The Grand Master's Palace Armoury of the Knights of St John certainly ranks among the world’s greatest arms collections. View a sample of the wonderful and unique pieces in this collection boasting artistic creativity and intricate craftsmanship.
Notwithstanding its troubled past, The Grand Master's Palace Armoury still contains abundant fine pieces from Europe’s principal arms centers.
Moreover it constitutes a rare example of a working arsenal surviving in its original building. It includes along with the massed arms of the common soldiers, the enriched personal armour and prestigious weapons of the nobility.
The collection comprises a large variety of armour and weapons dating from the 15th century when the Knights still occupied Rhodes.
It covers some three hundred years of armour development until the Order left Malta in the late 18th century.
Early plate armour is rare and the Palace Armoury boasts a small, yet select display of 15th and 16th century pieces.
Here, the Italian sallet certainly takes pride of place.
This type of helmet first appeared early in the 1400s in Italy, known as the ‘celata’, and by 1420 was introduced into France and Burgundy, spreading throughout Western Europe soon after
The original Italian ‘celati’ were not visored, however, in the closing years of the century, a pivoted visor protected the whole face, often in the so-called ‘bellows’ form with horizontal fluting.
The Palace Armoury sallet is of exquisite Venetian or Milanese workmanship, made around 1500 in the notable Missaglia style
The fine and rare sallet is typical of the knightly helmet of Italy and nearly all Christian Europe throughout the 15th and early 16th century, after which it made way for the more complete forms of close-helmet.
In its various forms, the sallet was an efficient head defense, highly popular with the Knights of St John in Rhodes.
With the final Ottoman siege of Rhodes in 1522, the Knights of St John had occupied the island for over two centuries.
Armour fashions changed and the worthy old ‘ celata’ gradually evolved into a more complete form of close-helmet, of which three splendid examples are displayed.
Perhaps more important is the finally shaped Italian helmet,
with its elegantly formed visor and bellows-type bevor;
made circa 1525 in the famous Negroli workshop of Milan.
Typical of the knights’s close helmet generally used throughout Europe in the early 16th century, this type of helmet was worn by the Knights of St John
They wore this plate armour during the final eventful phase in Rhodes and when later the Order took possession of Malta in 1530.
16th and 17th Century Armour
The Armoury presents a magnificent collection of decorated 16th century armour, the fascinating range clearly showing fashion changes.
By the time of the Great Siege of 1565, the typical breastplate had developed an increasingly prominent waist-line dip.
Following civilian fashions, it later evolved into the more ‘peascod’, long-bellied look characteristic of the end of the century.
Some breastplates were still furnished with a laminated base-splint, an early feature giving better quality armour a degree of flexibility, but less in use by mid-16th century.
Among the more prestigious items, the fine cuirass associated to Grand Master Jean de La Valette (1575 – 1568) certainly takes pride of place.
It is important not only by its powerful historic context but also by its rich ornament. The high level of craftsmanship makes this an exceptionally fine armour.
However, the finest in the collection, as regards the armourer’s art, is certainly the 16th century armour traditionally associated with Grand master Martino Garzes.
This splendid armour is said to be of German manufacture.
Given the excellent ornamentation and workmanship, this exquisite armour is certainly a vivid example of the highest achievement of the armourer’s art.
Another splendid example of the master decorator’s art if the impressive late 16th century Italian half-armour, proudly bearing on the breastplate the maker’s name ”Pompeo” , the mark of the celebrated Milanese Master Armourer, Pompeo della Cesa.
The most renowned Italian armourer of the late 16 th century, Pompeo held the prestigious court appointment of ‘Royal Armourer’ to the Spanish court of Milan.
He was one of the most sought after artisans of his time, and his works, always of the highest level, were commissioned by the most illustrious patrons of the period.
The Palace Armoury is particularly rich in fine examples of the so-called “Pisan” style armour, typical North Italian workmanship and fashion, produced of varying quality in large numbers in the second half of the 16 th century.
The attribution of the magnificent ‘Verdelin’ armour to the Provencal Grand Commander Jean Jacques de Verdelin (1590 – 1673), derives from his portrait wearing armour of this type.
Grand Master's Alof de Wignacourt parade armour is considered as the finest piece in the Palace armoury collection.
It ranks amongst the highest achievements in the art of armour decoration.
The full armour includes a reinforcing guardbrace, a garde-rein, a circular shield and a horse’s demi-chanfron.
The wide range of weapons collections in the Palace Armoury includes a variety of exquisite firearms and is certainly not lacking in notable examples.
Among the most outstanding pieces is a splendid match-lock arquebus. References to “Arcubusariis” are early as 1417, and match-lock firearms were in common use by the 1450s.
The arquebus was used with devastating effect by the Spanish armies during the Italian Wars of the early 1500s, and throughout the 16th century remained the most common weapon.
Although large numbers were in use, few have survived and finely decorated match-locks were rare.
As recorded by Franceso Balbi, musketeer and eye-witness during the Great Siege, and by Perez d’Aleccio in his famous Palace frescoes match-lock muskets and arquebuses were effectively used by both the Knights ...
... and the Turks during the historic event.
During the 16th century great artists of the age contributed designs for prestigious weapons
The Palace Armoury arquebus is immediately recognised as a personal arm of the finest quality far removed from the rugged, military variety.
It is evident that a person of a certain social position commissioned it with little concern for expense.
The truly magnificent example here is without a doubt the 16th century wheel-lock arquebus, with a ‘cheek-stock’ of typically German fashion.
This butt, the ‘ deutsche Kolhe’ or ‘German butt’, was held against the cheek
the considerable barrel weight absorbing the recoil.
Hunting and target shooting were among the nobleman’s natural pastimes, and it was only fitting that the wealthier Knights produced nothing but the finest sporting guns available.
These costly guns were more of a status symbol, clearly pronouncing the owner’s wealth and social standing.
Moreover, these guns show different nationalistic style influences, reflecting the Order’s national diversity.
Apart from the long-arms, deserving special attention are also the fine pistols.
These fascinating works of art and mechanical ingenuity were prestigious personal arms of the wealthier Knights.
Of particular interest is the exquisite pair of early flintlock sporting pistols made in Paris by Mathieu Des Forests around 1635-40, when France was foremost in flintlock design.
Of the finest workmanship, they have the streamlined form and extremely long barrels of the 1630s.
Another example of the amazing skill of the master-craftsmanship is the fabulous Italian 17th century snaphaunce pistol on display.
It has the long, elegant form of the period and its ornament is of the highest level.
While not detracting from their intended purpose, pistols of this quality became more of an opportunity to display the incredibly fine and elaborate chiselling.
An equally outstanding item in the Palace Armoury, and certainly a vital piece of military equipment, is a rare 18th century brass trumpet.
Throughout the ages military trumpets have symbolized fame and glory and accompanied many a victorious army in battle.
This magnificent trumpet, unique in the collection, is the baroque style of the usual form known as a ‘natural trumpet’, having one graceful elongated twist, and an elegant funnel-shaped bell.
In the 19th century, this trumpet was presented as traditionally being the trumpet that sounded the retreat of the Knights of Rhodes during the Ottoman siege of 1522. Where that statement originated is something else.
This remarkable trumpet is certainly a rare historic relic which recalls the pomp and pageantry of the grand military parades of the final years of splendour of the Order of St John.
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