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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Carolyn Springer

Armour and Masculinity in the Italian Renaissance

University of Toronto Press, 2010. 272 pp. $55.00 ISBN: 978-1442640559.

Seeing a scholar such as Carolyn Springer, a professor of Italian language and literature at Stanford and not an expert in arms and armor, give serious attention to this field is extremely gratifying. Likewise, the premise of Springer’s Armour and Masculinity in the Italian Renaissance—that sixteenth-century anxieties about the body and masculine authority were played out in the increasingly disempowered Italian nobility’s commission of elaborate decorative and parade armor—is interesting and valuable. Springer performs the much-needed task of bringing arms and armor research into mainstream academic discourse and thus, and while this book remains somewhat unsatisfying to a historian with an interest in arms, armor, and their use, it is nonetheless an important step forward for the field.

Springer’s fairly short monograph is logically organized. The first half considers the rhetoric of the armored body in three sections: the first considers the “classical” (inviolate, naturalistic) body best represented by armor all’antica in imitation of ancient Roman and Greek armors; the second on the “sacred” body, comprising, to Springer, any armor with a Christian decorative or apotropaic motif; and the third on the “grotesque” (compromised, monstrous) body, best represented by the fanciful creations of sixteenth-century armorers. Her goal therein is to establish a taxonomy of armor, largely based on Bakhtin’s interpretation of Rabelais’ ideas of the “grotesque,” which she employs in the second half of the book.

This latter portion is comprised of three chapter-long studies in “self-fashioning,” with one chapter each devoted to Guidobaldo II della Rovere, the Emperor Charles V and his son Phillip II, and Cosimo I de’ Medici. Her task in each of these chapters is to show how each of her subjects deployed armor as part of their overall public-relations scheme. For instance, she tentatively connects Guidobaldo’s enigmatic “batwing armor,” now in the Bargello, to Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (even though the latter is usually more associated with the d’Este of Ferrara). Likewise, Springer (unsurprisingly) connects Leone Leoni’s marvelous statue of Charles V with its detachable armor to an overall propaganda scheme likening the Emperor to his Roman predecessors. Charles V might seem an odd choice, given that he was not Italian, not as politically vulnerable as lords of the various city-states, and was in fact himself the cause of quite a lot of cisalpine anxiety, but Springer uses him well as a foil both for the Italians and for his son Phillip II. For Charles, armor was an “extension of [the] self” (131); for Phillip, armor was a “place to hide” (131).

From the perspective of a scholar interested in the sociocultural meaning of arms, armor, and their use, Springer’s approach is somewhat unsatisfying. First, she often uses theoretical and methodological terminology and approaches (i.e., postmodern) that leave non-initiates out in the cold—which is unfortunate, since experts in arms and armor would do well to start thinking about their subject in the ways Springer suggests. Second, Springer mostly focuses mainly on relatively few well-known and well-published armors, and to describe the actual pieces in question, she tends to rely on works by authorities such as Boccia and Pyhrr, often only minimally engaging with the objects themselves. (Indeed, many of the works Springer discusses by Filippo Negroli and his contemporaries were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 1998–99 and appear in the exhibition catalogue.) Notes [ 1 ] While this is certainly a reasonable approach for a non-specialist, much of the depth and richness that could have come from a “close reading” of the pieces themselves is thereby lost.

In these first three chapters, Springer also often leans too heavily on only one or two textual primary sources, which are not always well-chosen. For instance, she makes the thirteenth-century Dominican, Jacobus de Voragine, key to her chapter on the “sacred body.” Voragine’s Golden Legend was the jumping-off point for many medieval retellings of the lives of the saints but provides little insight into fourteenth, fifteenth, or sixteenth-century spiritualities. To cite another example, with the motif of Medusa’s head in her third chapter on the grotesque, Springer turns from a broad background of Medusa in myth to a dialogue with contemporary interpretation with only a passing reference to Medusa in emblem books. However, emblem books and elaborations on the Hieroglyphica were a major means by which the early modern elite communicated with its peers. Springer thus does not explore what the sixteenth century has to tell us about its own motif. It is as if her gaze glances off the armor and deflects towards the modern marketplace of ideas rather than hitting her mark. In my opinion, the chapters would be of more use those interested in the culture of arms if Springer has centered on a discussion of contemporary commentaries on these ideas, as well as their interpretations of common motifs.

