Neapolitan horse. His horses are recognized as ‘The Cavallo Napolitano’
Searching throughout Europe for any remaining Neapolitan horses during the 70’s and 80’s, Maresca finally found a stallion, already well advanced in age working as a plough horse in war-torn Serbia that he claims is the last Neapolitan horse.
The stallion, known as Il Vecchio was brought back to Italy at great expense (he was blocked at the border for two days) and then put to stud. It took many years to produce a foal, but eventually, a colt was born. Sadly, the (now very valuable) old stallion died in a paddock accident when his groom left the door to his box open, and he escaped.
Luckily old Vecchio left an heir, Neapolitano I, who began Maresca’s back breeding program. His prodigy is called Neapolitano III, and he is now 10 years old. The 'Neapolitan horse' has had its stud book re-opened as the Napolitano horse and Marescas breeding program often presents the horses at regional shows and events.
Recently, Maresca sold a young Neapolitan colt to America. The horse will soon begin training with classical trainer Linda Bertschinger.

The other revival program is with Giuseppe Maria Fraddosio. His horses are known as the Corsiero Napolitano.
Fraddosio has written what is no doubt the best essay about the Neapolitan horse available.
In Fraddosio's program, the lines used in the recreation of the Neapolitan horse are well documented. His program includes mainly Murgese and Lipizzaner horses. The Murgese line is Nerone-Conte di Conversano. A line that extends back to the Conversano stud (that's the same stud as the Conversano stallion of Lipizzaner fame).
The Lipizzaners used in this back-breeding program are those of the lines Maestoso, Conversano, and Neapolitano.
He also accepts into the program other Italian breeds that were based on Neapolitan blood such as the Esperia, Pento and Persano horses.
I recommend looking at Fraddosio's website even if you don't speak Italian. The photos and old pictures of original Neapolitan horses are wonderful, as are the saddles used in Renaissance times.
The revival of extinct species of animals is a controversial topic and one that has made headlines for many of the wrong reasons.

Two of the most famous zoological scientists worked for the Nazi regime during World War II. Lutz and Heinz Hecks were responsible for recreating the extinct Tarpan wild horse; as this animal held a special fascination to Nazi German nationalists.
The last wild Tarpan died after being chased by humans over a cliff in Ukraine in 1876. There is, of course, some doubt whether she was 100% Tarpan too, as most horses by this late stage had mixed with feral domestic horses, including those in Poland now known as Konik horses.
The Hecks in their quest to revive the ancient Tarpan used Konik horses, Gotland horses, Icelandic ponies and the Przewalski horse. They aimed to bring out the primitive genes by back-breeding these horses together to reproduce the Tarpan.
Today these horses are known as Heck horses and have been re-released to many of the wetlands of Europe since their grazing habits have been recognized as essential to keeping these areas habitable to other species.
A similar selective breeding program has been quietly plugging away in South Africa, to recreate the extinct Quagga, using specially marked examples of a subspecies of the plains zebra.
Dog breeds that have been brought back from extinction include the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the Irish Wolfhound.
There is an interesting current revival attempt on the medieval "Alaunt" going on in the USA, and there was also an attempt to recreate the Hawaiian Poi dog in Honolulu, which after 12 years was considered a failure.

The Neapolitan was reinstated as a national breed of Italy in 2004, but really the adventure to return the baroque horse of the kingdom to its former glory is only just getting started…


Bunzel-Drüke 2001; Heck & Heck 1934; Heck s.a.; Slob 1966

Maas, P.H.J. (2011). Recreating extinct animals by selective Breeding. In: TSEW (2013). The Sixth Extinction Website. Downloaded on 21 February 2013.

Stephan Faris (2010) Breeding ancient cattle back from extinction,8599,1961918,

Heck, H. & L. Heck (1934): Die Rückzüchtung des altdeutschen Waldpferdes. - Das Tier und wir 1934 (7): 10 - 14.

M Gales book 'Sketches of Naples and Rome" THE PENNY MAGAZINE OF THE SOCIETY FOR THE DIFFUSION OF USEFUL KNOWLEDGE( 1833) Oxford University Press

Il Corsiero Napolitano by Giuseppe Maria Fraddosio