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Marking the Arms and Armor Centennial

Donald J. La Rocca, Curator, Department of Arms and Armor

Posted: Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Arms and Armor

Fig. 1. The central court of the purpose-built Arms and Armor Galleries, designed by McKim, Mead & White and installed in 1915.

«One hundred years ago, on October 28, 1912, the Trustees of The Metropolitan Museum of Art officially created the Department of Arms and Armor. From relatively modest beginnings, the department rapidly developed into one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of its type in the world.» To commemorate the department's centennial, the Museum has organized a number of activities, including the publication of a history of the department written by Stuart Pyhrr, Of Arms and Men: Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan, 1912–2012; a series of gallery talks, public lectures, and educational programs; the exhibition Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department (fig. 2), which examines the career of the founding curator of the department; and a series of changes in the department's permanent galleries to enhance and augment the displays.

Fig. 2. Entrance to the exhibition Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department, on view October 2, 2012, through September 30, 2013.

Of fundamental importance among these changes is a comprehensive upgrading of hundreds of light fixtures throughout the galleries, making the works on display dramatically more visible. Equally important is the creation of approximately one thousand entirely new object labels that are far more legible than previous versions and include new and expanded information about the pieces on display. To improve the presentation further, ten new display cases have been installed and about sixty additional objects have been put on display. These new cases feature several important recent acquisitions, some of which have never been shown before.

Four new wall cases have been added to the entrance gallery (Gallery 370). Two cases on the left side, flanking the entrance to Gallery 373, feature important early European swords: one from the Viking era and the other a classic knightly sword of about 1400. The double-edged blade of the Viking sword is inlaid in iron with the name of the swordsmith Ulfberht, who probably lived in the Middle Rhine region of Germany in the tenth century (fig. 3). His work was held in such high regard that his blade-making style and signature were copied by other craftsmen for generations. This sword is one of several pieces on loan to the Museum from Laird and Kathleen Landmann.

Fig. 3. Sword, ca. 850–900. Germanic or Scandinavian. Lent by Laird and Kathleen Landmann, 2006 (L.2006.57)

The adjacent sword has a pommel that is decorated with silver and a crossguard made of bronze and wrapped with silver wire, which suggest that this sword was intended for presentation or ceremonial use rather than as a fighting weapon (fig. 4). A Latin phrase inscribed on the pommel translates, "here, too, virtue has its due reward," a quote from Virgil's Aeneid (book 1, line 461). An inscription (now illegible) on its blade is important as a very early example of the use of etching for the decoration of a weapon.

Fig. 4. Sword, ca. 1400. Western European. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Collection of Giovanni P. Morosini, presented by his daughter Giulia, 1932 (32.75.225)

Opposite these are two cases on the right side, flanking the entrance to Gallery 378, which include a selection of Japanese masks (fig. 5) and Japanese arrowheads (fig. 6) respectively. Sculptural face masks, worn as armor, existed in ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Near East, and sporadically in other parts of Asia, going out of use by the fifteenth century. They remained in use in Japan, however, well into the nineteenth century, where they were appreciated as masterly demonstrations of artistic ironwork, as seen in the examples in the galleries. The new arrowheads supplement an existing display of ornate ceremonial Japanese arrowheads by showing more practical examples designed for war and hunting.


Fig. 5. The northeast corner of Gallery 370 showing the new installation of Japanese masks. Fig. 6. The southeast corner of Gallery 370 showing the new installation of Japanese arrowheads.

In the Bashford Dean Memorial Gallery (Gallery 373), which covers European arms and armor from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, we've added several pieces to existing display cases. A selection of different types of stirrups now complements the previously existing group of spurs (fig. 7). Three beautifully painted fifteenth-century shields are now on display for the first time since being comprehensively restored (fig. 8). They come from a unique group of seven shields that were painted over and reused for funerary purposes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Fig. 7. New installation of stirrups in Gallery 373. Fig. 8. One of three newly installed German Gothic shields in Gallery 373.

