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Old 21st August 2020, 07:13 PM   #1
shayde78
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Default Caravaggio - paintings of armor and edged weapons 1590s-1610

I've been wanting to post this material for a long time. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio has been a long-time favorite artist of mine (maybe because we share a birthday!). Before I knew anything about art history, his style represented the epitome of Renaissance painting to me. In reality, his depictions of dramatic lighting are more associated with the Baroque movement that he inspired, but again, to me, this is pure Renaissance.

Of use for this forum is the fact that he was active during a narrow period of time (1590s-1610) and worked almost exclusively in Rome (he did have to flee after killing someone in Rome, and spent time in Naples, Sicily, and Malta). So, we are able to fix what he painted into a fixed time period and general locale. His technical abilities allowed him to attain a high degree of realism, and some of the details included in the depictions of hilts and armor is quite good considering the medium of oil paints.

I went through his complete works, as compiled by Taschen, and am posting here the examples that include depictions of knives, swords, spears, and armor. the usual caveats apply when discussing depictions of arms in visual arts - namely, the artists of this time period tend to depict costumes and items contemporary to the time period in which they worked. there is some creative license taken when depicting scenes from antiquity (to lend an 'exotic' air), but for the most part, we can assume much of what Caravaggio painted was what he himself was seeing in Rome at the time.

Out of nearly 200 total works, there are about a dozen that depict artifacts relevant to this forum. Although some dates are disputed, I did my best to post these in the order in which they were composed. I will indicate the date attributed to the work. I will also post each image individually to allow for easier reference if anyone would like to discuss, and I look forward to any such discussion.

But first, an image of the artist himself by Ottavio Leoni, 1621 (about 10 years after his death). You may see a resemblance to the head of Goliath as Caravaggio used himself as the model for that painting:
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Old 21st August 2020, 07:29 PM   #2
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Default Cardsharps; 1594

Cardsharps; c.1594

I always was fascinated by the hilt at the waist of the young man in the foreground. I'd be grateful if anyone could find an actual dagger with a similar hilt. It would be easy to dismiss this as an artists simply being careless, but as you see subsequent works, I think you'll agree Caravaggio's attention to detail is hard to question.
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Old 21st August 2020, 07:35 PM   #3
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Default The Martyrdom of St. Mathew; c. 1599/1600

Martyrdom of St. Mathew; c. 1599/1600

This was the painting that made Caravaggio the 'most famous painter in Rome' because it departed so drastically form the poised, kind of artificial, posing of true Renaissance works and introduced a dramatic and dynamic style of composition that would inspire the Baroque generation.

The swords depicted are typical 1500s despite the time period and location being represented (1st Century CE, Ethiopia).
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Old 21st August 2020, 07:44 PM   #4
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Default The Conversion of St. Paul; c. 1600/1601

The Conversion of St. Paul; c. 1600/01

This, and the next image, show a common subject for painters of Christian-era Europe. One can see some examples of armor components in this first painting.
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Old 21st August 2020, 07:46 PM   #5
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Default The Conversion of St. Paul; c. 1602

The Conversion of St. Paul; 1602

One can see a clearly represented hilt here with a simple, albeit large, side ring.
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Old 21st August 2020, 07:51 PM   #6
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Default The Taking of Christ; 1602

The Taking of Christ; 1602

Here we can really start to see some of the detail portrayed in the representation of armor. I particularly like that the leather straps are clearly shown. The curl at the end is simply something that struck me as an extra touch of realism.
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Old 21st August 2020, 07:56 PM   #7
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Default The Sacrifice of Isaac; c. 1602/1603

The Sacrifice of Isaac; 1602/1603

I debated including this one as the knife shown is entirely simple. However, as the surviving examples we have from any historical period are those that skew toward the exceptional (and thus worth preserving through the ages), I felt it important to allow this humble tool be shown here. This may be considered a typical simple Italian shepherd's knife from the early 17th Century.
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Old 21st August 2020, 07:58 PM   #8
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Default The Crowning with Thorns; c. 1602/1603

The Crowning with Thorns; c. 1602/1603

Again, here is another good showing of armor. Additionally, I like that we see how one might wear their shirt with a cuirass.
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Old 21st August 2020, 08:03 PM   #9
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Default Seven Works of Mercy; c. 1606/1607

