Military Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy

Chair: Brendan Dooley, University College Cork



Paolo Bertelli, University of Verona

The Gonzagas’ Army in the Shrine of B. V. delle Grazie near Mantua. A double discovery: Missaglia’s and the Polymateric Armours (XVIth Century)

 In 1930 James Gow Mann, the keeper of Wallace Collection, examined the statues of warriors in the planking of the Santuario della Beata Vergine delle Grazie in Curtatone, near Mantua, on the advice of the Baron de Cosson (Mann, 1930). Those life-size sculptures were believed to be made by different materials, like the other fifty ones in the Church, representing Popes, Emperors, Kings, Dukes, distinguished visitors, and miracles (Artoni, 2005). Gow Mann discovered that the sculptures were indeed the ancient Gonzagas’ armours by Missaglia, the most important series of Gothic armours in the world, nowadays shown in the Museo Diocesano in Mantua (Boccia, 1982). Among them we can find the one worn by Francesco II Gonzaga for the painting Madonna della Vittoria (Mantegna, Louvre). Many of them reminds of those frescoed by Pisanello in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, others seem to be worn by Federico II Gonzaga and other Mantuan knights on the side of the Emperor Charles V in the Battle of Pavia in 1525. As documented by the photographs taken in 1937, Mann boiled the armours to clean them. According to tradition, the non-metallic parts integrating the plates were destroyed (Posio, 1991). Recently, Paolo Bertelli and Paola Artoni (art historians, University of Verona) have found in the warehouse of the sanctuary two cases containing polymateric parts, such as helmets, faces, hands and feet, greaves and swords carved in wood, painted and gilded, or plastered and painted in canvas, which date back to the 1510s (Bertelli, 2012). Those items, forgotten for seventy-five years, have re-emerged in the 50th anniversary of Mann’s death. The men-at-arms of Gonzagas’ army will be reassembled, enhancing both the collection of Gothic armour in Mantua, and the set of statues inside the sanctuary, which is unique and unmatched in the world. The recent discovery of the polymateric parts will lead to the reconstruction of the fifteen lost statues, which will be relocated in the wooden planking; the restored sixteenth century original elements will be integrated with copies of the armours collected in Museo Diocesano, which will be laser scanned and 3D printed; the reassembled statues will restore the integrity of the planking and, at the same time, let the original armour stay in Museo Diocesano, where they are better accessible to public and well preserved. The study of the warriors statues will be done through a multidisciplinary approach: history, art history, religion history (since the armours are the representation of the Gonzagas’ army in front of the Virgin, as well as ex voto of the lords of Mantova as warlords), hoplology and new technologies. The old photographs showing the original location of the warriors and the composition of each armour will be helpful in reassembling the statues. The ancient cartouches below the niches in which the statues will be relocated are relevant too; they display triplets somehow inspired by Dante’s Divina Commedia, connected to the characters and to the war events they are linked with.


Mann, James Gow (1930), The Sanctuary of the Madonna delle Grazie with notes on the evolution of Italian armour during the fifteenth century. Oxford: J.Johnson.

Boccia, Lionello Giorgio (1982), Le armature di S. Maria delle Grazie di Curtatone di Mantova e l’armatura lombarda del ’400. Busto Arsizio: Bramante.

Posio, Vannozzo (1991), Le armature delle Grazie tra storia e leggenda, Modena: Mucchi.

Artoni, Paola (2005), Il Santuario della Beata Vergine delle Grazie: inedite carte d’archivio per la storia dell’impalcato ligneo, «Atti e Memorie dell’Accademia Nazionale Virgiliana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti», n.s., 73, 27-80.

Bertelli, Paolo (2012), Grazie, gli uomini d’arme tornati dalle tenebre, in the newspaper “La Voce di Mantova”, november 11th (p. 13), november 13th (p. 14).


Maurizio Arfaioli, The Medici Archive Project

La maniera at War: the Military Imagery of the Salone dei Cinquecento

The two main pictorial cycles of the Salone dei Cinquecento (‘Hall of Five Hundred’), the colossal meeting hall of the Florentine government in the Palazzo Vecchio, represent in monumental form and elaborate detail key episodes of the campaigns through which Florence subjugated its rival Tuscan cities of Pisa (1494-1509) and Siena (1554-1555). Therefore, the two cycles painted by Giorgio Vasari and his co-workers conveyed a message with a strong military component. Yet, such a message was not intended for the general public (whose members rarely entered the great hall in significant numbers) but rather for those who actually frequented the Salone: Medici family members and household, courtiers, foreign emissaries and guests. Early modern courts were highly militarized environments, and constituted one of the principal contexts through which military knowledge, both theoretical and practical, was organized, shared and transmitted.

Indeed, the modern ‘manner’ of painting (as Vasari himself defined it) originated and reached its maturity almost simultaneously with the new, modern ‘manner’ of waging wars that had emerged from the period of the Italian Wars (1494-1559). A ‘manner’ which was based on the systematic use of pike-and-shot infantry, the deployment of heavy guns, and the elaboration of new types of fortifications – the so-called trace italienne. Vasari and the other artists of the Medici court possessed a profound knowledge of the nature, tools and lore of contemporary warfare, and their representations of warfare included details and pictorial references that the military-trained eyes who frequented the Salone would have noticed and understood at once.

Unfortunately, much of the symbolism resulting from the interweaving of military culture and artistic innovation with which Vasari celebrated the ‘apotheosis’ of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici is today lost. Starting from the eighteenth century Mannerist art was considered decadent with respect to the artistic canons of ‘High Renaissance’ art, while the disdain of Risorgimento, Nationalist and Fascist historiography for early modern Italian military history further weakened the memory of ducal (and granducal) Florence’s military traditions and lore.

In my paper I will deal with key aspects of the complex relationship between the Salone’s imagery and its original audience, highlighting the allusions to military instruments and practices that made the message of the images so pointed for sixteenth-century viewers.


Arfaioli, Maurizio (2010). ‘The Inconsistent Knight: Military and Iconographic maniera in Vasari’s Battle of Marciano.’ In Source: Notes in the History of Art, 1-XXX, 37-42.

Muccini, Ugo (1990). The Salone dei Cinquecento of Palazzo Vecchio. Firenze: Le Lettere.

Starn, Randolph; Partridge, Loren (1992). Arts of Power: Three Halls of State in Italy, 1300-1600. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Van Veen, Henk (2006). Cosimo I de’ Medici and His Self-Representation in Florentine Art and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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