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  • Armour and Masculinity in the Italian Renaissance
  • William Caferro
Armour and Masculinity in the Italian Renaissance. By Carolyn Springer (Toronto, University of Toronto Press. 2010) 241 pp. $55.00

In this elegant book, Springer explores the cultural and political significance of armor in sixteenth-century Italy—a worthy subject not adequately addressed by scholars until now. She treats armor as one of the most complicated and ambiguous manifestations of the era's material culture, embodying various meanings. It was used by political leaders to fashion images of themselves, connected to notions of masculinity.

Armor was, as Springer argues, a singularly elusive artifact because its very form could be changed. Disassembled and reassembled, it was never a "secure possession (4)." Springer employs her training as a literary critic to penetrate the deeper significance of the artifact, effectively linking her arguments with those of art historians, and drawing widely on anthropological, historical, and psychoanalytical literature. The result is a book of considerable depth and erudition.

Springer's main interest is in the "luxury" armor that came into vogue during the sixteenth century. This armor, unlike its munitions-grade predecessors, was not intended for the battlefield, but for display in processions and parades at court as a species of artwork, commissioned by wealthy patrons. Springer focuses particular attention on the highly [End Page 294] ornate armor produced by Filippo Negroli (1510-1579) of Milan, one of the great manufacturers of the day and the subject of an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1998. Springer stresses the theatricality of Negroli's armor and its role as a means of both self-presentation and self-concealment (161).

Springer divides her book into two parts. The first, consisting of three chapters, lays out a typology of armor, which included classical, sacred, and grotesque as its basic forms. The second section, also three chapters long, deals with the "celebrity patrons" Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino; Emperor Charles V Habsburg; and Cosimo I de'Medici, duke of Florence and later of Tuscany. These men, who were roughly contemporary, employed armor as a means of "self fashioning," the subtitle Springer gives to the section.

The first section bears the imprint of Bakhtin and his well-known discussion of grotesque and classical forms in the work of Rabelais.1 Springer carefully elucidates the types of ceremonial armor in use during the sixteenth century. Classical armor, alla romana, depicted an articulated musculature on the classical model—an ideal of masculinity taken from the Roman world, based on "symmetry, autonomy and closure" (37). Sacred armor projected Christian images, which were both visual (often representations of saints) and textual (verses from the Bible). Grotesque armor, the oldest form, emphasized distortion of the human form and included demonic devices, such as images of Medusa emblazoned on shields, helmets, and breastplates (56). Springer devotes a great deal of space to explicating the popular Medusa motif.

The second part of the book shifts to the activities of important patrons and the ways in which they used armor to allay their anxieties and empower themselves. In this context, Springer most effectively demonstrates, as she promised in the introduction, the ambiguity of armor, which simultaneously expressed both vulnerability and power. The commissions of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, duke of Urbino, strongly linked political authority with masculinity. The famous portrait by Agnolo Bronzino depicted him with a protruding codpiece, intended to emphasize his potency and legitimacy and to distinguish him physically from his namesake, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, who was portrayed in Balsassare Castiglione's Courtier (1527) as effeminate and impotent.

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whom Springer calls "a singular connoisseur of armor" (104), employed a broad range of images, combining classical and Christian forms that portrayed him as heir of both the Roman and chivalric traditions. His headpiece had a detachable chin plate that helped mask the Habsburg family deformity, the protruding jaw (107).

The most steadfast in his use of armor to project images was, however, Cosimo I de'Medici. Cosimo maintained close control over his armored [End Page 295] likeness ("Cosimo armato"), usually rendered in classical form and relayed in numerous paintings and medals, including...


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pp. 294-296
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