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RAPIER OF CHRISTIAN II, ELECTOR OF SAXONY, the hilt probably made by Marx Bischhausen of Dresden, the blade Solingen, circa 1605-1607. Provenance Electors of Saxony. Rüstkammer, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, VI.433.
To Die For

Rapiers as Ornamentation in the Renaissance Era




Fashion, art, and the science of self-defense joined forces to usher a brutish society into the modern age .

You could tell a lot about a Renaissance man from his rapier, the weapon at the center of the Wallace Collection’s recent exhibition “The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe” in London. With its narrow, lightweight blade, the rapier was designed for civilian conflicts rather than military skirmishes. Indeed, it was useless on the battlefield, too long for close combat and too flimsy to penetrate armor. In a duel of honor, however, its elegant proportions and exquisite ornamentation belied its lethal thrusting power.

The rapier—and dueling itself— helped Europe’s nobles assert their social superiority at a time when traditional class distinctions (including distinctions in dress) were being eroded. According to a French fencing treatise of 1623, the rapier distinguished a gentleman “from a financier, merchant or burgess, whom the abuse of our times permits to be as well-dressed as he.” As decorative as it was deadly, the rapier was a man of fashion’s largest piece of jewelry, carefully coordinated with the rest of his clothing and accessories.

“This is not just an exhibition about swords,” says Tobias Capwell, Curator of Arms and Armour at the Wallace Collection, who organized the show. “It’s about what people’s lives were like.” Fashion, art, and the science of self-defense joined forces to usher a brutish society into the modern age.

Until the fifteenth century, swords were worn only when traveling, hunting, or on active military duty. The most symbolically important of all weapons, the sword’s cruciform shape signified God-given physical and social power. Since its earliest bronze incarnations, the sword has been considered a work of art, or even magic (the secrets of metallurgy being closely guarded by swordsmiths). But it remained a backup weapon, drawn only when arrows and other long-range attacks failed, or used in conjunction with a shield or dagger. And the wearing of swords in a civilian context was frowned upon, if not explicitly outlawed. Fencing schools were disbanded, and armed men were rightly perceived as troublemakers.






Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Recent publications include Paris: Life and Luxury in the Eighteenth Century (Getty Publications, 2011) and Fashioning Fashion: European Dress in Detail, 1700 - 1915 (Prestel, 2010). She is a frequent contributor to Ornament.



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