National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Image: Artistic Exchange: Europe and the Islamic World

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Probably Milanese 16th Century
The Morosini Helmet (visored burgonet)
1879, oil on canvas, 142.24 x 220.98 cm
probably 1550/1560
Widener Collection
Image: Probably Milanese 16th Century

The name refers to the helmet’s provenance from the collection and palace of the Morosini family in Venice. Such lightweight, elaborate Renaissance parade armor, intended for display, was commonly made in a pseudoclassical style that blended antique elements—the lion face on the visor and lion heads on the ear caps—with fantastic ones—the foliate scrolls terminating in winged dragons on the sides of the skull. The shape is unique, with a pointed front edge and the almond-shaped eyes of helmets traditionally seen on representations of the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. The construction is also unusual, with a visor that rotates upward under the skull.

The relief ornament, hammered from underneath, is pseudodamascened in gold. In true damascening, narrow grooves are cut or incised into the metal, then soft gold wire is hammered into them. In false damascening, the surface is roughened by minute hatching almost invisible to the eye, then fine gold leaf is applied and burnished. The latter technique is cheaper, since it uses less gold, and faster to execute, but the gold tends to rub off. Both techniques were used during the sixteenth century, as was the term "damascening."

The term is confusing because it implies an origin in Damascus for the inlay technique used in ferrous metal armor. The technique actually used for the larger areas of sheet inlay characteristic of the brassware made in Damascus and elsewhere in the medieval Islamic world was different. The edges of the area to be covered with silver or gold were undercut or stippled with a punch to provide points of attachment, and the center was slightly scooped out with a chisel so that the thin sheets of metal, cut to size and hammered into place, would lie flush, or nearly flush, with the surface of the vessel.

The inlay—sometimes actually overlay—was often lightly chased or incised with details of the design. The Florentine painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) described the arabesques inlaid on both armor and Islamic brassware as work in the Damascene manner. However, the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571) did not use those terms when describing similar ornament on Turkish armor and his improvements of it. It is believed that the techniques used on Renaissance armor came from the Islamic world, as did the arabesque ornament on many early examples, but whether they came from Spain or the eastern Mediterranean is uncertain.

So-called "Fame Armor" (all’eroica in Italian) in the style and technique of this helmet was a specialty of Milan from about 1530 to 1555. Two armorers with the initials A P were documented there in the third quarter of the century, Ambrogio Porro and Apollonio Piatti, but none of their works are known.

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