Here, there is not much in the way of weaponry displayed. The drawn rapier is mostly obscured. However, I included it to show the detail of the rapier frog, scabbard, and belt, as some may find that interesting.
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Old 21st August 2020, 08:08 PM   #10
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Default David with the Head of Goliath; c. 1606/1607

David with the Head of Goliath; c. 1606/1607

Remember when I mentioned the head of Goliath looks a bit like the painter himself? This is the first of two such renditions (see image dated 1609/1610 for the other). I'll let you judge of the likeness. As for the sword, even the fullering, the facets on the pommel, and some hints of additional decoration to the pommel are shown. This style may have been considered archaic by Caravaggio's time, and thus suitable to be used in a scene from antiquity.
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Old 21st August 2020, 08:21 PM   #11
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Default Judith Beheading Holofernes; date disputed

Judith Beheading Holofernes; date disputed (as early as 1598 - as late as 1607).

While placing this piece in time has been challenging, I chose to include it here as it fits to the later attribution. Regardless, it shows what I think is an attempt to portray an 'exotic' blade. However, such blades were frequently represented in Medieval manuscripts (see thread of images from the Nuremberg Chronicle ), and seems to have been particularly portrayed in the hands of characters from the Jewish scriptures (aka Old Testament). While you're checking out that other link, take a moment to compare the artistic differences between what could be achieved through early printing methods, and full-scale oil paintings, and the overall changes in artistic representations. The Chronicle was compiled about a century before the works shown in this thread.

Back to the blade in Judith's hand - it is beautifully rendered and, if recreated in the round, would surely be a functional knife. Once again, the fullers are clearly shown and, to me, demonstrates that the artist was well acquainted with the work of actual bladesmiths. In the other thread, Vitrix noted that such a blade resembles that used as a maker's mark in some instances. He speculated that this might represent the sword of God. As Judith is working to protect her people in this scene, perhaps that is not a coincidental choice by Caravaggio.
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Old 21st August 2020, 08:32 PM   #12
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Default Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page; c. 1607-1608

Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and his Page; c. 1607-1608

To me, portraiture is a true test of an artist's skill at capturing real life. Your patron is the subject, and they will want to see a faithful (ok, more likely idealized) version of themselves looking out from the canvas.

Here, we have a nearly complete suit of contemporary armor depicted. The rich decoration is well captured. Even the bit of mail at the waist/groin is apparent.

As for Alof, he was the Grand Master of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. He made a name for himself at the battle of Malta in 1565, after which, the Turks were permanently expelled from the island. His armor certainly speaks of a man of great standing.

The page was some kid name Tom who mostly stayed in his room and played video games.
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Old 21st August 2020, 08:35 PM   #13
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Default Beheading of John the Baptist; c. 1607/1608

Beheading of John the Baptist; c. 1607/1608

Another biblical scene, another beheading. I think Alix from Clockwork Orange once spoke of the scope of violence in that 'Good Book'.

Anyway, although the details of the sword are not shown, I find interesting the depiction of how a knife would be carried in the small of the back and could be easily drawn, probably by either the right or left hand, as needed.

Also, as there is often some overlap between those of us who collect arms and those who have an interest in old keys and locks, the key ring at the one figure's waist might hold interest for some.
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Old 21st August 2020, 08:43 PM   #14
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Default Portrait of Maltese Knight Antonio Martelli; c. 1608

Portrait of Maltese Knight Antonio Martelli; c. 1608

This portrait had been thought, until recently, to be another depiction of Alof de Wignacourt. However, it is now believed to be another knight of Malta. I cannot find much information on this individual.

That said, there is a nice, working-man's rapier hilt shown. I especially like that one can glean a little of the proportions of the hilt compared to the subject's hand.
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Old 21st August 2020, 08:49 PM   #15
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Default The Martyrdom of St. Ursula; c. 1609/1610

The Martyrdom of St. Ursula; c. 1610

There is some debate if this or the next painting represents Caravaggio's final work. Since it is not firmly established, I place this as the penultimate piece.

Ursula was shot with an arrow when she refused to marry her captor, the King of the Huns. The time of the scenario depicted was c. 383 CE. I'm not sure how much license was taken with the armor, but it is still shows the interesting interplay between the armored and non-armored elements of a person's wardrobe in the early 1600s.
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Old 21st August 2020, 08:57 PM   #16
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Default David with the Head of Goliath; c. 1609/1610

David with the Head of Goliath; c. 1609/1610

Here we see Caravaggio revisit the subject of David's triumph over the giant Goliath. As I said in the previous post, there is some dispute as to this or the St. Ursula painting being his final work. However, since Caravaggio once again used this opportunity to paint a self-portrait of himself as the vanquished Philistine, I thought it fitting to close out with his portrayal of his own mortality. The artist died, possibly of being poisoned in 1610.

