Historical Reenactment
A lifelong Medieval history enthusiast, I enjoy the knightly pursuits of jousting, hunting, and sword fighting.

Selection take from The Massacre of the Innocents, Matteo di Giovanni (1482). Colors modified for effect.

Dirk H. Breiding of the Department of Arms and Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art expertly explains in the space of a few brief paragraphs the national and regional armor styles in his essay Fashion in European Armor, 1400-1500. The following excerpts are taken from article:

At the beginning of this period, by about 1420, the development of full plate armor--a defense enclosing almost the entire body with a system of steel plates articulated by rivets and leather straps--was complete. Regional and national fashions in civilian costume had been developing and noted long before this period. In armor, however, it is during the fifteenth century that certain characteristics in form, construction, and decoration can be seen, which are typical for different regions of Europe. Since the larger surfaces afforded by plate armor now allowed for an entire harness and its elements to be more individually shaped and decorated than armor of previous periods, such characteristics gave rise to distinctive styles and fashions of certain nationalities.

By far the largest manufacturers of armor were Italy and Germany, and the respective tastes and styles disseminating from the armor-making centers of southern Germany and northern Italy dominantly influenced the styles and fashions of most other regions throughout western Europe. In general, the German style favored a slender, symmetrical outline of the body. An emphasis on elegance and the vertical was achieved by richly decorating the surfaces of the plates with ridges and grooves often in direct imitation of the folds in contemporary costume, while the plate's edges were decoratively cut with openwork, or embellished with applied or gilt brass borders reminiscent of Gothic tracery. By contrast, fifteenth-century Italian armor usually is asymmetrical (the left side, as the first point of an enemy's attack, being protected by larger plates that sometimes carried additional reinforces), somewhat rounder and heavier in appearance, and--if decorated at all--features less obtrusive decoration. In the Alpine region, where Italian and German tastes met, armor was worn that represented a hybrid of both styles.

But despite the dominance of these German and Italian fashions, fifteenth-century documents demonstrate that contemporaries also distinguished clearly between armor fashionable in France (including Burgundy), Spain, and England, although each of these national styles was usually to some degree influenced by a combination of German and Italian taste. France and England especially had adopted a style based on German taste, but Italian armorers are recorded as having worked in Spain, France, and the Burgundian Netherlands throughout the fifteenth century, while the large armor-making centers in southern Germany and northern Italy, either by trade or direct commission, supplied clients throughout Europe with their products. Indeed, many Italian workshops produced armor made specifically for export in the fashion worn in Germany (alla tedesca) or France (alla francese).

In Italy, the city of Milan had been a center of arms manufacture for more than a milennia. Via Spadari (Street of Swordsmiths) can be documented as far back as 1066. By the 14th century, there were over one hundred mail-makers working in the city, and, in 1474, there were 72 master armourers active, centered around Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) and Piazza dei Mercanti (Merchants' Square) in the western and southwestern . The home of the Missaglias, perhaps the most prominent family of armourers, stood on the Via Spadari.

To the North, the Alps yielded a plentiful supply of iron ore and also the trees for the charcoal necessary to smelt the ore. The network of canals that brought the materials into the city also provided the water-power for the battering mills where the heavy hammer-work was done. However, it was not simply the geography that helped Milan's rise to preeminence in the arms trade. Unlike their German counterparts, the Italian masters were neither restricted in the number of journeymen and apprentices they could employ, nor the number of items their guild allowed them to make and sell. In fact, Milanese craft guilds openly collaborated with one another with various workshops specializing in the production of different elements of armour pooling their resources, particularly for large orders.

The following two examples taken from Milanese archives provide an idea of the enormous potential of the city's armour production:

After the disastrous defeat at the battle of Maclodio in 1427, the Milanese were stripped of all the arms by the victorious Venetians. On returning to Milan, the army of 4,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry was re-armed in just a few days, and these arms were provided by just two armourers from stock. In 1452, Cicco Simonetta wrote to the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza, on behalf of three armourers (co-ordinating contracted labour), stating that each of them could equip six men-at-arms, daily. That is a total of eighteen complete field armours daily, easily in excess of 4,500 armours per annum, from just three armourers!

