The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection, A Family Collection, A National Museum, An International Treasure House
Rapier
  • Rapier
  • Unknown Artist / Maker
  • Hilt- Italian; blade- Toledo, Spain, probably
  • c. 1585 - c. 1620
  • Iron and steel, silver and gold, chased, gilded and overlaid
  • Length: 102.6 cm, blade
    Width: 3.3 cm, blade above the ricasso
    Weight: 1.28 kg
    Length: 119.2 cm
    Width: 18.5 cm, guard
    Balance point: 12.2 cm, forward of the guard block
  • Maker's mark: Toledo mark
  • A609
  • European Armoury III
Commentary
Images & Media
Further Reading
  • Rapier, the very fine swept-hilt comprising a pommel of flattened cylindrical form, with button; spirally fluted grip bound with silver wire; single, curved rear quillon; side-ring, knuckle-guard joined to the arms of the hilt by a loop-guard, and on the inner side the usual three plain (fire-gilt) transverse bars, all except the last of oval section. The hilt is minutely decorated with heart-shaped panels of foliage, including small cupids' heads chased and gilt, relieved by and alternating with black arabesques against a gold-overlaid ground. Broad blade of flattened hexagonal section, with two grooves at the forte, the ricasso stamped on each side with the Toledo mark.

    Writers and swordsmen in the sixteenth century seem not to have agreed on what exactly was originally meant by the term ‘rapier’. Nor is it clear how this weapon, initially, was different from other swords. Whatever form a ‘rapier’ originally took, it clearly was a sword not to be used for war but rather to be worn with civilian dress. The term was probably derived from the Spanish espada ropera, a ‘sword of the robe’, that is, a ‘dress’ sword, worn with everyday clothes. The idea that the rapier somehow had an Iberian, or at least south European, origin is supported by what may be the first German use of the term, in the fight book of Paulus Hector Mair (1542), in which the ‘rapir’ is also referred to as the ensis hispanicus. More importantly, this ‘Spanish sword’ is illustrated by Mair as being a narrow-bladed thrusting weapon, quite distinct from most other swords, which were usually fitted with some form of wider cutting blade. Furthermore, a few years earlier, the English-French glossary of Giles Duwes, An introductorie for to learne to rede to pronounce, and to speke Frenche trewely (possibly written in 1533), defines la rapière as ‘the spannyssche sworde’. The theory that a rapier was an exclusively civilian sword is given additional support by the author of the True Arte of Defence (1594), in fact a translation of the Italian master Giacomo di Grassi’s Ragione di adoprar sicuramente l’arme si da offesa come da difensa (1570), in which the rapier is defined as ‘a weapon more usuall for Gentlemens wearing, and fittest for causes of offence and defence.’

    Whatever its origins, it is clear that by the middle of the sixteenth century, the rapier was an absolutely essential component of the Renaissance gentleman’s fashionable dress. Not surprisingly, in this role the rapier quickly took on a number of very ornate forms. The flowing, sculptural qualities of the rapier hilt were not only graceful and elegant in themselves, but often served as a foundation for very rich applied decoration. All the ornamental techniques and materials available to the sixteenth-century metalworker were employed in the production of fine-quality rapiers. Some hilts are exquisite demonstrations of one particular procedure performed to a very high standard, for example, steel chiselling on Italian hilts of the late sixteenth century. Yet most of the best rapiers showed off two, three or even four different decorative techniques, ingeniously combined to create complex and individualistic visual effects.

    This piece stands out as an exceptional demonstration of the art of the rapier in the late sixteenth century. Composed of a Spanish blade mounted with an Italian swept-hilt decorated with an ingenious combination of fire-gilding and gold-overlay, this rapier gives the impression at a distance of being gilt overall. However on closer inspection a much more interesting composition is revealed; the surfaces of the hilt bars have been divided into small heart-shaped, interlocking panels. These panels are decorated alternately like a checker board, one half with chiselled and fire-gilt designs in relief, the others, forming the negative space between, being filled with very fine foliate scrolls, false-damascened in gold against a black ground. This is a fascinating illustration of how Renaissance metalworkers considered the visual impacts that their works would have at different distances from the viewer.