F. Gagliardi, Caroselli nel cortile di palazzo Barberini in
onore di Cristina di Svezia, 1656, olio su tela - Roma
(Museo Roma)

This event allows us to broadly present the organisation and evolution of the carrousels as they existed in times past, using definitions taken from works by famous equerries.

The traditional carrousel was an open-air spectacle, but could, depending on the season, take place in an indoor riding school. It could be seen as a mixture of ballet and opera, i.e. an equestrian ballet. It was divided into several successive whose scenes built around the subject of confrontations between rivalling groups of riders. The theme could take its inspiration from mythology, a heroic fact from Antiquity or a recent feat of arms.

Besides riders and horses, artists, too, played an important part: actors, singers, poets, jugglers, jesters, etc…Beautiful chariots could be used, such as allegorical or war-inspired chariots and stage machinery which had to be operated by specialised staff.



The riders were divided into two opposite camps, recognisable by some distinguishing mark, such as details in their clothing, a scarf or crest of a different colour, or the colour of the horses (for example, all the brown horses in one camp and all the white horses in the other camp).

The riders would be accompanied by their shield-bearers, orderlies, foot soldiers and slaves. The fight simulations and the battle games between the hostile camps would be led by the camp leader, helped by several aides who were also carrying a commander staff.

In each camp quadrilles, consisting of an even number of riders led by a higher-ranking nobleman or qualified equerry, were formed. A carrousel traditionally consisted of an even number of quadrilles, at least four and no more than twelve. These were alternately performed by the separate camps or by the two camps at the same time.

In between the quadrilles a kind of man-to-man battle between riders of the rivalling camps could take place. There was for example a "courses de têtes" (a joust with a fake head as a target) and the "courses de bagues" (tilt at the ring), which gave the riders the opportunity to show their equestrian skills as well as their ability at handling spears, swords and guns.

The most important scene of the spectacle, which was often considered its apotheosis, was an equestrian ballet called "La Foule" -the crowd- performed, to the strains of music, by the best troop captains of each camp. The horses performing in this part were especially trained to perfectly perform haute école figures.

This is but one, though very important, part of the carrousels of the baroque period. They present the feats of arms typical of a certain theme. The story is being performed by the artists on foot. Outstanding actors and actresses or famous opera singers would play the leading roles, accompanied by orchestras and choirs as well as numerous extras.

The libretti of the prestigious royal carrousels of Versailles and the grandiose imperial carrousels of Vienna were written by the best librettists of their time and entrusted to the best directors; famous composers wrote the orchestral and choral parts, outstanding equerries work together with famous choreographers for the quadrilles, battle games and equestrian ballets, which were meant to be led by the emperors, kings or princes. For an equerry or courtier, it was a great honour to take part in the carrousel.

During the golden age of the carrousel female riders could also participate, provided the theme allowed it. Some quadrilles were entirely performed by amazons. An example could be "The Carrousel of the Ladies", performed in the imperial horse school in Vienna on 2 February 1743 to celebrate the recent victory of the Austrian troops over the French army.


  The Austrian painter Martin von Meytens immortalised this carrousel with his painting "Das Damenkarussel", showing the future empress Maria-Theresia leading a quadrille of eight women. They were all riding astride, even though they were dressed in an elaborate gown, probably made especially for the occasion. All the women are carrying a sword and a couple of saddlebow guns in the holsters of their saddle to perform the "course de têtes". On the background of the painting, we recognise a quadrille of eight chariots and an even number of horses mounted by women. The archduchess Mariana, the younger sister of Maria-Theresia leads this quadrille.

Besides the numerous nobles of the Court, on foot, we recognise guards, footmen and others.

Furthermore there are two figures with bare legs and stripped to the waist. One is carrying a bludgeon, the other one something that looks like a lamb or a kid. A jester is walking next to the chariot and a black man wearing a turban seems to beat the rhythm. Against the wall, fixed on a pillar, there is a fake Turk’s head, the target for the "course de têtes".

Alain Piron Picolet d’Hermillon