“Rushing downstairs, they found that a large suit of old armour had become detached from its stand, and had fallen on the stone floor, while, seated in a high-backed chair, was the Canterville ghost, rubbing his knees with an expression of acute agony on his face…. He had hoped that even modern Americans would be thrilled by the sight of a Spectre In Armour …. Besides, it was his own suit. He had worn it with great success at the Kenilworth tournament, and had been highly complimented on it by no less a person than the Virgin Queen herself. Yet when he had put it on, he had been completely overpowered by the weight of the huge breastplate and steel casque, and had fallen heavily on the stone pavement….”
—Oscar Wilde, “The Canterville Ghost,” 1887
We are witnesses here at a confluence of stereotypes. Hiram B. Otis, the American minister, has bought Canterville Chase, along with its furniture and ghost, “at a valuation,” since he comes from “a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy.” Because they are Californians, the Otis family are immune to the terrors of the English stately home. They clean the mysterious bloodstain from the library floor. They mock the efforts of the ghost to frighten them.
The Americans are comic stereotypes. The ghost, too, belongs to a stereotype cluster, along with the stain, the stained-glass window, the dark oak paneling, the armor. The idea of the stately home thus conjured up was, when Wilde wrote his story, of no great antiquity. Its literary origins are in the eighteenth-century Gothic novel—that is, in fantasy. But the actual homes of the gentry in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when Gothic began to thrive, were not predominantly furnished with ancient objects. There might be a few such items around, but, as Clive Wainwright explains in The Romantic Interior, “the overwhelming character would have been one of modernity, with new carpets, curtains, wallpapers, light fittings and furniture. In 1750, for instance, the style of these furnishings could have been neo-classical, Rococo, Chinese or Gothic, but all newly manufactured and thus new in appearance.”1
When Catherine Morland comes to Northanger Abbey, her head full of Gothic novels, she is distressed by precisely this newness and comfort:
The furniture was in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste. The fire-place where she had expected the ample and ponderous carving of former times, was contracted to a Rumford, with slabs of plain, though handsome, marble, and ornaments over it of the prettiest English china. The windows, to which she looked with peculiar dependence, from having heard the General talk of his preserving them in their Gothic form with reverential care, were yet less what her fancy had portrayed. To be sure the pointed arch was preserved, the form of them was Gothic, they might be even casements, but every pane was so large, so clear, so light! To an imagination which had hoped for the smallest divisions and the heaviest stone work, for painted glass, dirt, and cobwebs, the difference was very distressing.
No painted glass, no dirt, no cobwebs. No tapestries, no ancient banners, no dark oak paneling, no suits of armor. When Jane Austen was writing Northanger Abbey (1798-1799), there were some houses which had adopted a Romantic mode of decoration, but they were either new or had been “earlied up.” They were conscious confections, exercises in style. They were, to use that useful term from interior decorating, “faux.” To fill a house with ancient furniture was a new idea, and a hard thing to achieve. Where was it all to come from? Who could supply enough of that dark oak, that armor?
The English Romantic interior of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, whose memory is kept alive in countless cartoon images of stately homes, was an example of a manufactured past. The dark oak furniture, for instance, was stained by the antique-dealing trade. Medieval or Renaissance oak furniture, unless painted, was left white. All that varnishing, staining, and polishing is an anachronism. But it is an anachronism that has proved too popular to reverse.
Some anachronisms are like that. The idea that King Arthur and his knights lived in the fifth or sixth century AD, but held tournaments in the manner of the fifteenth century, is too much of a money-spinner to drop. The idea that the medieval nobility would have displayed suits of armor all around the house, rather than storing it away in closets or armoires, the idea of an armory (like Horace Walpole’s at Strawberry Hill) on a landing halfway up the stairs, the idea of armor in the study, in the bedroom, the idea of a stove in the shape of a vast suit of armor (it was six foot six inches tall, and was designed by Sir John Soane for Lord Abercorn for the hall of Bentley Priory)—all these bright ideas belong to the history of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century interior design, rather than medieval history itself.
Armor exerts such a grip on the imagination that stories get spun around it. Sometime in the 1530s the Milanese armorer Filippo Negroli made the celebrated “bat-wing” armor for Guidobaldo II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. (It was included in the recent exhibition of Negroli’s work, along with other armor, at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.) Only a century later, when it entered the Medici collections, this suit was believed to have been made for Hannibal of Carthage by “Piripe, a most excellent sculptor who was then called Pifanio Tacito.” This totally fictional character was still nominally alive in the scholarly works of Wendelin Boeheim in the late nineteenth century.
Nor is modern scholarship free of plain fantasy. In the Royal Armouries Yearbook Volume 2, 1997, we read of a tournament garniture (adaptable suit of armor) supposed to have been made for Dudley, Earl of Leicester, for the tournament of Kenilworth in 1575 (just like the Canterville ghost’s armor). Citing the authority of the Dictionary of National Biography, the author, Erik Blakely, tells us that the tournament was witnessed by the eleven-year-old William Shakespeare “who, it was thought, was so impressed that he used what he saw at Kenilworth as a model for the fantastical vision of Oberon’s court in Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Unfortunately there is no evidence that Shakespeare witnessed the tournament at Kenilworth.
