The Wallace Collection

Exhibitions & Displays

The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe

Thursday 17th May, 2012 - Sunday 16th September, 2012

Price: Admission Free


"These murderous objects are exquisitely beautiful" Erica Wagner, The Times

"Once you've seen this show, I guarantee you will never think about the Renaissance in quite the same way again" Richard Dorment, The Telegraph

"...objects of breathtaking beauty that will stop you in your tracks" Richard Dorment, The Telegraph


Witness the cutting edge of fashion as you’ve never seen it before! This exhibition tells the untold story of this fascinating and little known area of Renaissance art: revealing the fantastically skilled artistry behind the rapier; at once a weapon, fashion item, and rich jewellery object; representing the rise of a new and upwardly mobile middle class, sixteenth-century concepts of masculinity and the emergence of the duel of honour.

Summer 2012 represents the perfect opportunity to investigate the historical and social development of the ancient art of sword-fighting. The modern sport of fencing is one of the nine original Olympic sports but is also a piece of a much older story which began with the Renaissance fashion for carrying and fighting with swords in everyday life.

The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe comprises exquisite and deadly weapons and other works of art from the Wallace Collection, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Armouries, and British private collections, brought together with stunning princely weapons and costume from some of the greatest continental collections, exhibited in Britain for the first time. The very best sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century swords will be seen alongside beautifully illustrated fencing manuals from the Howard de Walden Library, on long-term loan to the Wallace Collection, while portraits, design books and documents will help place the Renaissance rapier in its social and artistic context to tell us more about the men who owned and used it.

During the Renaissance civilian swords were not just weapons: they were works of art. The rapier of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576), never before seen in Britain, is the paragon of the art of the sword. Modelled with unbelievable skill in solid gold, the hilt, glittering with multi-coloured enamel in many bright colours, is set onto a deadly Milanese blade of the very best quality.

Sword workshops also created buckles, buttons, and all the other mounts and fittings needed to seamlessly integrate the sword with the whole gentlemanly costume. One exceptional example on display is the rapier of Elector Christian II of Saxony (1583-1611), displayed for the first time alongside its matching doublet and breeches, cut from the finest Italian silk.

The evolution of the sword as a literally razor-sharp fashion statement represents an important social phenomenon. In the medieval period the wearing of swords in a non-military context was strongly discouraged. This all changed as the Renaissance period ushered in the rise of a new elite class.

The dramatic increase in the carrying of swords, and specifically the appearance of the long, thrusting rapier, helped make the Renaissance world an increasingly dangerous place, one in which duelling (though technically illegal) became commonplace and a whole training community developed to service this new fashion.

The business of the fencing master was a popular culture with its own celebrities. The exhibition will display a range of beautiful fencing manuals, from the Howard de Walden Library, by such masters as Ridolfo Capo Ferro, Camillo Agrippa and Achille Marozzo, which reveal a focus on skill, body forms, precision, fashion, and at times, gruesome results. Alongside them will be exhibited sixteenth-century training weapons designed specifically for different schools of fencing.

Visitors will hopefully leave with a new understanding of this often underappreciated Renaissance art form. The journey of discovery will settle on a time in history where art, sport and science converged.

The Noble Art of the Sword: Fashion and Fencing in Renaissance Europe

Press clippings and media for this exhibition.