Etched and tooled suits of armor - the original `heavy metal'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The sun is his alarm clock so he's up early. And since today is special, he pops into his special suit. First he puts on his shoes. Who ever heard of putting your shoes on first? That's what he does, though. So would you if you'd been a noble knight back in the 1500s. Dressing order for armor was always from bottom to top.

His shoes, called sabatons, are made of steel. After them, he puts on his greaves to cover his lower legs. And the greaves are connected to the poleyns (at the knee caps). And the poleyns to the cuisses (at the thighs). And the cuisses to the tassets (at the hips). And the tassets to the cuirass (chest and back). And so on until he's completely cocooned in steel.

From afar he looks like a garbage can, walking, but up close he's mighty handsome because his armor is tooled from head to toe with intricate designs - mini monsters, flowers, leaflets, and swirls. Knights never wore magnificent armor like this to the battlefield. These suits - heralded as some of the period's most exquisite art - were strictly for show at parades, pageants, tournaments, and jousts. When a knight or noble donned these dress-up duds, he could successfully play peacock amid court pomp with his best foot - whoops, sabaton - forward.

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Examples of this decorated armor are being shown through March 1 at the Chicago Art Institute. The exhibition isn't a large one, but the individual pieces are knock-outs, displaying the grandeur of parade armor worn during the 1500s and early 1600s.

The most spectacular suit comes from the wardrobe of King Henry II of France, who ruled from 1574 to 1559. It was made - as far as experts can tell - by Giovan Paolo Negroli, a skilled armorer in Milan, Italy.

Back then, Milan was a boom town for armor making. Rulers and knights from all over Europe called upon the workshops to outfit them in both battle and parade regalia. Warriors usually sent samples of their everyday clothes to the workshops so craftsmen would pound out the steel suits in the correct size. Just like today's jeans, armor had to fit right.

Craftsmen had an extraordinary knack for decorating parade armor. Sometimes, they used chisels to cut out delicate designs.

In etching, the patterns were ``eaten out'' by acid. And for damascening, the craftsmen inlaid strands of silver and gold into the steel. Embossed armor featured raised designs, maybe beasts,serpents, or mythical characters.To get these raised areas, craftsmen hammered on the underside of the armor, pushing up certain spots.

Embossing looked great, but no knight would wear this armor in a fight. All that hammering thinned out the steel, making it easier to pierce. And the raised-up areas literally ``caught'' the point of an opponent's weapon. The trick to making good battle armor was to get the steel slick and highly polished so that lances glanced off the smooth surface. Embossing did just the opposite.

But not all decorating undermined armor's safety. So the snazzy suits that still had strength were proudly worn by knights for jousts - the popular game of the day that drew large crowds, all yelling and cheering for their favorite contenders.

Armored to the teeth and mounted on steeds, the knights rode toward each other with lances poised. Not at a gallop, either.Actually, the horses were so weighted down they could barely lumber along.

The object was to topple the opponent from his horse. Although there was no intentional wounding, mishaps happened. And plummeting from saddle to ground with full armor was no baby bounce.

Since the armor was strung together with hooks and hinges, screws, straps, and pins, a knight was able to bend at the joints. He wasn't flexible enough to shinny up a tree, but he could mount his horse and get off the ground if he were knocked flat - all this with difficulty, though, because armor is heavy.

King Henry's glittery suit tips the scales at 39 pounds, a weight that compares with the protective padding worn today by professional hockey goalies (30 to 40 pounds).

It's obvious that armor had definite drawbacks. Sometimes the visor stuck, threatening a knight with suffocation inside a cell of steel. And like Oz's Tin Woodman, knights always had to be wary of rain which brought rust to their shiny suits.

Armor certainly didn't carry the comfort of today's garb, either. Even though it was lined inside with cloth and leather, it still rubbed the skin raw. So knights, both in battle and at jousts, wore doublets (jackets) and other garments underneath. ``The Armorer and His Craft,'' by Charles F. Foulkes, quotes a 15th century manuscript describing jousting attire. Here's a snatch from the manuscript. Try deciphering it.

``How a man schall be armyd at his ese when he schal fighte. ... He schal have noo schirte up on him but a dowbelet of ffustean lyned with satene cutte full of hoolis....''

The doublet with satin lining probably made wearing armor more comfortable. But by the end of the l7th century, knights no longer had to worry about such matters because both battle and parade armor were on the way out. Steel suits simply couldn't withstand updated firearms, and jousting was no longer a crowd pleaser. So armor was gradually laid to rest on the pages of history.

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