The Tower of London (where the Royal Armouries used to be until most of the collection was rehoused in Leeds) was one of the first places where a collection of old armor could be seen on public display. It was famous for the Line of Kings, models of monarchs on horseback, life-sized and clad in what was believed to be appropriate armor, and for the Spanish Armory, featuring supposed relics of the Spanish Armada. From the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth, these displays were much admired. But eventually it had to be admitted that there was nothing Spanish in the Spanish Armory, and that the Line of Kings, though it featured genuine armor, was riddled with errors and improbabilities. The man who in the 1820s reorganized the display, Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, is considered the founder of armor scholarship. By the 1860s James Robinson Planché, though an admirer of Meyrick, found that his work had to be done all over again.
The present [new] arrangement, the removal of the Banners bearing the names of Kings, Nobles and Knights who had never worn the armor attributed to them, and the placeing of small boards or cards with the proper description of the suits, weapons or other objects upon or in conjunction with each, will to a great extent I trust neutralise the evils ariseing from the inaccurate descriptions of the Warder, the absurdity of which is increased by each appearing to have his particular version of a translation or perversion of a fact.
The Tower should have a properly qualified curator, Planché argued:
The want of such an officer has not only lost to the Nation many varieties [of armor] now enriching Foreign Public and private collection but lumbered up the Tower Armoury with wretched casts barefaced forgeries and Modern imitations some of which have been purchased at considerable cost while objects of real value and interest have been rejected.2
If the Tower of London, one of the greatest armories of Europe, was stuffed with fakes, one may well ask whether anything was genuine, whether there is any real armor left in the world.
The answer is yes. Some things are real, and some of these survivals are surprising. It was the practice in medieval times to hang the “achievements” of the knight—his armor, sword, shield, etc.—above his tomb. Since the wrath of the iconoclasts in Britain was turned against religious imagery rather than against the monuments of the aristocracy, both the tombs and some of their achievements have been preserved. Some of the best medieval helmets in the Leeds museum come from parish churches. In Canterbury Cathedral, one can still, astonishingly enough, see the achievements of the Black Prince—his helmet with its crest, his silk and linen surcoat, his poplar shield, his gilt copper gauntlets, and his scabbard (the sword having been stolen long ago). One would have sworn that those would turn out to be fakes, but they are not. What is anachronistic about this tomb is the habit of naming it after the Black Prince. Edward III’s eldest son, Edward Plantagenet, was never known by this title during his lifetime (1330-1376), but only much later. During the Victorian era the belief was so strong that the Black Prince must have worn black that the magnificent gilt copper effigy was painted black in order to conform to legend.
The treasury of Prague Cathedral preserves the only surviving chain-mail shirt from the early medieval period—preserved on the grounds that it supposedly once belonged to King Wenceslaus. Plate armor, as developed from around 1350, is extremely rare in the early years. From the whole fifteenth century it is said that only about a dozen complete suits of high-quality armor have survived, and there is only one matching Gothic war harness for man and horse in existence (and even that has been shown to incorporate later elements), in the Wallace Collection in London. We are told that around 95 percent of today’s surviving armor is post-Agincourt (that is, post-1415), and the bulk of that 95 percent will be sixteenth or seventeenth century.
What happened to medieval armor will not be a mystery to those who knew Vietnam during the war, and who were impressed by the speed at which all metal was gathered up and recycled. Society was always short of metal. The notorious figure of the battlefield scavenger (as for instance Thénardier in Les Misérables, robbing corpses at Waterloo) is supposed to make our flesh creep. But he or she is much better understood as an exemplar of enterprise in poverty. The North Vietnamese made a propaganda point out of the recycling of metal from planes they had shot down (remember the ring and the comb they presented to Mary McCarthy in Hanoi, which gave her such an aversion). How many battlefield meals one saw in Indochina being cooked in odd objects such as helmets and those M16 ammunition boxes. When Sir Walter Scott visited the battlefield of Waterloo, hoping to find the armor of a cuirassier, he saw the Highlanders “frying their rations of beef or mutton upon the breast-plates.” This sight must surely be about as old as the breastplate itself.
Although most surviving armor dates from the Renaissance and later, the revival of interest in armor is always associated with a love of the medieval—the craze for heraldry, Gothic nostalgia, the yearning for the life of the feudal hall. Wainwright cites a surprisingly early example from one of the plays of Thomas Shadwell (1689). “For my part,” says a character,
I think ’twas never good days, but when great Tables were kept in large Halls, the buttery-Hatch always open, Black Jacks and a good smell of Meat and March-Bear, with Dogs Turds and Marrow-bones as Ornaments in the Hall: These were the signs of good House-keeping. I hate to see Italian fine buildings with not Meat or Drinks in ’em.
