16th century, Armour, Manuscript / Archival Research, Object Research, Research, Research Publications

Fortuna and virtù: Embodying Classical Concepts in Renaissance Armour

The first half of the sixteenth century was a period dominated by repeated conflicts in Europe. The immense amounts of practical and ceremonial arms and armour that these conflicts required fuelled this so-called golden age of armour production seen in key centres of production such as Milan, Augsburg, and Tyrol. During these times of occupation, particularly during the Italian Wars, armourers like the Negroli family of Milan were commissioned to make many garments for princes such as Charles V, and so these items represent elite ideals of power and glory. Although some scholars have claimed that ‘much of the decoration on arms and armour is simply ornamental’, power dynamics and paradoxes between the genders during the Renaissance were exploited in the decorative processes of etching and embossing to personify key ideas such as bravery, perils, fortune, virtue, and victory, in either male or female forms.[i] These representations were deliberately fashioned to make explicit proclamations about power by noblemen on the battlefield and beyond in sixteenth-century Europe. Two concepts that armour during this century embodied in these wats were those of fortune and virtue.

Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Cornelis Bos after Maarten van Heemskerck, The Capture of Francis I by the forces of Charles V during the Battle of Pavia in 1525, c. 1555-56. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, RP-P-BI-6603.

During the medieval period Fortuna was potrayed an assistant to God and she stood for the decrepitude of worldly things and expressed a hidden, unknowable order that made men and women powerless to chance without faith. However, by the fifteenth century humanists and political theorists who believed that men could take back control began to conceptualise Fortuna as possessing innate feminine weaknesses. Like women, Fortuna was now a fundamentally unknowable, destructive and unpredictable power, but one that could also be influenced or yield to those who fought with force.[ii] To counteract the unpredictability of Fortuna and take back control over destiny, authors began to articulate the concept of virtù, something that was masculine, rational and ultimately victorious.[iii] Although early humanists stressed that virtus (a morally good force) was an intrinsic value for all rulers as it brought glory and greatness, for Niccolò Machiavelli the concept of virtù was not necessarily concerned with ethics.[iv] Rather it was more dynamic and stood for political and military achievements that were the foundation of flourishing states.[v]

Lady Fortuna and the Wheel of Fortune. From an edition of Boccaccio’s “De Casibus Virorum Illustrium” (Paris, 1467) MSS Hunter 371-372 (V.1.8-9). Image (vol. 1: folio 1r). Credit: Wiki

Machiavelli penned his widely circulated work of political philosophy The Prince (1532) in reaction to what he perceived to be the weaknesses of rulers during the Italian Wars. He concluded the work by stating that due to the ‘enormous upheavals that have been observed and are being observed everyday’ it was imperative that men fought to control the whims of Fortuna with ‘ordinata virtù’ (well-ordered virtue) because ‘fortune is a woman, and if you want to keep her under it is necessary to beat her and force her down’.[vi] Machiavelli here echoed the fifteenth-century humanist Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pius II) who after Alfonso V of Aragon’s victory in Naples in the early 1440s imagined the king entering the city and grabbing ‘Fortuna by the scruff of the neck’.[vii] Fortuna’s antithesis Virtù was therefore intrinsically linked to forceful state building and warfare.

Santi di Tito, Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, c. second half of sixteenth century. Palazzo Vecchio. Credit: Wiki

These concepts and their gendered power dynamics were increasingly emphasized in political theory, literature, and art during the turmoil of the Italian Wars. The importance of personifying Fortuna as feminine so that she may be overcome by masculine virtù is best exemplified in a portrait medal of French king Francis I from 1537. One side of the portrait medal depicts the king in profile wearing a laurel wreath and holding a staff with a fleur de lis, proclaiming him ‘Francis King of the French’. The reverse side of the medallion shows the king in armour on horseback, arm raised with sword in hand, trampling the naked female figure of Fortuna. The inscription reads ‘He has vanquished fortune through virtue’.[viii] The portrayal of Francis on horseback defeating fortune through virtue is a statement of the King’s tact as a military leader.

Medallion of Francis I – Bust & Allegory, c. 1537, cast iron, Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 7272b.

As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, which had been published only five years earlier, it was a prince who had come to power via virtue (here meaning skill and temperament), rather than fortune, who could maintain his principality, as ‘he who relies less upon Fortune has maintained his position best’.[ix] This gendered juxtaposition was therefore a very clear claim about Francis’s masculinity – he was a courageous and brave prince, who won battles for his Kingdom through his reliance on his masculine traits of virtue such as military skill, rather than relying on the feminine whims of fortune.