The sword held by David, which following the narrative was Goliath's sword, is a robust blade in with an interesting swept hilt. One can even make out the hints of an inscription in the fuller. It reminds me of when I post pictures on here and you all ask for clearer photos! You can almost make out what is written, but not quite. Still, it is a good picture to close out with because it shows that Caravaggio either had a great familiarity with such weapons and/or had access to such examples to use as props in his sittings. Either way, it speaks to the faithfulness with which he captured details.
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Old 21st August 2020, 09:01 PM   #17
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And that's all of them, as far as I can tell. I would love it if anyone could advise if I missed some works. To be honest, I almost forgot to include 'Cardsharps', which was perhaps the painting that made me want to start this thread in the first place! So it is entirely likely I missed other examples.

I am eager to hear your thoughts and impressions. I know the dozen, or so, paintings won't merit much conversation, but my hope is that this can serve as a reference for folks who browse the forums in an effort to attribute a date and locale for their pieces. If you happen to own something from Rome in the last decade of the 16th and first decade of the 17th centuries, maybe this will prove useful
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Old 22nd August 2020, 01:47 AM   #18
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Great thread Shayde, and good to see the interest in classic art as a medium in identifying the period of use of certain forms and the elements of the hilts.
Naturally there is always the caution with 'license' and use of contemporary examples placed in historic periods of long before, such as Rembrandt using modern ethnographic weapons in Biblical scenes, not the case here obviously but just noting in art used in this way.

As Carvaggio was an avid brawler and duelist he was quite familiar with the weaponry around in his time (1571-1610) and given his penchant for detail it would seem that he would portray these accurately.
As always, many forms remained around for long periods and often as heirlooms, so the notion of 'antiquated' forms being present, even with the more current types in the same context.

It seems I recall reading about Rembrandt's "Night Watch" painting, the militia unit depicted is noted to be using 'antiquated' types of guns etc. Naturally the painting (not actually titled 'Night Watch', but the name of the town guard unit) faiithfully showed the heirloom or older types of weapon the men used. They of course furnished thier own arms.

As AVB Norman ("The Rapier and the Small sword", 1980) noted in his outstanding work which he used art work (mostly portraits) to establish date range for various hilt styles, portraits tended to be more reliable as the subject typically wore his own weapon. Though not infallible, it seemed pretty well placed.

It seems that his instances of the gruesome beheadings etc he was reacting to the sentence of same leveled at him as a sentence for one of his crimes in brawling, which gave legal permission to anyone to carry out on him if found.

On another note, elements of armor much as with weapons were often mixed together irrespective of proper matching obviously, as damaged or unserviceable were replaced with what was available.
It was not at all unusual in these historic times for men to be outfitted in incongruent assemblage of pieces, perhaps even to the degree of Cervantes' "Don Quixote".

These works of art give us wonderful context for the weapons often in our collections, adding so much to appreciation.
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Old 22nd August 2020, 06:59 AM   #19
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Looking at these masterly painted works of art I wonder why the artist preferred painting these terrible and cruel themes instead of themes of beauty or daily life. If this has been the normal sight of things in the 15th and 16th century - cruelty, blood, pain, torture, this was a really bad time for mankind. The more as people were prepared to give lots of money for this kind of art. I am really glad not to have been born in these centuries.
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Old 22nd August 2020, 04:54 PM   #20
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The observation on the very dark themes often seen in many classic works of art does seem to reflect the more sinister elements of humanity which were certainly prevalent then. As noted, it would seem that although these very negative, even gruesome events were certainly present , one wonders why an artist would not choose beauty over darkness.

From what I have understood on Carvaggio, he was a dark man, often brutish, prone to violence, brawls and indeed 'darkness'. It seems ironic that his beautifully painted works used the almost paradoxical manner of painting called chiaroscuro, a dramatic contrast of light and dark. Perhaps he saw irony and contrast in his artists perception of beauty, entwined in the darkness within him.

It has long been debated on the true cause of his death, but a notably held theory is that lead poisoning was the culprit. His times were indeed violent (but not sure that any more so than our own) but as with most people, the manner of dealing with them is as diverse as humanity itself. With him, he seemed to steer headlong into the violence.