And from the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1739:
Methinks there was something respectable in those old hospitable Gothick Halls, hung round with the Helmets, Breast-Plates and Swords of our Ancestors; I entered them with a Constitutional sort of Reverence, and look’d upon those Arms with Gratitude, as the Terror of former Ministers, and the Check of Kings. Nay, I even imagin’d that I saw some of those good swords, that had procur’d the Confirmation of the Magna Carta, and humbled Spencers and Gavestons.
This is plain fantasy. The medieval hall might well have featured a few pikes and hunting weapons such as crossbows, but, according to Meyrick, the scholar already mentioned, “Weapons for the chase and for armed peasantry hung up in readiness in the halls of our old mansions, but were never so placed for the mere purpose of ornament.”
That did not stop the creators of Romantic armories—Horace Walpole, Sir Walter Scott, Meyrick himself—from setting up their displays, which, making the best of the available material, brought together European and Oriental weapons and armor, ancient and modern. If the hall to be filled was spacious and high, the creators of such interiors often saw nothing wrong in placing terra-cotta imitations of helmets, or armor made from cardboard dipped in plaster of Paris. For genuine material, Europe was a great source, particularly after the French Revolution and after the Napoleonic Wars, when several dynastic armories were broken up.
The idea was to create an atmosphere conducive to a kind of reverie. Robert Curzon, a great collector of armor (most of it fake), wrote in 1835, “How nice it must have been in the fifteenth century to wear a murrey coloured gown read Sir Tristan de Leonois seated in a carved throne in an old Gothic room with the sun streaming on the illuminated pages of the book through the rare ymagerie of the mullioned window.”
How nice indeed. How even nicer to be able, once in a while, to put down that book, take off that murrey-colored gown, and get strapped into a suit of shining jousting armor and go shatter a few lances with some friends. Although the true tournament tradition had died out in the England of Charles the First, it seems always to have been possible to mount something which, if not a tournament in the medieval sense, was an equestrian entertainment with a medieval feel to it. This is one of the meanings of the word carrousel, and the Place du Carrousel in Paris was the scene of such an event (1662).
In 1750, Frederick the Great staged a carrousel in Berlin, led by four princes of the blood, organized in four “Quadrilles” as Romans, Persians, Carthaginians, and Greeks, fifteen knights in each quadrille of sixty men, the rest being
mythologic winged standard-bearers, blackamoors, lictors, trumpeters, and shining melodious phantasms as escort…. Who run at rings, at Turks’ heads, and at other objects with death-doing lance: and prance and flash and career along: glorious to see and hear.
All this was illuminated by 40,000 lamps, and under the admiring gaze of Voltaire (who had a surprising soft spot for chivalry).3
In 1777 Gustavus the Third gave the first of several Scandinavian tournaments, hoping to stamp out effeminacy in Sweden. The last of the series occurred in 1800, when many spectators were injured, and some were shot by excited knights, others squashed by the collapsing grandstand, and the rest knocked flat by an epidemic of measles. This put such a damper on Swedish spirits that they waited ninety-four years before holding another tournament.
The Swedes came to think of tournaments as unlucky. So might the British, after the extraordinary Mischianza (medley or mêlée) their officers put on in Philadelphia in 1778. In order to bid farewell to their popular commander, Sir William Howe, twenty-two of the officers contributed between them an astonishing å£4,000. Famously negligent of their opportunity to finish off Washington’s army, which languished at Valley Forge, the men half naked and starving, the horses freezing to death, the British prepared the Mischianza, which was held early in May.4
Admission tickets were engraved with a setting sun over the sea, and a motto which means “I shine as Idescend, only to rise in greater splendor.” The morning began with a regatta and a seventeen-gun salute, which led on to an “exhibition of tilt and tournament, according to the customs and ordinances of ancient chivalry.” There were two triumphal arches and two pavilions, one featuring “seven of the principal young Ladies of the country, dressed in Turkish habits, and wearing in their turbans the favours with which they meant to reward the several knights who were to contend in their honour.” The White Knights (one of whom was Captain André, later hanged by the Americans as a spy) appeared attended by their squires and wearing “ancient habits of white and red silk,” their horses richly caparisoned.
Trumpeters appeared, and a herald who declared that “the Knights of the Blended Rose, by me their Herald, proclaim and assert that the Ladies of the Blended Rose excel in wit, beauty and accomplishment, those of the whole world; and should any knight or knights be so hardy as to dispute or deny it, they are ready to enter the lists with them, and maintain their assertion by deed of arms, according to the laws of ancient chivalry.” This was the cue for the Black Herald to appear with his Black Knights, the Knights of the Burning Mountain, who made a similar claim on behalf of the Ladies of the Burning Mountain.
The Knights then received their lances from their Esquires, fixed their shields on their left arms, and making a general salute to each other, by a very graceful movement of their lances, turned round to take their career, and, encountering at full gallop, shivered their spears. In the second and third encounter, they discharged their pistols. In the fourth they fought with their swords.
