Sallet alla Veneziana


On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 373

Italian paintings of the fifteenth century provide ample evidence that color played an important role in the appearance of the armored knight. The metal plates themselves were often colored by heat to a blue or black finish, and the edges were sometimes enriched with gilt metal borders; rich brocades and velvets frequently covered the armor, and huge crests composed of gilt metal, leather, parchment, and feathers surmounted the helmet. Helmets decorated in this way appear to have had great popularity in venice, so much so that helmets covered with velvet are generally referred to as alla Veneziana (in the Venetian manner). Decoration of this sort is ephemeral, however, and seldom survives in its original condition, though the present example preserves some hints of the brilliant effect such armor must have made.

The helmet belongs to a type known as a sallet (from the Italian celata), an open-faced helmet formed of a single plate shaped to the skull. The face opening is wide for ease of vision and breathing, and the sides sweep back in an arc from the face to the short tail. Each side of the skull is covered by a piece of velvet, once red but now mostly rubbed smooth and oixidized to a golden grown color; to the edges of the sallet are applied two bands of gilt copper embossed in the center with an ornamental pattern of threaded buttons, with a repeated pierced leaf pattern along their upper edge; a luxuriant branch of acanthus sweeps over the arched comb. Riveted to the front of the helmet is a decoratively cut cartouche-shaped shield of gilt copper engraved with the arms of the Capello family of Venice; a broad brimmed hat with crossed chin straps, as a "canting device" or pun on the family name (capello, "hat" in Italian).

Recent restoration of the sallet necessitated the removal and cleaning of the fabric and metal mounts, a process in which the iron surface of the skull was revealed for the first time in many decades. At the rear of the bowl, to either side of the comb, are faint traces of two armorer's marks. One of these is apparently surmounted by an open crown, a type of mark used by Milanese armorers, though the rest of the mark is indecipherable. The skull, which probably dates about 1470 is pierced with numerous holes; those around the brow are for lining straps, and the rest for securing the decorative mounts. The hole found at the center of each side of the skull provides evidence that additional mounts at one time decorated this helmet, though the lack of corresponding holes in the present velvet indicates that this fabric is a later addition, perhaps of the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The gilt-copper mounts, on the other hand, are much older and may date from the early sixteenth century, when the threaded-button motif was an ornamental device commonly utilized in the etched decoration of armors (for example, acc. no. 14.25.716). Many sallets and barbuts of the fifteenth century are today preserved with mounts of much later date (seventeenth century and later), these usually of flat copper or brass sheet cut to the shape of the helmet and gilt. The mounts on this helmet are much better designed and are boldly embossed in relief, which suggests that they are of Renaissance origin. The decoratively shaped shield at the front of the helmet also follows a late sixteenth-century pattern, and so may date somewhat later than the rest of the mounts. The appearance of this helmet was once augmented by a salmon-colored paint, of which faint traces are still preserved in the crevises of the mounts. This sallet has clearly had a long and useful life, and perhaps served in Venetian pageant and parade over several centuries.

Sallet alla Veneziana, Steel, copper alloy, gold, velvet, Italian

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