Similarly, when the concept of fortune was depicted on armour it was always personified as female to remind the wearer of the potential dangers of relying too much on this feminine force. Take for example a shield in the Royal Armoury in Madrid made in 1543 in Augsburg for Prince Phillip (later Phillip II of Spain) by the armorer Mattheus Frauenpreiss.[x] This round shield portrays the semi-nude figure of a woman (Fortuna) holding an oar while attempting to row the vessel. Around her are the words ‘FIDES’ (faith) on a shield, ‘CARO’ (humanity) on the boat, ‘FORTEGA’ (fortitude) on the oar, and ‘GRACIA DEI’ (by the Grace of God) on a box below her knee. There are two possible interpretations of this shield. La Rocca has argued that fortune is depicted as trying to reverse the direction of humanity with the aid of a steering oar and guided by the shield and compass.[xi] This representation of Fortuna appears to take its cues from the medieval understandings as an assistant to God – with faith fortune can be a guiding force.

Jane Clifford, ‘Shield of Phillip II’, photograph c.1865 (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 47602). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However, as with all visual culture, the meaning of this scene is multivalent and it could also warn of the risks of letting Fortuna have too much control over the ship of humanity, as she is facing towards the stern and so does not have control over its movement. The top of the mast also contains a small fool’s cap making this vessel a ‘metaphorical ship of fools’ that is being steered by the unpredictable force that is Fortuna.[xii] The fools here are perhaps those who place their trust in fortune to lead them, rather than those other items on the vessel like the shield of faith. In either case, as La Rocca has proposed, the ‘overall meaning of the shield’s symbolism seems to be intended as a commentary on the misdirection of human folly’.[xiii] The feminine force of Fortuna was considered to play a key role in guiding human fate and potential folly during conflict. It is possible that this shield was gifted to the young Prince Phillip on his wedding day as a salient reminder to the importance of his union to Maria Manuela of Portugal and his role as prince during these troubled times.[xiv]

This acknowledgement of the place of Fortuna in deciding human destiny accounts for other examples of armour and arms that contain her image. A ceremonial breastplate of worked gilded iron gifted to the future Philip III of Spain by Carlo Emmanuelle, Duke of Savoy, now in the Royal Armoury in Madrid, contains the image of Fortuna is framed by winged genii, Justice, Temperance, and other figures, as well as the word ‘SPANIA’.[xv] The piece was made in Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century by an unknown armourer.

Hans Sebald Beham, Fortuna, c. 1641, engraving. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-10.856

Arms from this period also depict Fortuna. A print with a design for a dagger sheath by Hans Holbein the Younger and Hans Lützelburger dating from 1520-1526 shows a woman (Fortuna) in armour standing on a shell with drapery flowing around her.[xvi] In both these examples the symbolic meaning could be two-fold. Authors like Machiavelli stressed that human actions could only be controlled to an extent by virtù, with the rest remaining the domain of Fortuna.[xvii] Therefore, by personifying fortune as Fortuna on armour and arms this practice served to not only remind the wearer of her dangerous influence and acknowledge the part she played in his fate, but in turn, it would also have had the effect of prompting him to remember her antithesis stressed by humanist authors – his own masculine virtù that could overcome her feminine threat.

Filippo Negroli, Helmet all’Antica, c. 1532–35. This piece was possibly a copy of the original in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 04.3.202.

In contrast to Fortuna, virtù was rendered in anthropomorphic forms that transformed the wearer into the vision of masculinity that this concept represented. This is most recognisable in all’antica-style helmets produced by the Milanese armourer Filippo Negroli for Francesco Maria della Rovere the Duke of Urbino, Charles V, and the Gonzagas of Mantua.[xviii] These helmets are sophisticated examples of how embossed armours could literally fashion their wearer into their desired human form. The earliest helmet of this style was forged in 1532 for the Duke of Urbino. It is a burgonet of blackened steel embossed in high relief that forms a head with curly hair and ear lobes, wearing a diadem of twisted palms.[xix] The purpose of this burgonet was to create the likeness of a Roman youth on the wearer, covering his own physical traits and replacing them with those of youth rendered in steel. However, the helmet soon caught the eye of a much more important and powerful patron, Charles V.