Although body armor is not mentioned in this account, the shivering of the spears would have been extremely dangerous without it, however carefully orchestrated the event. In due course the Marshal of the Field rushed in between the opposing knights to declare that the Fair Damsels of both sides (local Philadelphia girls, it would seem) were perfectly satisfied with the proofs of love and that the knights were immediately to desist from combat. There followed a further procession through triumphal arches toward tea and lemonade, over which the ladies gave favors to their knights. There was a ballroom with eighty-five mirrors, with ribbons, wax lights, and four drawing rooms giving off, set out with “Pharoah” tables for gambling. Here the company danced till ten. Then there were fireworks till midnight, at which point a magnificent saloon, hitherto concealed, suddenly opened. It was decorated with 56 large pier glasses and 100 triple-branched lamps. There were 430 covers and 1,200 dishes. Twenty-four black slaves in Oriental dress, with silver collars and bracelets, ranged in two lines, bent to the ground as General Howe and his brother, Admiral Howe, approached the saloon, giving “a coup d’oeil beyond description magnificent.”
Five weeks later, the British army abandoned Philadelphia, much burdened (we are not surprised to learn)by their luggage.
Washington Irving, in his life of George Washington (1855-1859), affects such scorn for the Philadelphia Mischianza that he refuses to describe it in any detail. But this is the same Washington Irving who in 1822 was regaling his readers, in Bracebridge Hall, with a version of the English squire’s life that draws on every cliché of Gothic romance: falconry, the hospitality of Merrie England, sitting up on St. Mark’s Eve in a tapestry-lined bedroom wondering whether ghosts are real (and hoping they are), being startled by a full-length portrait of a knight in armor and fancying the figure to be advancing toward him…
In the 1850s, when Nathaniel Hawthorne was in Britain, he found that the majority of signatures in the visitors’ book at Scott’s old house, Abbotsford, were from Americans. Hawthorne was a great reader of tombstones, a church visitor, a country house inquirer. He is told of a “bloody footstep” at Smithell’s Hall, Bolton le Moors, which refuses to go away (just like the bloodstain in “The Canterville Ghost”):
The tradition is that a certain martyr, in Bloody Mary’s time, being examined before the then occupant of the Hall, and committed to prison, stamped his foot in earnest protest against the injustice with which he was treated. Blood issued from his foot, which slid along the stone pavement of the hall, leaving a long footmark printed in blood; and there it has remained ever since, in spite of the scrubbings of all after generations.5
Hawthorne investigates at once, finds a different account in a history of Lancashire, and eventually visits the Hall. “Of course, it is all a humbug—a darker vein cropping up through the gray flag-stone…”
There remained, however, that yearning to be impressed, to experience that Gothic reverie. Hawthorne’s disappointment at his first sight of Scott’s Abbotsford is plainly expressed:
It is but a villa, after all: no castle, nor even a large manor-house, and very unsatisfactory when you consider it in that light. Indeed, it impressed me not as a real house, intended for the home of human beings—a house to die in, or to be born in—but as a plaything, something in the same category as Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill.
Hawthorne felt angry and dissatisfied with himself for not feeling, not being able to feel, what he wanted to feel. He examined the hall, bristling with armor, and the armory itself—both rooms struck him as small—and came away with the impression that “Scott could not have been really a wise man, nor an earnest one, nor one that grasped the truth of life;—he did but play, and the play grew very sad towards its close.”
Quite how large Abbotsford would have had to be before it impressed Hawthorne as “real” is a mystery. Nevertheless, the comparison with Strawberry Hill, constructed over a period of thirty years beginning in 1747, is just, as is the observation that Walpole and Scott were playing an architectural game—one in which they could make up the rules as they went along. Gothic, particularly in the hands of Walpole, does not mean earnest medieval: Strawberry Hill Gothic is an ingenious manifestation of Rococo—it marks the moment at which Rococo began to shade off into the Picturesque. What shocked Ruskin on his first visit to Abbotsford was its domestication of the medieval—an arch from Melrose Abbey copied to make a fireplace.