In the center of the gallery, there is now an extremely rare iron and gilt copper helmet dating from the sixth or seventh century (fig. 9), also a generous loan from Laird and Kathleen Landmann. It was necessary to temporarily remove the group of fifteenth-century crossbows usually on display in the corner of this gallery for conservation and photography. Although the crossbows are missed, we have used this opportunity to bring out a few beautifully decorated pieces of armor that are usually in storage, including parts of a cavalry armor and an embossed shield from Augsburg, and an etched close-helmet from Landshut, all pieces of very high quality and dating from the mid-sixteenth century (fig. 10).


Fig. 9. Helmet (Spangenhelm), 6th–7th century. Byzantine or Germanic. Lent by Laird and Kathleen Landmann (L.2010.48a). Fig. 10. Mid-sixteenth armor elements from Augsburg and Landshut installed in Gallery 373.

A new freestanding case has been added in the Russell B. Aitken Gallery of Firearms (Gallery 375) to accommodate two outstanding recent acquisitions: a flintlock sporting gun and a delicately decorated pair of Italian snaphaunce pistols made in about 1690. The sporting gun (fig. 11), probably designed for bird hunting, was made in Vienna for Empress Margarita Teresa (reigned 1666–73), Infanta of Spain and wife of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I (reigned 1658–1705). The crowned monogram of the empress is inlaid in silver on both sides of the gunstock, and her coat of arms is engraved on the silver escutcheon at the grip of the stock. The gun is a masterpiece by Jacques Lamarre, a Parisian gunmaker who worked for the imperial court in Vienna from about 1670. The snaphaunce pistols are among the best works of a renowned Italian gunmaker known as Acquafresca, who lived in Bargi, near Bologna (fig. 12). They have black ebony stocks decorated with inlaid silver wire and fitted with finely chiseled and brightly polished steel mounts.

Fig. 11. Jacques (or Jacob) Lamarre (French, recorded Paris 1657–died Vienna, Austria 1700). Flintlock Sporting Gun of Empress Margarita Teresa, ca. 1670–73. Austrian, Vienna. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gift, 2011 (2011.354). Fig. 12. Matteo Cecchi, called Acquafresca (Italian, Bargi, 1651–1738). Pair of Snaphaunce Pistols, ca. 1690. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gift, 2006 (2006.471.1–.2)

An early French or Netherlandish flintlock pistol of about 1650 (fig. 13) has been added to the case containing French firearms of the seventeenth century. This pistol is distinguished by the crisp and detailed ornament chiseled in high relief on its barrel, lock, and other steel mounts. It belonged to the famous Swedish general Carl Gustaf, Count Wrangel, whose armory survives to this day in Skokloster Castle, Sweden. An ornately carved ivory powder flask made in Germany in the about 1675 has been added to the display of firearms and accessories made from or decorated with ivory (fig. 14). This flask combines various ivory-working techniques, such as turning on a lathe and figural carving in low and high relief.

Fig. 13. Snaphaunce Pistol, Netherlandish or French, ca. 1650. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gift, 2011 (2011.360a, b). Fig. 14. Display in Gallery 375 of firearms and powder flasks made with carved ivory.

A recently added freestanding case in the Russell B. Aitken Gallery of Edged Weapons (Gallery 376) features what is perhaps the most beautifully designed European sword hilt of the nineteenth century (fig. 15). It was made by the French sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse in collaboration with the goldsmith Lucien Falize in about 1880. The grip is in the form of a sculpture in the round of the Virgin Mary, while the sword guard shows the Archangel Michael vanquishing Satan, represented in low relief. Acquired in 1989, the hilt is once again on display after having been on loan and then in storage for several years.

