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Rapiers at the Wallace: a fencing exhibition

Classic Arms & Militaria

Posted on 23 Jul 2012

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Fencing is one of the original nine sporting disciplines of the modern Olympic Games. In the year that the Games come to London, it is fitting that the Wallace Collection has put on an exhibition called The Noble Art of the sword: Fashion and fencing in Renaissance Europe.

The exhibition includes weapons and other works of art from the Wallace Collection, the Victoria & Albert museum, the Royal Armouries and British private collections. They are joined by princely weapons and costume from some of the great continental collections including Dresden and Vienna, on show in Britain for the first time. It is curated by Dr Tobias Capwell, who is not only a leading international expert on arms and armour, but also has the distinction of being the world’s only jousting curator.

The show starts with the rapier’s immediate ancestors, a medieval arming sword and a small circular buckler with a facetted centre. Sword-and-Buckler fighting was very popular in England during the 15th and 16th centuries.

It was regarded as a manly sport which not only gave healthy exercise but was also useful training for the military service that all men owed their lords. It is also the earliest documented form of what we call fencing today i.e. a formalised system of techniques for defence and attack with a sword and ancillary weapons.

As well as being used offensively as a sort of knuckleduster, the buckler was used to cover the sword hand as the cruciform guards of medieval swords afforded little protection.

One of the earliest known fencing books from the Royal Armouries collection helps to put sword-and-buckler fighting into its context. This beautifully illustrated German manuscript from the late 13th or 14th centuries shows a priest instructing a young man in the art of fighting with sword-and-buckler. It is the direct ancestor of the many fencing manuals published during the Renaissance and the distant ancestor of modern sport fencing. It is likely that the word ‘swashbuckler’ is derived from it, being an allusion to the noise made by swords on bucklers.

The popularity of sword-and-buckler fighting was not universally welcomed. The civil authorities saw it as a threat to public order.

Fencing schools were outlawed within the City of London by Edward I and the court rolls routinely feature civilian swordsmen as trouble makers. In 1290 two fishmongers were arraigned before the Mayor of London for “swaggering in the City with sword and buckler after nightfall”.

The theme of the lawless swordsman is a constant thread throughout the exhibition.

Next follows a group of swords which pre-date the rapier but influence its development. Contrary to modern belief, the use of the two handed sword was not a series of haphazard cuts, relying on brute strength alone. These were well-balanced weapons with their own fighting literature – the precursor of the fencing manual.

They evolved into the longsword with its increasingly complex guard with rings and bars to protect the unarmoured hands of those lesser folk without articulated gauntlets. The armour piercing estoc (or ‘tuck’ to the English) established the effectiveness of the thrust based fighting system of fighting.

The civilian dress sword of the early Renaissance with its plain cruciform design heralded the use of applied decoration to swords. Lastly, there is the Cinqueda, unique to Renaissance Italy. This odd-looking sword was the ideal vehicle for fine decoration making the first of a new type of costume weapon. It was worn in a prominent manner to proclaim the taste, means and the status of
its owner.

Perhaps the most magnificent rapier in the exhibition is that of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-76). This wonderful marriage of the goldsmith and bladesmith’s arts is normally in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Although it will be familiar to many from its frequently published images – e.g. the dust wrapper of Nick Norman’s the Rapier and Smallsword – it has never been exhibited in Britain before. Its loan speaks volumes about the esteem in which the Wallace collection is held within museum circles.

This remarkable sword was made between c.1550–70. Its hilt is solid gold, made by an anonymous Italian or Spanish master goldsmith. The decorative scheme comprises a myriad of tiny swags, feathers, ribbons, giving a jewel-like appearance. Interspersed within the decoration are small winged heads or geniuses which adorn the pommel, the tips of the quillons and the side bars.

Most remarkably the hilt can be dismantled by means of tiny rosette headed nuts allowing it to be stored in a case just like any other piece of jewellery. For all that, its hilt is effectively a jewel, this sword is still a functional weapon. Its fine, honed blade was made by Antonio Piccinino of Milan whose mark is stamped into the ricasso. 

The Noble Art of the Sword is at the Wallace Collection until 16th September 2012. Admission is free. The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square London W1U 3BN.

This is an excerpt. The full article appears in the August/September 2012 issue of Classic Arms & Militaria. Order your copy easily and securely by clicking here.

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