That shock of disappointment Ruskin expressed in 1839—that Scott “had not the slightest feeling of the real beauty and application of Gothic architecture”—has its echo in Hawthorne’s feeling that, despite his own debt of pleasure to Scott’s romances, he understood them better, as he understood Scott better, having seen Abbotsford, and that this understanding diminished Scott. To a Southerner of the period, the reason for this distrust of Scott would be easy to perceive. Hawthorne was a Northerner, of Puritan stock, and descended from the common people of England—that is to say, ancient Britons and Saxons. The Southern states, on the other hand, a contemporary source assures us,
were settled and governed, in a great measure, under supervision of the crown, immediately by and under the direction of persons belonging to the blood and race of the reigning family, and belonged to that stock recognized as Cavaliers—who were the Royalists in the time of Charles I, the Commonwealth, and Charles II, and directly descended from the Norman Barons of William the Conqueror, a race distinguished in its earliest history for its warlike and fearless character, a race in all times since renowned for its gallantry; chivalry, honor, gentleness, and intellect…. The Southern people come of that race.6
These Southrons, as they called themselves, adopting a term which in Scott’s novels is actually one of abuse, were so keen on Scott that “men would saddle their horses and ride from all the neighboring counties to the principal post town of the region, when a new novel by the author of Waverley was expected,” and this Dixie readership was so large that it was worthwhile for a Philadelphia publisher, Matthew Carey, to bribe a workman in Edinburgh to send him the uncorrected galleys in advance of the novels, to gain time for pirated editions. The Yankees of the North were despised as “Saxons”; the “aristocratical” (another Scott usage)Southrons saw themselves as “the Chivalry.”
They were not alone in their obsessions. In the year 1839 tournaments were held in Turin, in Scotland (the famous and catastrophic Eglinton Tournament), and in New Orleans. But the Southern craze for chivalry has a particular grandeur in its fatuity. Can it really be that in Fauquier White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, a group of knights (along with trumpeters, heralds, king-at-arms, master-of-horse, and damsels with favors) tilted for rings, in full armor, in 1845, in the month of August? Were there really thirty suits of armor in Pinesville, South Carolina, in 1851? “Even in the dreadfully realistic days that followed Gettysburg,” the historian Rollin G. Osterweis informs us, “the Virginians could find entertainment in the trappings of their chivalric cult,” and he quotes a description of a tournament in Charlottesville in the fall of 1863, when the town was full of officers and soldiers “in all the stages of convalescence”:
Some of the Knights, with only one arm to use—holding the reins with their teeth and dashing valiantly at the rings with wooden sticks improvised as spears for the occasion.
In 1874, Mark Twain wrote that Sir Walter Scott
did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived a good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still…. Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the War, that he is in great measure responsible for the War.
Exactly when the first genuine suit of European medieval or Renaissance armor crossed the Atlantic, when the American collecting of armor began, I have not been able to find out. The likelihood is that it was very early. The first stained-glass windows to be purchased by an American came from the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. They were bought by William Poyntell, a Philadelphia merchant, in 1803. Medieval manuscripts were being collected around the same time, for in 1807 the Baltimore collector Robert Gilmor, Jr., was able to acquire a fifteenth-century Book of Hours in Charleston.7 Such cases are rare. But the fact that Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia possessed a shirt of mail in the eighteenth century would lead one to suppose that there might have been items of plate armor in private hands even during the colonial period. The Winthrop family in Massachusetts actually preserved a seventeenth-century harquebusier’s armor, as once worn by a Winthrop. Now the property of the Massachusetts Historical Society, it is a unique survival from an American dynastic collection.
The serious collections of armor began to be formed in the 1880s, around the time when Oscar Wilde wrote “The Canterville Ghost,” and some of the great collectors were not unlike the American millionaire of the stereotype. George F. Harding, Jr., of Chicago, is said to have planned to buy up a German castle and transport it to Lake Park Avenue, stone by stone. The plan foundered when the mayor of Chicago, Edward (“Big Ed”) Kelly, told Harding he would not receive a building permit unless he used Kelly’s own specialist employees. Harding never spoke to Kelly again, but he went ahead with an alternative, a modern castle into whose irregular masonry cannonballs were stuck at intervals, to give the effect of a fortress that had been attacked with adhesive projectiles. On top of this ingenious dual-purpose structure was a navigational beacon “for the benefit of aviators landing at nearby airfields.”
Harding piloted himself around Europe, and the list of provenances for his collection (Vienna, the Hermitage, Dresden, the Tower of London, the Princes Liechtenstein and Radziwill) reminds us that there never was such a thing as an entirely leakproof armory. Dresden, for instance, holds one of the major surviving dynastic collections, that of the Royal House of Saxony. Yet even here, at one stage, the keepers decided to create a little extra space by donating a group of helmets to the local opera house. These are now treasured objects, dispersed through museums around the world. Presumably one evening a dealer went to the opera and was astonished to see that the whole chorus was kitted out with genuine blued-and-gilded steel, seventeenth-century, sweeping-rimmed, high-crested German morions. There is one in Cleveland. There are none left in Dresden.
Collectors of the Harding type were more baronial than exquisite in their taste, stronger on the swashbuckling than the connoisseurship. Alongside the armor and the medieval objects Harding owned Marie Antoinette’s harp, Napoleon’s bed, and a notable display of the Wild West paintings and sculpture of Frederic Remington. If he did not astonish you with his armor—his aventails and burgonets, his cabassets, cuisses, cranequins, and cruppers—then there were always the rattlesnake hors d’oeuvres to fall back on, washed down with a couple of bourbon-based Mamie Taylors, his special cocktail. One way or another, you were supposed to be staggered.