Fig. 15. Designed and modeled by Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (French, Anizy-le-Château 1824–1887 Sèvres); executed by Lucien Falize (French, Paris, 1842–1897). Sword Hilt with the Virgin Mary, Saint Michael, and Satan, ca. 1882. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Gift of William H. Riggs, by exchange, 1989 (1989.229)

The new centerpiece of the Robert M. Lee Gallery (Gallery 372) is a case devoted to three sumptuous American presentation swords. The practice of presenting specially designed swords to soldiers for acts of valor or distinguished service began in the American Revolution and continued through the War of 1812 (1812–15), Mexican War (1846–48), and Civil War (1861–65). The earliest sword of the three shown here was made by the New York goldsmith John Targee and awarded by the State of New York to Captain Samuel C. Reid, a naval hero of the War of 1812. The next sword was commissioned by the United States Congress and presented to Major General John E. Wool in 1854 for his pivotal role in the American victory at Buena Vista (February 1847) during the Mexican War (fig. 16). The massive gold hilt incorporates the American eagle as the pommel, an ear of corn for the grip, and a cactus branch entwined with snakes (for Mexico) as the cross-guard. Although the hilt of the third sword is made of gilt brass rather than gold, it is nevertheless very distinctive for its three dimensional figural grip and powerful design (fig. 17). This sword was given to Captain Richard French by the men of his New York militia company, known as the LaFayette Fusiliers, on June 21, 1850.


Fig. 16. Sameul Jackson (American, Baltimore, active 1833–70). Congressional presentation sword of Major General John E. Wool, 1854–55. United States, possibly Baltimore. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Goelet Gifts, 2009 (2009.8a–c). Fig. 17. Ames Manufacturing Company (American, Chicopee, Massachusetts, 1829–1935). Sword of Captain Richard French, 1850. United States, Chicopee, Massachusetts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gift, 2012 (2012.105a, b)

Two additional wall cases in Gallery 372, flanking the doorway to Gallery 376, contain six English silver-hilted smallswords showing the progression of styles from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century (fig. 18). Smallswords, often richly decorated, were an integral part of a gentleman's wardrobe from about 1650 until about 1800, when the wearing of swords in civilian settings went out of fashion and pistols replaced swords in personal duels. The majority of smallsword hilts are made of silver or steel, but many also employ a wide variety of luxurious materials, such as gold, porcelain, and enamel. English smallsword hilts, usually made of silver, were emulated, both in style and materials, by Colonial American silversmiths, whose work can be seen on the American hilts in the gallery.

Fig. 18. The west side of Gallery 372 showing the display of English and American smallswords.

Gallery 379, devoted to Islamic arms and armor, is now anchored by a Mughal mail shirt that is reinforced with gilt steel plates (fig. 19). This shirt ranks among the most beautiful surviving Mughal armors and is among the earliest dated examples. The plates are covered in two-color gold and incised with Qur’anic inscriptions in elegant calligraphy entwined with delicate foliage. An engraved inscription inside one of the plates identifies this armor as a gift from a high-ranking Mughal prince and military official at the court of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1627–58). Additional inscriptions inside the plates suggest that the armor belonged to the emperor himself.

Fig. 19. Shirt of Mail and Plate, India and Iran, plates dated A.H. 1042 (A.D. 1632–33). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Gift, 2008 (2008.245)

The Museum's collection of Tibetan and Himalayan arms and armor is one of the most comprehensive in the world and has been the subject of two special exhibitions in the past: Tibetan Arms and Armor from the Permanent Collection (December 13, 2007–April 29, 2012); and Warriors of the Himalayas: Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet (April 5–July 4, 2006). Only now, however, as part of the 2012 renovations, it is possible to have a rotating selection of this material included in the permanent galleries. One large case in Gallery 378 (fig. 20) includes an equestrian figure representing a fully equipped Tibetan cavalryman of the eighteenth to nineteenth century; a highly ornate saddle made in eastern Tibet in the 1940s for a government official; a Mongolian helmet decorated with gold damascening; and two pairs of elaborately pierced ironwork stirrups.

Fig. 20. The new selection of Tibetan and Himalayan arms and armor in Gallery 378.

