He was called the “ace of aces” and was one of the most famous aviators of World War I: Francesco Baracca (1888-1918), “the Prancing Horse,” author of 34 aerial victories during “the great war,” and one of the most celebrated wartime figures of the era.
As a young cavalry officer in training at the Scuola di Cavalleria (Cavalry School) in Pinerolo township (Piedmont), he befriended Baron Edoardo Pizzini Piomarta Delle Porte (1882-1966), founder of the Barone Pizzini winery.
(Click here for a description of the school by British contemporary of the Baron and Baracca.)
Some time after Baracca became fascinated with aviation and abandoned horsemanship to become one of the most decorated “fly aces” of early aerial combat, he wrote to his friend Edoardo, inquiring about a favorite horse at the school.
In response, the young Baron sent him a sketch of the “prancing horse”: the cavallino rampante or horse rampant, a symbol of courage and ferocity borrowed from European heraldry, a rich tradition with which the Baron was surely intimately familiar.
“Your horse is fine,” wrote the Baron in the note that accompanied the sketch, “but whenever someone tries to mount him, this is what he does.”
Baracca was so attached to the horse that he decided to have the drawing reproduced on the side of his aircraft (a Nieuport 11, nicknamed Bébé in aviator parlance).
And thus was born the legend of the prancing horse, one of the most enduring icons of the era between the two world wars. It’s important to keep in mind that the flying aces were towering celebrities at the time and Baracca was a beloved war hero who played a starring role in Italy’s victory over Austro-Hungarian forces.
In 1923, just five years after Baracca had died in combat (taking his own life after being shot down by ground fire while providing cover for an inexperienced pilot), a fateful encounter would occur: young Enzo Ferrari (1898-1988), founder of the storied line of Italian automobiles, met Baracca’s mother, the Countess Paolina de Biancoli at the Gran Prix in Savio (Ravenna province), where Ferrari was the first driver to cross the finish line in his Alfa Romeo.
The Countess suggested that Ferrari use the cavallino rampante as his mascot. “It will bring you luck,” she told him.
Today, the cavallino rampante is one of the most enduring and recognizable icons in the world. In 1945, Ferrari had the cavallino redrawn by Milanese engraver Eligio Gerosa (1889-1978). Note how the tale turns upward in the Ferrari logo (below) while it’s turned downward in Baracca’s reproduction of the original sketch.