But there seems to have been another, more Edith Whartonish breed of collector in the period, a scholarly type with a murrey-colored smoking jacket, embroidered slippers, and deep, cultivated pockets. These gentlemen would attach themselves helpfully to the pioneering museums, becoming unpaid curators as well as patrons. The Gothic aspect of their sensibilities, their medievalism, would have been formed rather by Ruskin or Charles Eliot Norton than by Scott, at Harvard rather than Abbotsford. Summers in Europe would have included shopping sprees at the London armor dealer S.J. Whawell, sketching trips to Kenilworth or Schloss Ambras, and an obligatory pilgrimage to the Museo Stibbert in Florence. When their heads hit the pillows, they would have seen visions of the long line of mounted knights at the Stibbert, on their gorgeously caparisoned mounts.
Bashford Dean was the doyen of these scholar-collectors—an ichthyologist from Columbia University, simultaneously curator of fishes and reptiles at the American Museum of Natural History and of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum, which under his influence achieved the preeminence it still maintains in the field.
One has to remember that the emphasis in the museums of the turn of the century was as much on the applied as on the fine arts. They were supposed to be useful institutions, promoting in the US high standards of manufacture. A collection of arms and armor might be viewed, in this context, as metalwork of the very highest standard—an inspiration to industry. Furthermore, if this metalwork happened to be displayed in a grand hall (as in the tradition begun by Meyrick and continued at the Museo Stibbert), in the Romantic mode, one might contrive to please two constituencies at once: the public might come for the reverie, while the museum staff might convince themselves that they were serving the high ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement.
A part of the meaning of the American armor collections has been lost, because such higher motives have been forgotten. But when the Boston museum began, its first collection was of arms and armor. When this was destroyed in storage, during the fire of 1872, the insurance money was used to purchase a collection of Italian textiles. This was not a change of policy or emphasis—the textiles were of the same category of object as the blunderbusses that had gone up in smoke. The early curators wanted armor in exactly the same way that they wanted lace. They were crazy for lace. They were nutty about quilts: “The hand-woven coverlet tells you that the humblest artisan who kneels at the altars of Beauty received from the hand of the god his share of that priceless draught.”8 This is the language of the Arts and Crafts movement. If it sounds like a stained-glass window talking, that is the intended effect.
Faced with a new museum to fill, many directors turned to plaster casts:high-quality reproductions of great sculptures, which would provide an admirable focus. The Cleveland Museum of Art, whose first director, Frederic A. Whiting, had for years been running the Arts and Crafts movement in Boston, opened during the First World War. Not only was there a problem in getting plaster casts from Europe. There was also something of a suspicion of the fine arts. Most museums hardly believed they would be able to afford original paintings and sculpture of great merit. Even in the 1920s Cleveland was buying reproductions of Old Master drawings, on the grounds that this was the only practical way forward.
Whiting decided to scrap the idea of a cast court, and substitute a court of armor: “The walls will be covered with important tapestries and the whole effect can be made very splendid and this exhibit should, it seems to me, be of particular interest to the men interested in the steel industry in Cleveland.” He already had his eye on an American armor collection that had been formed in England, but this proved elusive and he turned, with the help of Bashford Dean, to a wealthy Boston lawyer-collector-curator, Frank Gair Macomber.
The Macombers lived on Boston’s North Shore, and it is a pity that Stephen Fliegel, when putting together his excellent new catalog of the Cleveland collection, was unable to find any photographic record of their house. One would like to see how the very large collection (over five hundred pieces) was displayed, along with the Macombers’ furniture, Chinese porcelain, tapestries, and paintings (the Boston museum’s large version of Manet’s Execution of the Emperor Maximilian was donated by Macomber). How did one live, in Boston, with no fewer than three mounted knights with full horse armor? How did they fit in?
Whiting acted speedily, buying the Macomber collection with funds provided by the local philanthropist John Long Severance, but the van in which the armor was delivered got lost. Less than a week before the museum was due to open, Whiting himself tracked down the missing van on a siding in Geneva, Ohio. When he and Bashford Dean unpacked the consignment, it was found that Macomber had dismantled everything with no clue to what piece belonged where. It required all the genius of the visiting ichthyologist to reassemble the collection, and mount it, in time for the inauguration. Tapestries were hung, and banners were set high on the walls. On June 6, 1916, the Romantic Interior made its debut in Cleveland.
For years, the Cleveland armor collection was displayed without labels. It was not that the curators didn’t care. Someone had to be found and educated (by Bashford Dean, wearing his Columbia University hat) before the task could be undertaken in 1922. One might add that the director, Whiting, had been informed that not all the pieces were “right,” and that the dud ones could be sold off. But this was not done, partly, one supposes, because in an age when one expected a museum to be, at least in part, fleshed out with reproductions, the presence of a few duds in an impressive collection of armor was not obnoxious.
