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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Fashion in European Armor, 1500–1600

At the turn of the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, one of the most startling changes in taste and fashion occurred, which was immediately mirrored in armor and can best be witnessed in the German harness of the period. Through what appears to have been combined influences from Italy and the (formerly Burgundian) Netherlands, the earlier emphasis on elegance and almost delicate slenderness, which so far had been emblematic of armor worn in many parts of the Holy Roman Empire and western Europe, suddenly—within the space of ten years—gave way to new forms. This change in fashion sprang from a new understanding and acceptance of the human body. Rather than obscuring bodily mass and idealizing its shape and presence, this very presence and physicality of the human body was now being emphasized. In accordance with a changed taste in civilian fashion, a new elegance was achieved by accentuating massive shape, more rounded forms, and a generally heavier outline, while still retaining a distinctive waist and well-modeled male legs.

One of the most well-known and easily recognizable indicators of this new taste is the concurrent development in footwear. Since at least the fourteenth century, the male shoe had a pointed front, and from about 1450 to around 1490, this point could sometimes be elongated to immense length, the so-called piked shoon, or Schnabelschuh (German; Schnabel = beak). The foot defense (sabaton) of the period followed this taste, often making it necessary to produce the sabatons, or at least their final, pointed plates, as separate pieces, to be taken off while the man-at-arms was dismounted in order to make walking easier. The pointed shoe vanished abruptly around 1500, to be replaced by a completely opposite shape. The front of the new shoe now had a straight edge, produced by the toe of the shoe being splayed out at the ball of the foot in a bulge of material. Again, this new outline of footwear was immediately copied for foot defenses, which gave rise to their modern labels of “bear-paw sabaton” or Kuhmaulschuh (German; Kuh = cow, Maul = snout, mouth).

From the beginning of the sixteenth century onward, and at first in addition to the decorative ridges and grooves, armor began to be adorned more and more frequently with etched decoration. Like the form and construction of armor in general, this somewhat newer aspect of decoration was equally susceptible to national and regional tastes and fashion.

Another particularly German fashion in armor can be followed mainly during the second and third decades of the sixteenth century. It was partially adopted by other western European regions, and also influenced export armor produced in Italy. The decorative ridges and grooves of earlier “Gothic” armor were employed in many ways, but by around 1515/20, they developed into a more or less parallel pattern, known as “fluting,” that could now cover virtually the entire surface of most elements of armor (usually with the exception of the defenses for the lower legs, the greaves). Such “fluted armor,” because of its development roughly coinciding with the reign of Emperor Maximilian I (1493–1519), is commonly referred to by the misleading term of “Maximilian armor.”

In Italy, between about 1530 and 1560, the aforementioned taste for armor all’antica reached its artistic peak with works by the famous Italian workshop of Filippo Negroli of Milan. Parade armor in this fashion was produced for the most illustrious clientele of European nobility, exquisitely embossed with figural and floral decoration, and often etched and gilded, or damascened and encrusted with gold and silver. Shields for ceremonial use were made either from wood and painted with elaborate mythological or historical scenes, or—when made of metal—embossed and decorated in the same style as the armor they accompanied. The high standards set by the Negroli workshop were emulated (though never quite attained) until the very end of the sixteenth century, with ceremonial armor for man and horse continuing to be decorated in the all’antica style.

During roughly the same period, an element of armor appeared that was always as much, if not more, fashionable as functional. The history of the armored codpiece is closely related to its counterpart in civilian male costume. From the mid-fourteenth century onward, male garments for the upper body had occasionally become so short as to almost reveal the crotch. In these times prior to the development of trousers, men wore leggings tied to their undergarment or a belt, and the crotch was hidden with a flap secured to the upper inside edge of each legging. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, this flap began to be padded and thus visually emphasized. As such, the codpiece remained commonplace in European male costume until the end of the sixteenth century. On armor, the codpiece as a separate piece of plate defense for the genitals appeared during the second decade of the sixteenth century and remained in use until about 1570. It was generally thickly padded on the inside and attached to the armor at the center of the lower edge of the skirt. While its early form was rather cuplike, it remained under the direct influence of civilian costume, and later examples are somewhat more pointed upward, similar in shape to a cashew nut.

In the Holy Roman Empire, in Spain, and in the Christian nations of southeastern Europe (especially Hungary), fashion received an interesting influence from outside their borders. Spain had witnessed the century-old attempt to free the peninsula from Muslim occupation, while in southeastern Europe several countries had been locked since the fall of Constantinople in 1453 in a continuing struggle against the steadily advancing Turks. This constant—albeit mostly belligerent—cultural interaction led to a somewhat ambiguous European attitude toward the Muslim neighbor, which to some extent was reciprocated on the Muslim side. This attitude was marked by both fear and curiosity and led to attentive observation of the enemy’s armor, weapons, and other equipment. A parade helmet from Spain, dating to the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, is of a typical Spanish shape, while the addition of cutouts over the eyes is a feature of Islamic helmets. Its added decoration in the Hispano-Moresque style suggests that it was once owned by a high-ranking member of the Nasrid court, perhaps even the king himself. During the mid-sixteenth century, some German and eastern European armorers’ workshops in return began to cater to a new taste in the “exotic,” and produced armor, especially helmets, that in form and decoration was directly copied from Turkish models that presumably had found their way into the empire either as war booty or diplomatic gifts.

Perhaps with the exception of the helmet, no other element of armor has been as important an indicator of fashion throughout most regions of Europe as the breastplate. Its shape and profile changed according to the dictates of a general development in European male costume for the upper body. The broad and immediately visible surface of the breastplate lent itself to adornment in a style of decoration more specific to its region of manufacture, or as requested by the wearer. From the beginning of the century until about 1540, breastplates tended to be rather globose and rounded, lacking a medial ridge, but often decorated with fluting or etching. From about 1530 onward, the breastplate became longer, and less globose both in shape and profile. The overall decoration with fluting and etching appeared to lose much of its former appeal; it became plainer in appearance, and the medial ridge was reintroduced (it had been fashionable throughout the fifteenth century). Immediately, this medial ridge began to be drawn out into an obtuse point at about the center of the breastplate; in Germany, this new feature was sometimes exaggerated into almost a sharp point or small vertical comb, called a Tapul. During the remainder of the century, both in civilian costume and armor, this point was set at a continuously lower level, until during the last decade of the sixteenth century, waistcoats and breastplates had developed into the well-known “goose-belly” or “peascod” shape.