Cutting Edge

  • 6 June 2012

A symbol of status and honour as well as a flamboyant fashion accessory, the sword is so much more than a simple weapon of combat. John Leigh investigates its noble art and history...

German combined rapier and wheel-lock pistol, c 1580-90 Wallace Collection, London

A symbol of status and honour as well as a flamboyant fashion accessory, the sword is so much more than a simple weapon of combat. John Leigh investigates its noble art and history.

The sword is a weapon made to be seen. By contrast with the insidious dagger or the furtive pistol, a sword should be brandished, proudly. Unlike those ignoble arms, many swords (along with steeds) have attracted the epithet ‘trusty’. No matter how urgent and furious their desire to summon death with their sword, warriors have often found a moment to address a few fond remarks to this weapon in the numberless poems and plays that celebrate their exploits.

Many medieval swords were destined to last no longer than their masters. If they were not buried with them among other funeral treasures, they might be broken ceremoniously in the twilight of their career. A few privileged medieval swords, however, not only lived on, but retained or gained prominence in subsequent ages: ‘Joyeuse’, reputedly the sword of Charlemagne, its frivolously female name notwithstanding, featured in the rites of French coronations. Hyacinthe Rigaud’s famous portrait of Louis XIV shows it resplendent amid his regalia.

The rapier, longer and slimmer than medieval swords, was a Renaissance invention, and prestigious examples of these arms, such as the rapier of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II, will be on display at the Wallace Collection. The rapier evolved both as a response and as a stimulus to the development of new fencing techniques, which were duly published in the manuals of Italian and, subsequently, French masters. The notion that swordsmanship depended less on brute strength and valour than on a set of skills and refinements lent it an appeal to a wider section of the aristocracy than the traditional, militarised nobles who bore swords - the noblesse d’épée. Noblemen, and those passing themselves off as noblemen, needed to have a sword. As soon as they come into money, arrivistes such as Molière’s bourgeois gentilhomme and Hogarth’s progressive rake arrange to have fencing lessons.

Engraving from Ridolfo Capo Ferro's Gran simulacro dell'arte e dell'uso della scherma, 1610

The fencing masters, whose splendid volumes with engaging drawings will be on display at the Wallace Collection, were coy about the transferability of the skills that they honed, insisting that fencing, brawling and duelling were discrete exercises. But it is telling that, in a dialogue appended to Achille Marozzo’s famous treatise of 1536, students are told not to wear masks as they fence, for this precaution would leave them unprepared for uncomfortable eventualities on the streets. Nonetheless, viewers of the exhibition will be able to appreciate the graciousness of the Renaissance fencer’s movements, and the finesse of the artists who illustrated them.

But then artists have evidently always preferred swords. Difficult to represent, gunfire denied painters the pleasures of evoking the peculiar intimacy of hand-to-hand combat and the gyrations of limbs as the combatants engage. By contrast, depictions of duels by pistol have tended to veer towards the caricatural. Within the picture, the painter must contrive to bring the combatants nearer to one another than they are likely to have been. It was largely a Renaissance ideal of chivalrous swordsmanship, mediated by artists and craftsmen, which persisted even in ages and in places more conducive to the settling of duels by firearms. Pushkin’s Vladimir Lenski dreams, literarily, of being pierced by a dart, before being gunned down the morning after by Eugene Onegin. Swords remain uppermost in our imagination and understanding of what it is to be valorous and honourable.

In Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, Captain Brazen is asked an impossibly vulgar question by his servant: how much did his sword cost? Sidestepping, Brazen responds that it has cost his enemies ‘thousands of lives’. The Wallace Collection’s show is more explicit about the historical circumstances, provenances and actual expenses underpinning the hyperbole and the myths surrounding the sword. But it also encourages us to marvel at the fact that from the Renaissance to the end of the 18th century, a tension between beauty and utility, display and destruction, swagger and murder was an intrinsic part of the sword’s fascination.

The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe is at the Wallace Collection, 17 May - 16 September. Entry is free to all.

Enjoy a 20% discount at the Wallace Restaurant on Fridays and Saturdays after 5pm with your National Art Pass.