Besides, it is a complex matter to decide what is a fake outright, or a well-meant reproduction, or a genuine item restored to the point where the original workmanship has been obscured, or a pastiche or pasticcio (in the sense of an assemblage of components from various sources and ages), or an object whose restorations are of such quality that they have their own historic value. In the armor section of the Wallace Collection, several pieces are labeled with the neutral term “composite,” as if the decision has been taken that the overall effect of the item were more important than the authenticity of each individual part. Most Old Master paintings have been retouched. Why should one not expect armor—especially armor that was made to be knocked about—to have been restored? Somewhere in the vaults of the Metropolitan Museum there are pieces which could well be put back on display if a less purist criterion were adopted, and no doubt, vice versa, there are objects on display which some purists would wish to drop.
In the 1960s, a specialist from the Met, Stephen V. Grancsay, was called to Cleveland to assess the collection. He spent a week on this task, and concluded that 35 percent of the collection was “either modern or at least of weak quality.” All the equestrian armor went, leaving the collection without its chief attraction. But enough has been said so far, I think, for us to agree that Cleveland did very well in acquiring its armor. It achieved a 65 percent pass rate, on a collection formed in the 1880s and 1890s, in advance of the scholarship and scientific resources of the 1950s. A similar collection, of English origin, which was bought by Cincinnati, was found to be more than 90 percent wrong. And yet during both subsequent acts of deaccessioning, mistakes were made. An English sword from the Cleveland collection is now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Reduced and as it were rebuked, the armor court was gradually encroached upon by other departments, until it lost the character which had made it a favorite with the public. No attempt had been made, when the building was designed, to give any Gothic hint to the architecture; but the elements assembled—the weapons, the armor, the tapestries, the banners—had, of themselves, been enough to create the reverie, the memory of “those old hospitable Gothick halls, hung round with the Helmet, Breast-Plates and Swords of our Ancestors.” And indeed shortly after its first opening in 1916, when Whiting put the museum at the service of the community by holding dances for soldiers, he wanted to hold a ball in the armor court itself, so that the men would have a memory of having waltzed beneath the tapestries, before being shipped off to war. (The older members of the Board were aghast at the proposal.) He had felt the connection between chivalry and hospitality.
Last year, Cleveland completed a restoration of its armor court, and reasserted the centrality of that hospitable space. This, says the museum, will be your first encounter with art after you enter our doors. This is the common ground. This is where we can all agree. And of course there lies a challenge behind such an assertion, for by no means everybody agrees. By no means everybody thinks like a medievalist, who will say that the distinction between the fine and the applied arts is, for his period, an anachronism.
Nor does everyone share the taste for pauldrons, vambraces, and peytrals. But I think that everybody of good will can go along with the assertion that in this city, in this museum, in Cleveland, this is our tradition, this is where we begin.
Many people think that the armor which has survived, the armor we see displayed in museums, and particularly that armor which has been elaborately etched or damascened with gold—that this armor never had anything to do with real combat. The jousting tradition was at most just a game. But this is not so.
The armorer, in his art, pays the minutest attention to function, and function overrides decoration and other considerations of form. When a helmet does not function it is often found to be a fake. The body is symmetrical, but armor is not symmetrical when the body is asymmetrical in its functioning. The lance must be held in the right hand. If there were such a thing as a left-handed armor made for a left-handed knight, he would be unable to joust with anybody other than another left-handed knight: he would be riding in the wrong direction in the lists. The breathing holes on a jousting helmet are exclusively on the right side of the face:if they were on the left side, your opponent’s lance might catch in one of the holes, and the torsion could break your neck.
Field armor (that is, armor that is made expressly for serious fighting, on horse or on foot) and tournament armor, however richly embellished, pay this rigorous attention to function, to the method of fighting and the weapons to be expected. Function is complicated by the fact that quite different demands are made of armor that expects to be attacked by sword and that which expects bullets. It is not true that the armor we see in museums predates the age of the gun. On the contrary, as Anthony de Reuck puts it in an interesting article, gunpowder and plate armors were virtually coeval: “Roger Bacon’s celebrated reference to gunpowder in his Opus tertium was written in 1268; and by 1326 the Florentine authorities were acquiring cannon: precisely the period of gestation of plate armour.”9 A bulletproof jacket of the modern kind is tough enough to protect me from small arms fire, but not hard enough to resist a dagger’s thrust. A fluted armor of the German kind will deflect a sword’s thrust or blow: its whole shape says—I expect a sword.
A further, and quite distinct, kind of armor is that made for parades. One would no more wear parade armor for jousting or warfare than one would plow a field in a tutu. The heroic armor on display in the Met’s superb recent show was largely embossed, that is to say the complex designs were beaten into the metal from the reverse. This practice stretches the metal unevenly, creating weak areas that would not be tolerated in either field or tournament armor. Furthermore an embossed surface might well have the opposite (unwelcome) effect of providing a lance with a point of entry.
