Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Palace Museum, Malta

When studying armour, it is always best to study from the fine European collections. There is a surprisingly large amount of armour still existing in the world...much of it in collections which are more or less complete, and in more or less in repair. The Palace Museum in Malta is the jewel in the crown of "Heritage Malta" (info@heritagemalta.org) and of course attracts the attention of this professional armour maker like flies to honey! This remarkable collection is well dated, and is remarkable in that the armour is almost all of a type. Where you can go to the Stibbert Museum (for instance) you get to see a thousand different types and styles of armour, so many that the head spins and the mind boggles, here you see the product of only two or three armouries over a comparatively short period. Many of the armours in museums tend to be more show and less function. So coming to Malta becomes less like studying art and sculpture, and more like studying design trends. A modern example might be like attending a modern car show....where you would spot the latest from Ferrari and Daimler-Crysler rather than an exhibition of sculpture at the Louvre. A concept car which is merely show, and could not even be licenced for the road will not be very interesting, a "mere sculpture", where the 250 kph ability of the Lambourgini would definely spark interest. Oh, there is plenty of room for atwork in even the most prosaic and functional armour, as the closeup of the Wigancourt Suit gauntlet shows! (click on the images to enlarge)

The above armour is clearly well made, and very plain, especially compared to the Grand Master's suit above! It is a horseman's armour, not a foot soldier's armour, though of course, unlike a lot of the jousting armour one sees in museums, this armour is made for the field. Many of the fooman's armours share identical "factory made" pieces with the horesman's armour, so one can imagine the Sergeant Major telling his troupe to dismount those lance rests, take off the tassets, and get ready for an afternoon of pike drill.

Salient features of the above armour are the "three lame" spaulders with a shallow centre flute decorated with little notches. This spaulder is beautifully rolled, but not roped except at the very bottom, the rerebrace, and on the wing of the elbow cop. Brass rivets mark the underlying leather straps, and you can see where the brass rivets on the front would have held "picadills", pieces of leather designed to protect the underlying breast plate from the rubbing of the shoulder armour. The "rerebrace" is very interesting...it consists of two parts, the upper which is attached to the spaulder, and the lower which is attached to the arm harness. Often the upper part opens up, in back. When it is closed, the lower part rotates inside the upper part. The complex joint is stronger than it looks because it is tightly curved and domed...good thing since I would assume that such a complex joint would stop working after the first smack with a sword. Apparently they are tougher than they look!

Above are two things you don't see a lot of...one is the scale fauld, the other is the pair of sabotons. The knight would put the fauld on to cover his bottom when he was not fighting on horseback. Considering leather rarely lasts more than half a century before self destructing because of internal acids and catalysts, these scale faulds are doubly rare. The sabotons are special because they have those sharp points on the tops of their ankles must act like knives! What weapons these pieces of armour would make all on their own! If you look closely, you can also see the mounts for the spurs.

When you click on the picture above, you can see the difficulty faced by the armoury. The armour is coated with grease, which makes it brown. But look at the vambraces! The salty dust falls on the armour nine months out of the year, and because everything is so dry, the high salt content makes no never mind. But one month out of the year, the humidity rises to where the salt does its insidious work, and that is why the rust easts through the soapy grease which generally protects the armours to damage the top surfaces. The damage that you see here probably took 20 years to happen, however, it DID happen, and it needs to be addressed. There are techniques to reverse the process, but the damage is done, and despite the best efforts of the curators, is continuing. This armour was used as statuary, decorating some hallway or stairway or another, and out of reach of the conservators until it was noticed, and brought home.
Conserving the armours is VERY expensive. And its not like this particular armour has any special significance, it is just ordinance grade armour like a thousand others. So it is hard to find the money to conserve it when so many other projects must take precedence. There is a simple answer of course, but I would be interested in other's comments before I make my own on these pages.
Bill Fedun

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