"Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and his Contemporaries," Oct. 8, 1998-Jan. 17, 1999, at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
Did Napoleon wear armor? "No. Absolutely not," said Donald J. La Rocca, associate curator in the department of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum, where a stunning exhibition of Renaissance armor by Filippo Negroli (ca. 1510-1700) and his Milanese contemporaries is currently in residence. "By Napoleon's time, armor had gone out of style.
"Before the Napoleonic era, armor-wearing dukes, condottieris and generals rode into battle leading their mercenary forces," La Rocca explained. "By Napoleon's time however, mercenaries had disappeared and strong nationalistic feelings among the soldiers no longer required a general or a Napoleon to risk actual injuries or death. The commanders now mounted their horses and watched the battle's progress on some hill, ordering their underlings to change formations or execute movements. Princes and emperors of the Napoleonic era wore stunning uniforms, their chests emblazened with medals.
"Was Napoleon interested in acquiring armor? You bet. His emissaries were encouraged to obtain armor from every country they could, but in particular from Germany and Austria. Napoleon's passion for armor was only exceeded by his fantastic appetite for paintings and sculptures. This armor is now on display, at our show, from both the Louvre and from the Musée de l'Armee in Paris."
The Met's show is not about ordinary armor, which is on view in the regular arms and armor gallery on the main floor. Negroli and his associates made "parade armor" (armor worn by the nobility during parades and occasionally at tournaments). And it isn't just parade armor, it is armor "all. antica" (harnesses of steel decorated in high relief in the ancient style, inspired by Roman models in both form and ornament). This armor was designed to invoke the mythic heroes of the past -- Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, Aeneas and Hercules.
Milan in the 16th century was the center of arms manufacture and trade and maintained that position for the next two centuries, in part with the help of Negroli and his crew. The Met exhibition includes 68 items in all, and includes portraits of armor-wearing rulers and design and pattern books.
"How do we know what ancient armor looked like?" I asked the curator. "That's easy. We have old coins and many excavations. Plus descriptions from literature Homer, Herodotus."
Moving through the galleries, one soon understands the awe these armors must have inspired at military and civic presentations. There are burgonets -- lightweight helmets or caps made of steel -- shaped like a human head and covered with curled and gilt hair. One has embossed ears and a face plate shaped like a full beard of golden hair, and was worn by the Emperor Charles V. Other burgonets feature the heads of fierce animals, such as the one for Guidobaldo de la Rovere, Duke of Urbino.
Negroli's skills extended to the shield, the cuirass (armored breast and back plates) and the greaves (armor between ankle and knee). One particularly intriguing shield is the Medusa shield of 1570. Steel, gold, silver and brass are its basic components. The etched decorations at the border include medallions with battle scenes featuring soldiers in classic armor and a scene of the triumph of Bacchus.
The armor of Dauphin Henry of France, ca. 1540, is the most extensively damascened (the art of decorating a metal with wavy lines by engraving it or inlaying it with another or a variety of metals). Crescent moons, bows and arrows, dolphins and the names of his wife, Catherine de' Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, decorate this armor, which weighs more than 43 pounds.
Embossing or "repoussé" was the armorer's method of creating raised metal designs on the metal surface by hammering out the designs from the underside of the plate, then defining the relief on the outside through the use of chisels and punches.
"What did this process do to the durability of the armor?" I asked. "Well, it inevitably stretched and weakened the metal, so it was mostly just worn on ceremonial occasions," the curator told me.
We had now entered the large hall at one end of which stood the majestic configuration of the Roman armor of Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol and his horse. The sight is overwhelming. The armor was made in Milan between 1547 and 1550, and is the only surviving example of an armor "all.antica" for man and horse. Unusual in its use of Oriental-styled construction, butted rather than riveted, it shows a strong east European influence. Highly imaginative in design, this armor demonstrates the freedom with which armorer and patrons used the antique.