Not only is the method of manufacture of this kind of armor different from that of field or tournament armor. Its stylistic ancestry is also quite distinct. It does not develop out of the Gothic. It develops rather from an understanding of what Roman parade armor would have been like, an understanding based on a reading of the evidence from Roman sculpture. Whereas field armor and tournament armor emerge from a conversation between function and rhetoric, in which function must always win the argument, parade armor always allows rhetoric to win the day. Like all armor, it can conceal the identity. Like all armor, it can conceal the identity while proclaiming the status of its wearer. Or it can proclaim both identity and status. But armor in this classical tradition, armor all’antica, makes a particular rhetorical claim: it links the wearer, in virtue and status, to his Roman mentors and ancestors.
For it was possible for the fifteenth-century Italian nobility not only to believe that they were descended from the aristocracy of ancient Rome but also to assert that their contemporary equestrian orders were descended from a Roman prototype. This was the case in Florence, where it was believed that both city and nobility were founded under ancient Rome and (to make its chivalry doubly sure) refounded by Charlemagne and his paladins. No pseudo-antique armor from this early Renaissance period survives, but it is most likely to have existed (if not made of metal, then of boiled leather or even—like the fakes of the Romantic period—of paper) and to have been created for ceremonial purposes along with those trionfi, triumphs which would have featured arches and displays of trophies in the Roman style. In the 1420s, the Florentine nobility began commissioning a kind of wall-tomb in which a stone chest was placed under a semicircular arch, in imitation of ancient Roman tombs. They seem to have been saying: we are entitled to be buried like this because we are ancient Romans.10
The fantastic armor that Leonardo da Vinci drew, and that Verrocchio represented in sculpture, may simply have been a little ahead of the technical skills of the armorers of the day. The extraordinary sallet all’antica, or visored helmet, in the form of a lion’s head belonging to the Met (and surely one of the most significant, as well as most beautiful pieces of parade armor in the world) is made by two workshops. The interior is a piece of field armor, entirely practical in character. The gilt copper lion-head exterior is from a goldsmith’s shop, and could thus well be the work of a major sculptor. But it is unique, dating probably from 1475-1480, and nobody knows where in Italy it comes from.
Half a century later the Negroli family of Milan were producing the embossed and damascened parade armors that were never surpassed and that, as mentioned earlier, were soon mistaken for antique pieces. A Negroli helmet which belonged to the dukes of Urbino before entering the Medici collection soon found itself described as “the helmet of Aeneas the Trojan which the excellent Guidobaldo, duke of Urbino, acquired when he was general of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, and which is held as the greatest marvel; on the said helmet are sculpted two masks, one above the head, the other on the visor, that are made by means of chiseling, which render it a great marvel to the beholders, and this was made by Ripa, son of Numa Babilonico, according to Demosthenes.”
Numa Babilonico! Pifanio Tacito! The great tournament at Kenilworth! The Canterville Ghost! It is a fine tradition that these American catalogs, these exhibitions and displays pay tribute to. The sun streams on these pages, “through the rare ymagerie of the mullioned window,” and all centuries, all ages, blend as one, and we come to a world where Hannibal accepts a Mamie Taylor from George F. Harding, Jr., and Demosthenes authenticates a muscle cuirasse for Bashford Dean. “To me,” said a certain Thomas Roscoe, “the sight of a vacant suit of armor is a strange and solemn thing….” It is indeed a strange, a solemn, almost a murrey-colored thing …the start of a reverie, an invitation to an obsession.
April 22, 1999
Clive Wainwright, The Romantic Interior (Yale University Press, 1989), p. 1. ↩
Sarah Barker Bailey, “J.R. Planché’s rearrangement of the armour in the Tower of London,” in Royal Armouries Yearbook, Vol. 2 (Leeds:Royal Armouries Museum, 1997), pp. 137-143. ↩
Thomas Carlyle, History of Friedrich the Second called Frederick the Great, Vol. 5 (James B. Lyon, 1886), pp. 281-282. For a list of other tournaments, see Ian Anstruther, The Knight and the Umbrella: An Account of the Eglinton Tournament 1839 (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1963). ↩
“Particulars of the Mischianza exhibited in America at the departure of General Howe,” in Annual Register (1778), pp. 264-270. ↩
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The English Notebooks 1853-1856, edited by Thomas Woodson and Bill Ellis (Ohio State University Press, 1997), p. 160. ↩
Rollin G. Osterweis, Romanticism and Nationalism in the Old South (Yale University Press, 1949), p. 79. ↩
Elizabeth Bradford Smith, “The Earliest Private Collectors,” in Medieval Art in America: Patterns of Collecting 1800-1940 (Palmer Museum of Art/ Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996). ↩
Evan H. Turner, editor, Object Lessons: Cleveland Creates an Art Museum (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1991), p. 36. ↩
Anthony de Reuck, “The armorer’s dilemma:hard or tough,” in Royal Armories Yearbook, Vol. 2 (1997). ↩
Andrew Butterfield, “Social structure and the typology of funerary monuments in early Renaissance Florence,” in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, Vol. 26 (Autumn 1994). ↩