A letter sent from the Duke of Mantua to the Duke of Urbino described the Emperor’s interest in Francesco’s recent commission and urged him to send it to the Emperor for inspection. Charles V was so impressed with Urbino’s anthropomorphic helmet that he commissioned his own. It was presented to him on his official visit to Milan in 1533.[xx] The Emperor’s helmet, however, was quite different in form and meaning than that of Urbino’s. It was a full helmet made in two parts of steel and gold. The burgonet was embossed and chiselled by Negroli to create the head of a classical warrior with gold curly hair and earlobes, wearing a laurel wreath. The detachable buffe (lower face defence) contains an additional full beard, lips, and mouth. It is possible that there was also another missing piece of the helmet that created a mask and concealed the face.[xxi]

Filippo Negroli, Classical Roman Burgonet of Charles V, Milanese, c. 1533. Madrid: Royal Armoury, 10000075 – 10000076, D-1; D-2

While both anthropomorphic helmets created classical masculine heads, the differences in the ways that these helmets were gendered male had great implications for expressions of virtù by these Renaissance rulers. While the Duke of Urbino’s helmet and armour depicts a Roman youth at the cusp of manhood and is without personal insignia, the Emperor’s helmet represented a grown Roman man with a full beard. It contains many details that link it explicitly to Charles V such as a collar of the gold fleece with Burgundian fire steels and flaming flints and Charles’s device of PLVS VLTRA with the columns of Hercules.[xxii]

Anthropomorphic helmets and Cuirasses (joined breastplates and backplates) were also embossed to create well-muscled torsos that alluded to men of the ancient world allowed their wearers to literally embody the qualities of virtus and virtù during the conflicts of the sixteenth century.[xxiii] As Carolyn Springer has noted in her discussion of classically-inspired armour, these cuirasses constructed an idealised vision of the ‘elite male body through the process of prosthetic addition’ and they were a form of exclusively male masquerade that enabled the wearer to disguise his own imperfections to achieve the ‘highest model of proportion and physical beauty’ and to represent himself ‘in a heroic and aggrandized mode’.[xxiv] These helmets and torso pieces concealed the wearer’s true form behind a metal façade, allowing him to literally become a classical Roman Emperor who epitomised these values. As Francesco Petrarca advised Niccolò Acciaiuoli in a letter written in the late fifteenth century, to fight back against Fortuna he must become a conqueror and have the ‘moral qualities of a Caesar’, or in other words ‘a man of true manliness’ like those Caesars of the past would overcome Fortuna and attain public glory.[xxv]

Although Charles V commissioned this piece, there is no evidence to indicate that the Emperor dictated its mature appearance.[xxvi] Rather it appears that this was a shrewd political move on behalf of Negroli and Urbino to portray Charles V as he imagined himself to be. Portrait medals struck between 1520 and 1540 celebrated the Holy Roman Emperor as a modern Caesar as they depict him with a laurel wreath on his head and clad in Roman-style armour surrounded by the text ‘IMP. CAES CAROLVS V AVG’, in direct imitation of roman coins.[xxvii] Therefore, the form that this helmet took, whether dictated by Charles himself or others, allowed the Emperor to take that final step in literally embodying his title of a virtuous Caesar.

Joos Gietleughen, Hubert Goltzius, Gillis Coppens van Diest, Portrait of Charles V as Caesar, c. 1559. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, BI-2008-4132-148.

This blog post was adapted from an early version of my new research article ‘Female Personifications and Masculine Forms: Gender, Armour and Allegory in the Habsburg-Valois Conflicts of sixteenth-Century Europe’ in which I explore the use of female personifications on sixteenth-century armour made for men between 1525 and 1550. It argues that foreign invading forces and their allies exploited or inverted traditional gender binaries associated with the classical and humanist iconography of the Italian Renaissance, particularly its female allegorical forms, to visually signify power relationships between combatants during the Italian Wars. Rather than simply embodying masculinity, elaborate ceremonial armours with images of women are revealing of both ideals of masculinity and femininity during times of war. These portrayals were part of wider conversations about gender and power, about the strength and weaknesses of women, and, ultimately, women’s inferior status to men, which were utilised in allegorical forms to make claims to authority on these elite forms of male dress.

You can access the article by clicking here.

This research was supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant
(DP180102412) held at The University of Western Australia


[i] Donald J. LaRocca, Gods of war: Sacred imagery and the decoration of arms and armor (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013), 3.

[ii] Arndt Brendecke and Peter Vogt, ‘The Late Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity’ in The End of Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2017), 2; Corretti, Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa, 68. 

[iii] Brendecke and Vogt, ‘The Late Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity,’ 1-5.

