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Metal workers of the Italian Renaissance became master armourers

Posted in Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about armour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Bartolomeo Colleoni, picture, image, illustration

Bartolomeo Colleoni (inset), the famously fierce and unprincipled condottierre, leading his cavalry into battle, by Severino Baraldi

Pope Pius II feared the Turks. Constantinople, Christendom’s last bastion in the east, had fallen to the Sultan and surely Italy would be next. “All Christian men must unite to face the infidel.” This was the message that Pius tried to drum into the nobility of 15th century Italy – but the Pope’s task was hopeless. Now even he had got bogged down in Italy’s petty squabbles.

The year was 1493 and the Papal army under the leadership of a brilliant Condottierre named Federigo of Urbino was drawn up before the fortress of Fano, ready to crush the most famous and cruel Condottierre of them all, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta.

These Condottiere were perhaps the most successful mercenaries of all time. They grew rich defending the merchant cities of Renaissance Italy, the citizens of which refused to do their own fighting. Very few Condottierri actually died in these endless wars. This was not so surprising. Wealthy mercenaries not only wore the finest armour in Europe, but had a sort of code between them. When Condottierri found themselves on opposite sides they carried on their wars like games of chess, with complicated tactics, sieges and counter-sieges, and only occasional set-piece battles.

Sorties like those made by Sigismondo from the Fano fortress against rival Federigo, must have been like a rougher version of the melee in a medieval tournament when two forces met in mock battle. Of course there were casualties in these Italian wars, but nothing like the carnage in the 100 Years’ War between England and France.

When one looks at the sort of armour worn by these 15th century mercenaries it is hard to imagine how they ever got hurt. Nevertheless there had to be joints, even in the best armour so that the wearer might move. It was on these vulnerable joints that the skilled armourers of Milan now concentrated.

Large jointed pauldrons protected the shoulders like overgrown shoulder-blades. The small knee-guards or poleyns of earlier days also grew in size with wings to protect the back of the knee. Similar guards for the elbows were called couters. Gauntlets and shoes of steel were worn while extra pieces called tassets hung from the metal skirt or fauld to cover the vulnerable joint where leg meets hip.

Though various bits of metal were riveted and hinged together in any suit of armour, the actual joints that were done up when a knight donned his armour were fastened with leather straps or metal turnbuckles.

Another interesting if rather claustrophobic idea that came into fashion early in the 15th century was a rigidly fixed helmet called a great bascinet. Here a man could only look to the side by moving his head slightly inside the helmet, or by turning his whole body.

Though they gave wonderful protection, the inconvenience of great bascinets was obvious, so the armet soon appeared. This complicated helmet was made up from various parts, starting with the skull to protect the top and back of the head. Next came two cheek pieces hinged at the side and meeting at the chin, while over this vulnerable joint went a thick bevor or buff.

Italy shared a monopoly in the manufacture of high quality armour with Germany. Naturally there was keen rivalry between them, and between the two different styles that they developed. However, the rivalry was not carried to extremes for it was not unknown for Italian armourers to make suits in the German style if that was what the customer wanted!

German armour of the 15th century is considered by some to be the most beautiful ever made. It was characterized by fluting. These were grooves and lines in the plates that not only looked good, but gave strength and made an opponent’s weapon glance off in a harmless direction.

The various pieces of a German armour were much the same as those of an Italian, only the fluting and a liking for points or scalloped edges were different. One German speciality was, however, the sallet which elsewhere in Europe tended to be a humble infantryman’s protection. When worn above a stout buff (or bevor), which stood like a tall collar around the warrior’s neck, a sallet gave excellent protection while still enabling a man to turn his head freely.

These 15th century knights may have looked cumbersome but they were really very mobile. It is just another bit of Hollywood fantasy to imagine that horsemen had to be lifted into their saddles or that they could not get up once knocked down.

One complete set of German armour for man and horse, now in the Wallace Collection, London, weighs 56 lb for the man’s armour, 14 lb for his mail shirt, and 71 lb for the horse’s armour. This was no problem for a fit man and a strong horse.

Horse armour was itself getting more sophisticated in the face of arrows and guns. Apart from the saddle being covered in steel to protect a rider’s thighs and groin, the horse itself wore a metal chanfron over its head, a crinet down its neck with mail round the front, a large steel crupper over its haunches and flanchards around its chest. Together man and beast must have made a wonderful sight.

Unexpectedly the surcoat came back into fashion at the end of the 15th century. Now called a tabard it was worn solely to display the wearer’s coat of arms, since by this time even horsemen had abandoned painted shields in favour of extra thick pieces of armour over the left shoulder.

Armour had reached a high point in its protectiveness, but despite the best efforts of armourers it could not hope to keep up with the development of guns. These new weapons were causing a revolution in defensive war-gear, yet surprisingly enough they never made armour completely redundant.

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