A North Italian etched and gilt three-quarter cuirassier armour, probably Milan, Circa 1600-10
Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia (1795-1861);
Schloss Monbijou, Berlin
Schloss Monbijou was built in 1703 by Count Johann Kasimir von Wartenberg and presented to the Prussian Queen Consort Sophie Dorothea in 1710 by her father-in-law King Friedrich I in 1710. It was enlarged in 1726 and in 1738 and was renowned for its porcelain collection by the middle of the 18th century. It ceased to be used as a Royal residence by the early 19th century and became the Hohenzollern Museum in 1877. At this time most, but not all of the armoury, was transferred to the Zeughaus in Berlin where much of it still remains.
Burg Hohenzollern, Baden Württemberg
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The cuirassier was the descendant of the medieval mounted knight and ancestor of the heavy cavalryman. The term was adopted in the first quarter of the 17th century, at a time when the heavy lance was beginning to fall out of use on the battlefields of Northern Europe. Captain Cruso stated in his Militarie Instructions for the Cavallrie in 1632 that the cuirassier "is to be armed at all points [...] his horse not inferior in stature and strength, though not so swift. He must have two cases with good firelock pistols hanging at his saddle [...] and a good sword stiffe and sharp pointed like the Lancier". The cuirassier played a prominent role in the Thirty Years War and even took part in some of the early engagements of the English Civil War.7 The increased efficacy of firearms is reflected by a correspondingly greater weight in armour. The present armour has been tested for its quality against both musket and pistol bullets as shown on the breast and backplates. The practice of proving armour against weapons appears to have already existed in antiquity and is recorded by Plutarch. The earliest references to proving armour in the Middle Ages dates from the 14th century, with the rise in popularity of plate armour. In 1401, Francesco Gonzaga gave instructions to the Venetian armourer Zoana that he should "make proof of the said armour with a good crossbow". This practice was commonplace by the middle of the 15th century and crossbows were replaced by firearms in the 16th century. By the early 17th century armour that was not proofed would have been of very limited use if any at all.8
The most important centres of armour manufacture in Renaissance Europe were based in northern Italy and southern Germany, with a number of workshops exporting throughout Europe. Milan was perhaps the most dynamic centre from the 15th century, and home to the renowned dynasties of armourers the Missaglias and the Negroli. The latter produced the most sumptuous armour for the Holy Roman Emperors, the Dukes of Urbino, as well as the French and Spanish Royal courts.9 Milan was also famous for its distinctive etched and gilt ornament that is proudly displayed on the armours of numerous royal and aristocratic sitters in portraits of the 16th and 17th centuries. The earliest known example of true etching on a piece of armour occurs on a late Italian breastplate which has been (probably erroneously) ascribed to the ownership of Bartolommeo Colleoni (1399-1475). It is interesting to note that a number of German artists who are now more famous for their engraved prints and etchings actually decorated armour themselves. Such masters include Daniel Hopfer of Augsburg, who decorated an armour dated 1536 for the Emperor Charles V,10 and Ambrosius Gemlich. Italian etched armour is well known for its profuse decoration and similar decorative motifs and schemes were often produced by different workshops. Caution must be therefore exercised when ascribing pieces with similar ornament to a specific workshop of ownership in contrast to German work.11
It is likely that this armour was commissioned by an Italian nobleman, but that it was either presented by him to its purported noble German owner, or subsequently acquired by the heirs of the latter in the 18th or 19th centuries to augment their family armoury. A number of important Italian pieces were available during this time, including further related examples from the Capodilista Armoury, Naples.12 Many significant acquisitions were made by the great European ancestral armouries in the 18th and 19th centuries following the Gothic revival and the rebirth of armour collecting.
The great majority of decorated homogeneous armours surviving today have found permanent homes in the major ancestral and Institutional collections of Europe and the United States. No related examples with such distinguished provenances have been offered at auction in the last forty years.
Stand not included.
Sotheby’s gratefully acknowledges Thomas Del Mar for the preparation of this catalogue entry.
1 Vzácnĕ Zbranĕ a Zbroj, ze Sbírek Vojenského Muzea v Praze, Prague 1986, p. 24, no. 5.
2 G. F. Laking, A Catalogue of the Armour and Arms in the Armoury of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem now in Valetta, Malta, London, 1903, pp. 38-41, nos. 416-419
3 S. Spiteri, Armoury of the Knights: A Study of the Palace Armoury, its collection, and the Military Storehouses of the Hospitaller Knights of the Order of St John, Valletta, 2003, pp. 279-280.
4 L. G. Boccia & E. T. Coelho, L’Arte dell’Armatura in Italia, Milan, 1967, p. 481, nos. 426-427.
5 C. R. Beard, The Barberini and some Allied Armours, London, 1924.
6 A. V. B. Norman, Wallace Collection Supplement, London 1986, pp. 36-7, no. A63.
7 C. Blair, European Armour, London, 1958, pp. 143-146.
8 I. Eaves, Two Early Examples of Armour of Proof in the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’ in the Armourers Art, Essays in Honor of Stuart Pyhrr, New York, 2014, pp. 33-42.
9 D. Breiding 2002, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/make/hd_make.htm
10 C. Blair, European Armour, London, 1958, pp. 173-175
11 Personal communication with Ian Eaves, May 2017
12 C. Blair, "A Cuirassier Armour in the Scott Collection and other pieces from the Capodolista Armoury", in Scottish Art Review, Special Number based on the R. L. Scott Collection, vol. Xii, no. 2, 1969, pp. 22-33.