[iv] Quentin Skinner, Visions of Politics: Volume 2, Renaissance Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 123.

[v] Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellism: The Doctrine of Raison d’Etat and Its Place in Modern History, trans. Douglas Scott (New York: Praeger, 1965), 31; Skinner, Visions of Politics, 144, 154-6.

[vi] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. and ed. Peter Bondanella (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 84-87.

[vii] Brendecke and Vogt, ‘The Late Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity,’ 4.

[viii] Medallion of Francis I – Bust & Allegory, c. 1537, cast iron, Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 7272b.

[ix] Machiavelli, The Prince, 21.

[x] Donald J. LaRocca, ‘Monsters, Heroes, and Fools: A Survey of Embossed Armor in Germany and Austria, ca. 1475 – ca. 1575,’ A farewell to arms, studies on the history of arms and armour, eds. Gert Groenendijk, Piet de Gryse, Dirk Staat, Heleen Bronder (Legermuseum, 2004), 42.

[xi] LaRocca, ‘Monsters, Heroes, and Fools,’ 42; Carolyn Springer, Armour and Masculinity in the Italian Renaissance (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 128.

[xii] LaRocca, ‘Monsters, Heroes, and Fools,’ 42.

[xiii] LaRocca, ‘Monsters, Heroes, and Fools,’ 42.

[xiv] Springer, Armour and Masculinity, 128.

[xv] Albert F. Calvert, Spanish Arms and Amour: Being a Historical and Descriptive Account of the Royal Armoury of Madrid (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1907), 131.

[xvi] Hans Holbein the Younger (artist) and Hans Lützelburger (block cutter), Design for a Dagger Sheath, c. 1520-6, print, London: The British Museum, 1895,0122.841-842.

[xvii] Brendecke and Vogt, ‘The Late Fortuna and the Rise of Modernity,’ 5.

[xviii] Silvio Leydi, ‘A History of the Negroli Family,’ in Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and his Contemporaries, eds. Stuart W. Pyhrr and José-A. Godoy (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), 41; Stuart W. Pyhrr and José-A. Godoy, eds. Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and his Contemporaries (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), 119.

[xix] Pyhrr and Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance, 116.

[xx] Springer, Armour and Masculinity, 105; Leydi, ‘A History of the Negroli Family,’ 41.

[xxi] Álvaro Soler del Campo, The art of power: Royal armor and portraits from Imperial Spain (Sociedad Estatal para la Acción Cultural Exterior, 2009), 48.

[xxii] Pyhrr and Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance, 125-130.

[xxiii] Pyhrr and Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance, 14-15.

[xxiv] Springer, Armour and Masculinity, 11, 25, 30.

[xxv] Peter Stacey, Roman Monarchy and the Renaissance Prince (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 143; Skinner, Visions of Politics, 123, 125.

[xxvi] Springer, Armour and Masculinity, 105-106.

[xxvii] Joos Gietleughen, Portrait of Charles V, c. 1559, print, 17.9 x 17.8cm. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, BI-2008-4132-148.

15th century, 16th century, Armour, Object Research

When “Medieval” Armour is not quite medieval… Plate Armour and the Renaissance.

PBS documentary “Secrets is the Shining Knight

Did you know that much of the full body plate armour that we think of as being medieval is usually not medieval at all?

If you type “medieval armour” into google images then chances are that something like this will appear:

medieval armour

Yet the majority of examples of armour shown here are in fact from the Renaissance, or the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, which is when plate armour reached its zenith in Europe. In fact, during much the medieval period men did not really wear the full body suits of plated armour that the general public have come to associate with the “Knight in Shining Armour” stereotype from film and television.

Kunz Lochner, Armour of Gustav I of Sweden, c. 1540. Stockholm: Livrustkammaren.

As Tobias Capwell, curator of the Wallace collection, has mentioned, “in the fourteenth century they couldn’t make [the] big pieces of iron and steel” that characterise the suits of armour in the google search image above. Rather, they found other ways of protecting the body: chain mail or padded textiles, such as the jupon of the Black Prince.[1] 

Jupon - Black Prince
Jupon of the Black Prince (Edward Plantagenet), c. 1370s. Cantebury: Cantebury Cathedral.

Now you could spend years debating when the medieval period ends and the Renaissance / early modern starts. For example, historians of England would argue that the medieval period ended in England after the War of the Roses in 1485, while historians of Spain would say it did end there around 1510 with the deaths of Isabella of Castile or later, Ferdinand. The Renaissance is generally categorised as lasting between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, although Renaissance is quite a regional term that most often applied to Italian city states. Generally though, it is agreed that the early modern period, which is a little broader in scope than Renaissance, started in 1500 and ended in 1800.