With the famed Spanish painter Goya, his early works were beautiful with landscapes and other lighter themes. As time went on and war raged, his entire demeanor changed with an overpowering darkness in his work.
The theory again was lead poisoning in addition to illnesses, typically syphilis,which often aligned with similar symptoms in lead poisoning.

While observing here the weapons portrayed in Carvaggio's works, it is interesting to see how these forms were actually in use in these times, which were indeed dark as the themes show. This is quite in contrast to the romantically colorful and heroic portrayals in literature and film of swashbuckling figures dashingly using such weapons.

Also, I would note again that Carvaggio toward his demise, quite literally had 'a price on his head', as he had been indicted in a crime where the sentence was dictated as beheading and the bounty was out to anyone who could carry it out.
With this, the decapitations are allegorical using historic figures but in Carvaggio's own likeness. These kinds of interpretive elements are truly the intrigue of art study.........very much as in the study of arms, VIA the weapons as used in thier own historic settings.

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Old 23rd August 2020, 02:16 PM   #21
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Excellent insights, Jim, and always appreciated.
Corrado, as for the brutal subject matter, to be fair, this is a subset of works specifically selected because they depicted arms and armor. As such, there is an over representation of violence portrayed. Unlike us modern collectors, to the audiences of the day, depicting weapons came with the expectation of depicting their intended use. These were not benign objects of art. They were utilitarian tools that were often nicely embellished.
Even considering this skewing, it is worth bearing in mind that the average European of the period would have extensive, first hand exposure to the ravages of warfare and otherwise violent death. Unlike today, almost everyone would have seen casualties of war, victims of executions, etc. While maybe not entirely desensitized to these images, these scenes would have been part of everyday life. Viewing these images thru our modern lens when even the meat we eat comes in sanitized plastic wrap and most of us have never had a front row seat to violence and/or war they seem unnecessarily brutal. However, anything less in 1600 would have been jarringly unrealistic. That said, despite his brutish character, not all of Caravaggio's works depicts this subject matter, and some are quite beautiful.
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Old 23rd August 2020, 02:43 PM   #22
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Thank you shayde78, for sharing pictures of such fascinating paintings, that you have uploaded with immense quality.

I follow Udo's words in that this artist painted with incomparable expertise; yet he was owner of a disturbed mind. It seems as his skills competed between his brush and his sword. He did not die painting but in result of a fight .
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Old 24th August 2020, 03:58 PM   #23
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Default The Fortune Teller; c. 1595 - 1597

Wouldn't you know it - I was missing the first page of my notes and didn't include a number of works with the original postings. Apologies, as now these will be out of order since they represent his earlier works.

Here, we have two paintings of the same theme and produced about a year apart. They are both titled 'The Fortune Teller'. The first is from 1595/96, and the second from 1596/97

Lovely swept hilt depicted in both. One interesting detail, I believe the young man is carrying his gloves in the basket of the hilt. Such a convenient place to keep them that I am certain this was common, although I've never considered it before.
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Old 24th August 2020, 04:04 PM   #24
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Default St. Catherine of Alexandria; 1597

St. Catherine of Alexandria; 1597

St. Catherine of Alexandria was the patron saint of teachers, archivists, and all things related to wisdom and learning. She would make a good mascot for this forum!

She famously 'sparred' verbally with the court intellectuals of a pre-Christian Roman Emperor as part of her efforts to convert him. I wonder if this is why she is depicted with a rapier in this image.
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Old 24th August 2020, 04:07 PM   #25
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Fascinating !
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Old 24th August 2020, 04:09 PM   #26
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Default The Calling of St. Mathew; c. 1599/1600

The Calling of St. Mathew; c. 1599/1600

I can't believe I forgot this. THIS is the image that my Art History professor used to introduce us to Caravaggio's work, and therefore, forms the basis of my introduction to his style.

A simple rapier is seen hanging from the belt of the one figure. As I have often wondered how one sat with a 3+ foot blade suspended from your waist, this scene, at the least, demonstrates the utility of benches, stools, and other seating options without backs.
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Old 25th August 2020, 01:18 AM   #27
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Originally Posted by shayde78
St. Catherine of Alexandria; 1597

St. Catherine of Alexandria was the patron saint of teachers, archivists, and all things related to wisdom and learning. She would make a good mascot for this forum!