A handful of pieces have also been added to the existing cases in the Bloomberg Court (Gallery 371). One of these, donated to the Museum in 2008 by Bernice and Jerome Zwanger, is an Italian breastplate that belonged to Francesco Maria II della Rovere (1548–1631), duke of Urbino (fig. 21). It can be seen in a portrait of della Rovere painted soon after he took part in the defeat of the Turkish fleet at the battle of Lepanto in October 1571, a detail of which appear on the new gallery label.

Fig. 21. Breastplate, from an armor of Francesco Maria II della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, ca. 1570. Italian, Milan. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Bernice and Jerome Zwanger, 2008 (2008.638.2)

The upgraded lighting and labels, new display cases, and additional objects constitute the most significant changes in the Arms and Armor Galleries since a comprehensive renovation in 1991. As the Department of Arms and Armor enters its second century, the activities marking its centennial in 2012 are a reflection of the high standards and traditions that have been carried on since the department was founded in 1912.

Department(s): Arms and Armor
Tag(s): Bashford Dean


  • Ben Nicholson says:

    After visiting fifteen firearms museums in the UK and US, logistically there are things that do and do not work in this redesign. Here's a sample.

    Each glass case is tastefully arranged, with the weapons set against a backdrop of grey or green felt. The mounts are perfectly wrought of bronze or brass wire, and are works of art in themselves. Double fronted cases project into the galleries and the guns are mounted on a thick sheet of optical quality acrylic, so that they appear to float in space. No detail of a firearm is more than a few inches away and both sides can be inspected closely. The lighting is precise and bright, and a fearsome light bulb never inadvertently blinds you; there is no reflection. Each sheet of glass of the exhibition cases is a hinged door provided with a lock, so that curators can dip in and out of the exhibits with relative ease, thus keeping the display fresh. Inaccessible display cases are dissuasive to change, as a visitor to the Davis Museum will attest to. The design, use and appearance of the MMONY's cases are simply the best in the business and deserve a Triple A rating.

    The much touted labels are a different story. The information on the introductory signage is good enough, but some cases do have an overall description of what is inside, but others do not. This makes it is hard to understand the overall layout of the firearms collection and you bop from one cabinet to the next, rudderless but stimulated. Generally, the cases are arranged by country, with the omission of Great Britain: why, what did we Brits do wrong? To solve the problem of a general guide, I went to the Museum Bookshop to see what I could find and bought 'Of Arms and Men'; it is a truly excellent well written guide (on sale for $5!) that made a subsequent afternoon's tour a real delight.

    It is quite difficult to navigate inside the cases, because the labels are divorced from the objects. Higgledy piggledy curatorial arrangements do not translate well into a linear band of labels running along the bottom of the case. This is an easy fix: simply put a discrete number by each weapon that is keyed to the labels below. Because there are no numbers or letters by each gun indicating which label to read at the bottom of the case, the curious have to figure out which object belongs to which label. It takes for ever to do this, even for someone familiar with the material, and spoils the aesthetic of the experience. And you need a telescope to read the labels at the bottom of the case, which are set at shin height; fine if you are in a wheelchair, but not fine for 60 somethings who forgot to bring their specs.

    The flow of the whole series of galleries of the A & A department is disturbed by blocking the doorway in the Renaissance gallery with a wall and big portrait. After three afternoons in the exhibit I could not understand why the collection layout felt so disjointed. It's as if that wall constitutes a big dam, and disturbs the flow of the whole. Having extra wall space for the painting is not worth the hurt to the logic of the layout, and there would be nothing wrong with the intersecting traffic flow coming from the restaurant. The feng shui of the whole space is stilted by that wall; it is a case of cutting off the nose to spite the face.

