Little did I know eight years ago that purchasing two prints at a dressage show in California would lead to the horse adventure of a lifetime. The paintings, by artist Johann Hamilton, were done in the 1600s. They depict two most-elegant horses: one, the color black, performing a courbette and the other a bay performing a levade. Because of their unusual characteristics—a small head on an elegant, long neck with a round body—I thought these horses were perhaps an artistic interpretation. But I was to learn later, after a trip to Italy, that the Neapolitan horse (now known as the Napoletano)—a breed I had never heard of—was indeed real and truly had those characteristics.
The Neapolitan horse, a breed started in the year 1200, had become nearly extinct by the 19th century. Today there are only 30 of them left—one at my farm in Edinburg, Virginia, and the remaining 29 near Naples, Italy. During the Roman Empire the Neapolitan horse was used as a warhorse. Centuries later he became sought after by the aristocracy because his lightness in movements allowed him to be ridden in a more royal manner. He also became very desirable for riding because of his aptitude for high-school movements.
My journey to discover this remarkable horse started last year when I met a woman named Paola Gaspa. She had moved to the United States from Italy and was looking for a classical dressage trainer. We began talking about horses that were well suited for classical work when she described a horse that I had never heard of called a Napoletano. My mind went straight to the horses in my prints. Excited, I retrieved them to show her. Sure enough, she said that these were the Italian breed. Then their fascinating story began to emerge. In fact, she knew the story firsthand. She had met the breeder who had spent nearly a lifetime working to revive the breed, and she had been to his stable in Piano di Sorrento near Naples to see these horses.
The breeder she spoke of was Giuseppe Maresca, a Neapolitan coffee entrepreneur. It all began some 30 years ago, when a 26-year-old Maresca was visiting a coffee grower with his father in Brazil. The Brazilian coffee grower was a collector of rare horses and questioned young Maresca about a rare Italian horse. He thought since he was from Naples that surely he could help him acquire a Napoletano. Though Maresca knew nothing of these horses, his interest was piqued, and the challenge was on.
Maresca began his research in 1970, consulting equestrian archives and retrieving historical documents and images. Unfortunately, he could not find a horse for the Brazilian coffee grower.
Then the quest became his own personal obsession. He consulted books and manuscripts on horsemanship and even viewed and measured horse skeletons at the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. After acquiring in-depth knowledge of this lost breed, Maresca was able to reconstruct the steps of the Napoletano’s existence over three centuries.
“It is a horse breed introduced by the Etruscans, enhanced with crossbreeding with Berber races in Roman times,” Maresca explains. “I found the first herds in Capua and Nola. These horses were known all over the world for their elegance, their proud self-carriage and majestic gaits: They were purchased by the Austrians to create a new line of Lipizzan breeding stallions.”
Fifteen years later, Maresca found a Napoletano. “When in Serbia, I found the first [Napolitano] horse,” he says. “I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was exactly what I had seen in the books.”
However, this was just the beginning of a long journey with many trials and tribulations along the way. It took another 10 years to produce a purebred foal.
Since then, Maresca has received international awards for his work on reviving a nearly lost breed. In 2003 a ministerial decree was issued in recognition of the existence of the Neapolitan breed. There is even a book published telling his story, La fabuleuse aventure du cheval napolitain, written by Maria Franchini, a Neapolitan woman living in France. Recently, Maresca has established the National Academy of Equestrian Art, with the intent to resume the tradition of pure horsemanship, once well established in Naples.
This past May we presented my own Napoletano gelding, Nesso, at my farm in Virginia. Maresca attended to give a presentation about the breed along with his plans to begin a grand tour in and around Naples that would take people to historical sites surrounding the history of the Napoletano horse and classical dressage. The one-and-only Napoletano in the United States today, Nesso is from the fourth generation of Maresca’s breeding program and considered by Maresca to be a good representative of the breed because of his overall body structure and harmony of movement.
And finally, the two horse prints that now hang on my living-room wall can be called by their name, the ancient Italian Napoletanos.