If you’ve never met a knight in shining armor, this is your chance to go face to face — or face to helmet — with an army of them. After all, from fairy tales to the legend of King Arthur, the image of a knight in shining armor has been the stuff of youthful fantasies as well as fodder for military buffs.
Thanks to a beautiful and informative exhibition at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, serious warfare historians and folks still harboring childhood dreams can see up close those knights in their bright armor, their prancing horses, their elegant accessories and their really mean weapons.
“Knights,” on view through April 21, features more than one hundred items: armor, shields, swords, daggers, helmets, pikes and more dating from the sixteenth century and later.
The source of all these treasures is the Museo Stibbert in Florence, Italy.
The museum was founded by Frederick Stibbert (1838-1906), a wealthy collector of arms and armor. The son of a British father and Italian mother, Stibbert spent a lifetime gathering the finest works from the medieval and Renaissance periods. He even collected works from the nineteenth century Gothic Revival period when folks looked back with nostalgia at the Middle Ages.
Thanks to Stibbert, you can see warfare as it once was waged.
In the first gallery, two life-size knights wear elegantly engraved armor, mounted on horses also protected by armor. While a few pieces in these two ensembles are nineteenth century reproductions, most of the items here were made in the sixteenth century in northern Italy, mainly in the cities of Milan and Brescia.
From Roman times, this region of Italy near the Alps was considered the arsenal of Europe because of its manufacture of weapons and armor. It helped that high-quality iron ore deposits were close by. Indeed, Brescia is known today for its Beretta pistols and other firearms.
Even though much of the arms and armor were made with deadly serious purpose, that didn’t stop craftsmen from embellishing their work with elegant decorations.
Ringling curator Sarah Cartwright admires the sculptural qualities of some suits of armor.
“We can relate to it because it replicates the contours of the human body,” she said.
After all, their customers were the nobility and royalty of the times, and the armor became the prized possessions of wealthy families. Artists were often enlisted to engrave the armor and shields with images of musical instruments, mythological characters and even grotesque faces.
Even young boys were outfitted with small suits of armor because they were trained to fight from a young age.
The years 1450 to 1525 are considered the golden age of plate armor, with nobles wearing beautiful armor and the everyday solders wearing simpler versions. Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands also produced armor and weapons during this time because wars raged continuously throughout Europe.
What finally blew apart the armor industry was high technology in the form of firearms. On view is a steel breastplate made around 1600. In it you will find the holes made by two bullets.
“Of course, my fine armor failed,” once complained the armorer Colombo of Brescia in 1574,” when my patron used an inch charge of powder!”
Gun power eventually spelled the end for armor in wartime even through suits of armor were used in jousts and tournaments. Stibbert’s elegant swords and daggers, weapons used as status symbols in later years, could still be beautiful and deadly.
By the seventeenth century, the practical need for such arms and armor was fading fast. In the exhibition, you will find a lovely dagger used by Venetian artillery gunners. The carefully calibrated length of its hilt was used as a measuring stick to pour out the correct amount of gunpowder to be loaded into a cannon.
This exhibition is embellished by paintings of the era showing fierce battles and proud nobles in armor. The fun continues in a separate gallery filled with family activities. Children can try on plastic helmets, breastplates and shields, invent their own coats of arms or put on a puppet show. They can even complete a quiz about how they might have lived in the Middle Ages.