Lorenz Helmschmid, Armour of Maximilian I, c. 1485. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum,
Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer, A 62.

For the sake of this post though, it is my opinion that the majority of plate armour in the popular imagination of the general public is more characteristic of the later Renaissance period, than of the medieval (although I could be wrong, tell me what you think below!).

From the Tournament book of Emperor Maximilian I, c. 1512-1515. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer, 5073

Armour design and armourers thrived in the first half of the sixteenth century. This was due to one central conflict that raged throughout Europe during the first sixty years of that century: the Habsburg-Valois Wars, also better known as the Italian Wars (1494 – 1559). These were a series of conflicts between the rival French Valois dynasty and the Spanish-Austrian Habsburg dynasty, primarily fought over territory in the Italian Peninsula. Although many of the battles were fought in what is now Italy, the rivalry involved much of Western Europe at the time, and drew in nations such as England, Scotland, as well as the German and Swiss Provinces. The fact that this conflict lasted decades meant that practical armour was not just required, but the rivalry between Renaissance monarchs such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the French King Francis I required magnificent ceremonial armour that displayed their military prowess, wealth and importance.

Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Cornelis Bos after Maarten van Heemskerck, The Capture of Francis I by the forces of Charles V during the Battle of Pavia in 1525, c. 1555-56. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, RP-P-BI-6603.

In fact some of the most famous plate armourers in history were Renaissance artisans who were patronised by key figures of the Italian Wars. As Silvio Leydi has explained, from “the French invasion of 1499 to the peace with France in 1559” Milan was “at the centre of every war between the Habsburgs and the Valois”, and it was successively occupied by various forces throughout the conflict.[2] This involvement with the conflict was capitalised on by Milanese artisans and talented family workshops, such as that of the Negroli family, was established, the most famous of who were Filippo and Giovan Paolo.

Filippo Negroli, Classical Roman Burgonet of Charles V, Milanese, c. 1533. Madrid: Royal Armoury, 10000075 – 10000076, D-1; D-2

The Negroli family boasted customers such as Emperor Charles V, King Francis I, Henry II of France, and Francesco Maria I Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino. We know this because much of the armour they created bears their makers mark and has survived in royal armoury collections.

Filippo and Francesco Negroli, The Dolphin Armour of the Dauphin Henry (later Henry II), c. 1540. Musée de l’Armée, Inv. G 118

Talented armourers also arose in Habsburg territories such as the Seusenhofer brothers, Hans and Konrad, from Innsbruck in Austria. In fact, their workshop was the court workshop of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I of Austria, and the Emperor regularly commissioned armour for both himself and as gifts for others.[3] Many iconic pieces by the Seusenhofer brothers, and Han’s son Jorg Seusenhofer, appear in various armour collections across Europe such as those of Maximilian I, Charles V, Henry VIII England and Francis I.

armet - the horned helmet (1512)
Konrad Seusenhofer, Armet – The Horned Helmet gifted to Henry VIII by Maximilian I, c. 1512. Leeds: Royal Armouries, IV. 22

As part of my postdoctoral work on fashion during the Italian Wars I travelled to Austria, Spain and France to view a lot of Renaissance armour. Although this is somewhat out of my usual expertise (although there are many parallels you could draw between armour and fashion during the sixteenth century), I found this learning experience helpful to understanding the connections between armour and fashion, as well to key aspects of Renaissance thought such as their conceptualisation of classical antiquity. This was also when my idea of a medieval knight and shining armour was challenged.

Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll outline some of the main styles of Renaissance armour that were prevalent during and advanced by the events of the Italian Wars.




[1] A Stitch in Time. 2018. Episode no. 5-6, first broadcast January 03 by BBC Four. Directed by Lucy Kenwright and created by Adam Reeve.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xy-uMO4BvbA

[2] Silvio Leydi, ‘Milan and the Arms Industry in the Sixteenth Century’, in Stuart W. Pyhrr and José-A. Godoy, Heroic Armor of the Italian Renaissance: Filippo Negroli and his Contemporaries (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998), p. 25.

[3] Pierre Terjanian, ‘Notes on the early life and career of Hans Seusenhofer, court armorer of Emperors Maximilian I and Ferdinand I in Innsbruck’, from The Antique Arms Fair At Olympia, London (2018), p. 26