Similarly, Springer’s digression on medieval religious ideologies and practices in the second chapter, though well read, also disappointingly does not mention such scholars as Richard Kaeuper and Maurice Keen, who have written extensively on religion and knighthood and might have suggested other ways in which to engage with the (male) body combative.[2] Furthermore, the objects she describes seem somewhat out of place: Springer by and large discusses fourteenth-century armor and early sixteenth-century field pieces—practical armors, with practical religious motifs etched into them with the intent of keeping their wearers physically and spiritually safe—that are very different from the sixteenth-century dress armors, decorated in sumptuous repoussé, that she considers in the first and third chapters. In the same way, Charles V’s use of religious themes in his armor, which Springer discusses in her fifth chapter, was more propaganda proclaiming him the defender of the Church than apotropaism (defense against harm), as it is in the pieces she has chosen to illustrate the “sacred” body.

Springer rests her discussion of the “grotesque” and “classical” body in the first and third chapters on the shoulders of one of the giants of modern academia: Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and his World (1965), which treated with the grotesque and carnivalesque in late medieval popular culture but succeeded in redefining “grotesque” for modern scholarship. We thus get a primer of modern thought on the “classical” and “grotesque,” but not enough focus on what elite Italian contemporaries of the great French writer might have thought about what their classical and grotesque armor meant. Still, the pieces Springer has chosen as illustrative examples do harmonize with a Rabelaisian idea of the grotesque, and so, despite the above-mentioned faults, her arguments are valuable.

The second half of Springer’s work, showcasing the various case studies, allows the author to engage with specific personages, objects, and works of literature. Her arguments thus find purchase. Even so, as with the first section of the book, one wishes here that Springer had engaged with a wider variety of published and archival sources and chased her references back to the original documents (besides the ubiquitous Vasari).

I must also take issue with Springer’s assumptions and conclusions. Armor was not obsolete on the battlefield in the sixteenth century—a “vestigial cultural form,” as she puts it (161)—but rather the fantastic creations of the Negroli and their colleagues coexisted with very practical (and bulletproof) field harness.[ 3] The same is true of tournament armor, which, like the tournament itself, served a very important practical, political, and rhetorical role. Springer unfortunately discusses jousting and tournaments very little, though, as Noel Fallows recently showed, these remained not only but politically important but a spur to innovation in armor-making well into the sixteenth century.[ 4 ] Likewise, the ruling class of sixteenth-century Italy negotiated their social roles in a variety of creative and successful ways, from marriage alliances to civic festivals to taking service in foreign armies. Therefore, the rhetoric of mastery was indeed part of the image of the armed man—but it was not an image exclusive to Italy (as Springer seems to imply by her title) any more than was grotesque armor or armor all’antica, which was being made throughout western Europe, albeit perhaps most skillfully by the Negroli.

Armor, and the image of the armed man—as portrayed everywhere from fifteenth-century religious iconography, to the death-dealing nude figures in sixteenth-century fencing treatises, to official portraits of an armored Louis XIV in the seventeenth century—had a pan-European social resonance that went far beyond the “petty,” “subordinated,” and “marginalized” Italian nobility “appropriating the imagery of dominance,” as Springer states in her conclusion (160). Depending on time and place, it could be at once a statement of social class, virility, fashion, enfranchisement, political allegiance, faith, ancestry, taste, and prowess, amongst other attributes. It also had much to do with artistic production and the migration of techniques and motifs from Italy north of the Alps.

What Springer does successfully show is that the field of arms and armor scholarship, far from being mere antiquarianism, has the possibility of informing contemporary academic concerns about masculinity, the body, and the rhetorical fashioning of the early modern body politic. However, such concerns must be tempered with an understanding of milieu. It is because of this, more than anything else, that I found myself growing frustrated with this book: Springer has chosen a worthy topic, but sees it through a narrow disciplinary ocularium. Her observations in the case studies are often intriguing and hint at a potential for broadness; one wishes that the potential in this work had been fully realized. Nonetheless Springer has done us a valuable service by being the first to don harness and enter the lists, and I hope that this is a subject that will be revisited in the future by scholars who eschew remaking armor to fit the latest intellectual fashions.


[1] Stuart Phyrr and Jose A. Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and His Contemporaries (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999).

[2] Richard Kaeuper, Holy Warriors: The Religious Ideology of Chivalry (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009); Maurice Keen, Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

[3] See on this, for instance, Tobias Capwell, The Real Fighting Stuff (Glasgow: Glasgow Museums Publishing, 2007).

[4] Noel Fallows, Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2010).

Ken Mondschein

Research Fellow, Higgins Armory Museum <ken (at) kenmondschein (dot) com>

Page Added: December 2011