Helmets are the earliest known form of body armor and remain today an essential element of protection not only for soldiers but also for sportsmen. In the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, helmet design reached its apogee, the European armorer creating head defenses of ingenious construction and powerful sculptural form. Whether intended for aristocratic mounted knights or humble infantrymen, helmets had to provide maximum defense for the most vital—and vulnerable—part of the body while offering reasonable comfort with adequate sight and ventilation. The forging of a helmet was thus the armorer's greatest challenge and, very often, his finest achievement. A well-made helmet balances the practical function of defense with the aesthetics of line and mass. The Metropolitan Museum's holdings of European helmets are among the largest and most diverse in the world. This exhibition offers a representative survey of some seventy-five helmets drawn entirely from storage, revealing the depth of the collection and a glimpse of objects that are rarely on public display.
The period of time covered by the exhibition marks the waning of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era, when new tactics and improved weaponry revolutionized warfare and changed dramatically the look of helmets and body armor. The armorer was continually challenged to devise new defenses to compensate for the increasing use and accuracy of firearms, which became commonplace on the battlefield by the early sixteenth century. The armorer's expertise was equally in demand in times of peace, when martial sports—tournaments—required specialized helmets to ensure the participants' safety. At the same time, national and regional styles were becoming more clearly discernible, and Turkish influences in Eastern Europe inspired the adoption of oriental elements. Armor decoration also changed dramatically from the late medieval practice of covering plates with textile and metal appliqués to the creation of integral decoration, worked directly into the steel surfaces in the form of etching, embossing, and damascening.
Among the helmets on view are a selection of rare fifteenth-century sallets worn by Italian and German knights; elaborately decorated parade helmets worn by the guards of Pier Luigi Farnese, duke of Parma and Piacenza (1525–1547, duke from 1545), and of Pope Julius III (1487–1555, elected pope in 1550); sturdy tournament helmets made for use in the joust with blunt lances; and shot-proof siege helmets weighing more than twenty pounds. Although most helmets are unsigned and therefore anonymous, several can be attributed on the basis of their form or decoration to the leading armorers of the day, among them Kolman Helmschmid (1470–1532) of Augsburg and Kunz Lochner (ca. 1510–1567) of Nuremberg. Among the rediscovered treasures previously overlooked is a richly silvered and gilt helmet bearing the arms and devices of Vicenzo Gonzaga (1562–1612), duke of Mantua, a Milanese work of about 1587.