German Style of Milanese Armour

On 14 September 1480, Cristoforo de Capelli and Antonio degli Armaroli were "to supply and to alter or cause to be altered armour made the German fashion [theutonico fabricata]," which was to be delivered to Thomas von Danzig. [Dobson, citing Archivo di Stato Milano, Reg. ducale, n. 120, fol. 18]. It is worth noting that Milanese armour could be modified to a recognizable 'German' style. Armour was also intentionally made in a German style for export:

On 14 October 1473, the castellan of Milan wrote to the Duke, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, advising him that: "yesterday there joined me here a German from Basel who bought a great quantity of arms made in the German manner [a la todescha] which he was able to obtain, both packed up and sent away." [Dobson, citing Archivo di Stato Milano, Carteggio Sforzesco; Bollettino storico della Svizzera italiana 1898, p. 184 (1)].

Italians preferred double inner and outer cuirasses that could flex and move over one another, the lower plackart being suspended from the breastplate by a vertical strap. German breastplates and plackarts were instead riveted together (sometimes with a third lame between them), and backplates articulated on pairs of rivets at their sides, the upper plates overlapping those below them down to the lumbar area. While Italian cuirasses were hinged together on the left side and closed with straps down the right side, German cuirasses were closed at the waist with a belt that was riveted to either side of the backplate and buckled around the front. Germans also preferred lighter and more symmetrical shoulder defenses, often spaulders and besagews, rather than the heavier asymmetrical pauldrons popular in Italy. German gauntlets were normally symmetrical fingered or mitten.

A surviving Milanese cuirass (circa 1465) in the Historisches Museum Luzern may help understand what was meant by 'alter or cause to be altered armour made the German fashion' in the aforementioned passage. Its inner and outer breastplates are held together by a central sliding rivet set in a vertical slot. It also has two holes punched just below the rolled edge of the neck for the attachment of a vertical strap. The inner and outer breast and blackplates also have holes punched in their sides where straps and hinges could be affixed to close the cuirass. Instead, it is closed with a belt at the waist. It would appear that these modifications were made prior to delivery. The straps for the tassets are mounted lower than they normally would have been for an Italian client. The original attachment holes on the lame above were filled with flush rivets.

A similar case of redundant strap holes can be found on the Friedrich cuirass now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (A2). It was made about 1450 by Antonio Missaglia and Pier Innocenzo da Faerno. Its inner breastplate was attached by a threaded bolt that moved in a short vertical slot cut into the outer breastplate, which allowed for a small amount of flexation. It was not until the mid-20th century that vertical straps and buckles were added. The great bascinet was originally bolted to the inner breastplate and probably attached to the backplate with a strap and buckle. It is interesting to consider that someone as important as Friedrich, Count Palatine, received a harness that contained 'off the peg' elements tailored to his requirements rather than one made entirely to measure, especially considering that he was known to be exceptionally tall.

Another cuirass made by Antonio Missaglia about 1451 survives in a private collection and features the same redundant pair of holes beneath the neck. It, too, had a hole punched at the sternum for the outer breastplate to be attached and a slot cut in the plackart; however, they were joined by a rivet instead of a threaded bolt. Additionally, there are two holes near the lower edge of the breastplate for the attachment of internal leathers, which would have run down to the waist of the outer breastplate and restricted how much the two parts could articulate from side to side.

To add further confusion to modern historians, Italian armourers also produced equipment for clients in the southern Tyrolean and Alpine German states that did not require much adaptation. An example is the 'Avant' armour, which was originally made for a Tyrolean client. It is basically Italian but with the words 'AVE MARIA' inscribed with punch decoration. Furthermore, regional styles blurred together in places such as Innsbruck. It was closer to Northern Italy than the armour-producing centers of the German states.

Dobson supplied the following conclusion to his study into the German style of Italian armour:

I hope in [Alla Tedesca?] that I have clarified some of the characteristics that a 15th Century North Italian armourer might have understood as 'alla tedesca', but equally, I hope that I have shown how difficult it is to draw neat stylistic division where artistic styles changed gradually from one geographic area to another, a situation further complicated by exports, migration, and training of foreign craftsmen.


Breiding, Dirk H., Department of Arms and Armor. "Fashion in European Armor, 1400-1500." In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2004. Available from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/afas15/hd_afas15.htm

Dobler, Christopher. "Alla Tedesca? Italian 'Gothic' Armour and the Export Trade." eBook, 2013. Available from http://www.chris-dobson.com

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