    The entire collection is stunning, but for good ol' boys used to firearms museums, and who want to see your 19th century cowboy guns tricked up for city slickers, there's still some work to do. Shoving the marvels you have into a poorly lit and labelled passageway called Gallery 372, is disrespectful to American Arms and Decoration. Surely Tiffany's window dressers can help you out here? Note that Gallery 372 is called The Robert E. Lee Gallery: should any southern visitors get confused and think the Yankees have thrown them a bone, the middle initial E. is for the Pebble Beach car guy: the initial M. would be for their beloved Confederate General. Granted that the Colt Dragoon has good real estate in the portal to the Equestrian Gallery, but what about the Colt 1851 Navy that looks like it's lost in a dank cupboard underneath the stairway? That must have set you folks back a pretty penny, and it deserves its day in the sunshine.

    If you are making a museum that pistol-packing country boys & girls are going to like on their once-in-a-lifetime visit to New York (The Red Neck Hajj?), then let's step up the game a bit and proffer a hand across the Great Red & Blue Divide and show some pride in the American System and the guns that it produced.

    Posted: May 19, 2015, 12:09 p.m.

  • Donald LaRocca says:

    Thanks for the very detailed and insightful comments. There are a few points I can address.

    You mentioned the quality of the mounts that hold the firearms. You may be interested to know that virtually all of our mounts are made of tool steel, rather than brass or plexi. The steel is harder to work, but it allows us to use much slimmer mounts (and therefore much less visible) than otherwise. Our department has a long tradition of the mounts for objects being custom made in steel by the craftsmen responsible for the cleaning, care and conservation of the collection.

    I agree the labels can be hard to read, but the type is larger throughout than it was prior to the changes made in October of 2012. One dilemma is that the more room given over to labels the less there is to devote to the objects themselves. Yes, numbering labels and corresponding objects is one approach, and we may resort to that at some point in the future. It was considered at various times in the past and not implemented in our galleries for a variety reasons. Still, I hope having to look harder to match the labels with such interesting objects is not a great punishment after all, but, yes, we should try to make it easier.

    Nothing against the British in our firearms gallery, although you are right in pointing out that there are few examples of British firearms on display. You will have noticed a magnificent pair of pistols by Brunn (1992.330.1, .2) in the very center of the gallery; and you would not be blamed for missing the fine and early Scottish snaphaunce pistol (46.105), dated 1615, which is displayed in a case of items connected with the court of the Dukes of Saxony because it was owned by Wilhelm, Duke of Curland. The majority of our other British firearms consist of perfectly respectable examples by classic makers such as Manton and Egg, but it was felt it was better to use the limited space in that gallery for really outstanding firearms only, rather than purely representative pieces.

    About the wall between galleries 372 and 373 blocking the view and the flow, that is a perfectly reasonable complaint. The door block, although it looks permanent, was made to be easily removable. We simply wanted to try showing an important Renaissance portrait of armor al'antica next to the actual examples of that style; and on the opposite side of the wall to showcase (literally and figuratively) an extremely rare 14th century horseman's shield currently on loan. You may also be interested to know that the central view corridor, or enfilade, was only put in place when we did a gut renovation of all the arms and armor galleries between 1988 and 1991. As originally constructed in the early 20th century, the large doorways between galleries were located markedly off center, toward the side walls. At the time of the renovation, we learned that the walls between the side galleries were not load bearing walls, however, so we relocated the doorways in all of the side galleries to the center for the reopening in 1991.

    Yes, point also taken that the gallery of American Arms does not have the amount of space we would like; we do hope to improve on that in the future. Please also keep in mind that although we have some tremendously important American arms, that part of the collection as a whole is thinner than we would like. Several significant acquisitions of American firearms and edged weapons in the last few years have strengthened that area, but we recognize there is still have a way to go. If you visited before mid-March you may have missed the stunningly beautiful Colt 1862 Police Model with a grip designed by John Quincy Adams Ward (2014.699), which is currently on display in the center of gallery 380. Please have a look at it.

    Thanks again for your attention and well informed comments.

    Posted: May 20, 2015, 2:56 p.m.

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About the Author

Donald J. La Rocca is a curator in the Department of Arms and Armor.

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