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Role of weapons and defensive clothing in early modern Italy

Victoria Bartels 

My research examines the role of weapons and defensive clothing in early modern Italy. Even though these objects were prevalent (as well as fashionable) in Renaissance society, most Italian city states outlawed weapons, attempting to deter their usage. Men with full citizenship, however, could lawfully carry arms, and special permissions were also granted to lower status inhabitants if requests were deemed necessary and the circumstances, legitimate. Using contemporary legislation, inventories, and criminal records, my work investigates the presence of these objects in ordinary Italian households.

Swords and daggers were the most commonly owned weapons, and as a result, were fashioned in varying levels of quality. Accessories crafted for bladed weapons, including sheaths and belts, were also highly sought after and could be manufactured with fine and costly materials, depending on one’s rank. Other weapons that were kept inside the house, but not used regularly are examined. These consisted of pole arms, crossbows, and firearms, predominately used for hunting.

Dress served as the body’s first line of defence from external factors, including harsh weather conditions, disease, physical activity, and sport. Since unplanned bouts of aggression could occur on the street, in the market, workshop, or tavern, defensive garments could fortify bodies. Protective elements could be worn under—or even stitched into—articles of clothing. Mail armour was one of the most common methods of adding protection, especially for layering underneath everyday apparel. In addition to mail, tinned iron, steel plates, waxed cord, and/or hardened leather could also be used to reinforce dress.

My research is primarily interested in examining the following questions:

  • Legislation and criminal records demonstrate that arms and certain types of armour and defensive wear permeated early modern Italian society, but were they as widespread among the popular classes as these sources would have us believe?
  • How were offensive and defensive objects crafted and/or disguised? What materials were commonly used to adorn such objects, and how did quality range between varying price points?
  • Did arms possession vary geographically in Italy? How did social class affect ownership? Were certain occupations more likely to arm themselves?