She famously 'sparred' verbally with the court intellectuals of a pre-Christian Roman Emperor as part of her efforts to convert him. I wonder if this is why she is depicted with a rapier in this image.


She was martyred by being broken on a spiked wheel, so this is why iconography always show her standing next to a wheel, in this case shown broken as an allegory of the triumph of Faith. Centuries afterward, a type of firework which rotates in the sky became known as the Catherine Wheel; there are a number of pubs of that name in Britain -- Fondly do I remember the one on Kensington Church St in London, just down the road from Michael German's antique arms and militaria shop, and Robert Hales' former gallery where he held forth with ethnographica and Oriental arms... Just the place to slake the thirst with a pint or two of Fullers London Pride after looking at antique arms for an afternoon and possibly making a purchase!
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Old 25th August 2020, 01:26 AM   #28
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Originally Posted by corrado26
Looking at these masterly painted works of art I wonder why the artist preferred painting these terrible and cruel themes instead of themes of beauty or daily life. If this has been the normal sight of things in the 15th and 16th century - cruelty, blood, pain, torture, this was a really bad time for mankind. The more as people were prepared to give lots of money for this kind of art. I am really glad not to have been born in these centuries.



I don't think it was gratuitous, the way many of us moderns (well not necessarily me) like dark and violent movies for the sensationalism and morbid thrill. Recall that this was an age that was much more religious than ours, these scenes he painted are from Biblical and early church narratives and the text pulls no punches. The Old Testament and the Lives of the Saints were full of lessons, as graphic as some of the stories are. The Law of Moses was stern indeed, and the moral absorbed from the stories would hopefully spare the faithful the discomfort of running afoul of its commandments.

Americans who grew up in the old Southern Baptist tradition certainly remember "fire and brimstone" sermons thundering from the pulpit!
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Old 25th August 2020, 01:36 AM   #29
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Originally Posted by fernando
Thank you shayde78, for sharing pictures of such fascinating paintings, that you have uploaded with immense quality.

I follow Udo's words in that this artist painted with incomparable expertise; yet he was owner of a disturbed mind. It seems as his skills competed between his brush and his sword. He did not die painting but in result of a fight .


The artist, whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi, died a tormented man indeed. According to one account he was on the lam trying to escape a murder charge arising from the brawl that you reference. It wasn't the first time, in an earlier case he had beaten the rap thanks to intervention by well-placed friends in the Church.

This guy was nobody's angel -- tavern brawler, heavy drinker, with a sexual appetite on both sides of the aisle. (For the tender and erotic side of his creative nature, see his "Boy with a Basket of Fruit" which was exhibited at the Getty Center in LA a few years ago - 180 degrees from the works depicted on this thread.) Goes to show that the line between genius and madness is thin indeed. His command of light and shadow took Western art in a new direction and eventually went far beyond painting into the realm of motion pictures in our era.
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Old 25th August 2020, 04:38 AM   #30
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Originally Posted by shayde78
Judith Beheading Holofernes; date disputed (as early as 1598 - as late as 1607).

it shows what I think is an attempt to portray an 'exotic' blade. However, such blades were frequently represented in Medieval manuscripts

Back to the blade in Judith's hand - it is beautifully rendered and, if recreated in the round, would surely be a functional knife. Once again, the fullers are clearly shown and, to me, demonstrates that the artist was well acquainted with the work of actual bladesmiths. .


These cutlasses or short sabers with clipped points have a long history in Italy, having been in use for over two centuries. The painting below is San Michele ed il drago, by Antonio del Pollaiolo, ca 1466-80, in the museum of the Cathedral of Florence. An early Renaissance work, it depicts a weapon with the medieval-style "wheel" pommel but whose guard sports a rudimentary knucklebow which is the forerunner of a trend beginning early in the next century in northern Italy, from the Venetian spada da fante to the swept-hilt rapier hilts of Milan, Belluno, and other areas.

The photo is of an actual and magnificent example of one of these weapons, a coltellacio (big knife) ca. 1570, probably Brescian (Dresdner Rüstkammer, inv. no. HM VI.379, published along with above painting in Boccia/Coelho, Armi Bianche Italiane, 1975). Talk about fullers -- note the multiple rows of segmented fullers, cut as precisely as you please, a hallmark of deluxe blades of all kinds made in Brescia. A princely sword, in near perfect condition, the blade surface with intact polish (lucidatura), a painstaking process admired in the rest of Europe as well, and commonly referred to as "Milan polish".
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