Humanities Moments

A Sword From Italy by Way of Alexandria

Contributed by Thomas Morin, 32, Historian
Sword in Chicago
It was not my first time in The City, but it was my first time visiting the Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's reputation stretched out wide before it for a young man from the West Coast. I had long been interested in art, and I knew that the Met had one of the best collections in the world. I had missed a previous opportunity to go a few years back, and I wasn't going to do so again. My sister, a friend, and I took a train up to Fifth Avenue, and soon were outside the museum's broad, colonnaded entrance.

My interest in the medieval period had only recently begun at that point. When I saw in the catalogue that the museum had an extensive collection of European arms and armor, I couldn't resist. We walked through the classical Egyptian section, admiring the tiny-carved Lapis lazuli figures. We paused for pictures amid the ruins of the Temple of Dendur, which stood in the middle of a small reflecting pool. Beyond that, we finally entered the arms and armor section.

Amid all the impressive examples of late medieval and early-modern craftsmanship, one piece in particular stood out to me. It was a large sword with a broad, angular blade (see attached picture of the same sword in the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was on loan in early 2020). The surface, while pitted slightly, was remarkably unmarred and smooth other than an inscription near the hilt written in Arabic. The sword as a whole had a simple elegance. Though the crossguard had little horn-like curls at the ends, it was otherwise unadorned. It had the appearance of a practical tool, precise and deliberate. It looked heavy but somehow also quick.

I was intrigued. I began asking all sorts of questions about the sword: Where had it come from? Who made it? Why was there an Arabic inscription on what was clearly a western European sword? Searching for those answers gave me my first taste of the interconnected Mediterranean world which would later become my obsession. The sword is thought to have been made in Italy, either in Brescia or Milan. From there, it was taken to the isle of Cyprus, at the time ruled by the Lusignan Kings, successors to the long-lost Crusader States. Then, sometime around 1419, it was presented as part of a diplomatic gift from Cyprus (along with many other weapons) to Sultan Shaykh al-Mahmudi, whose name is contained in the inscription. The sword, and many others like it, are one of many pieces of physical evidence for the extensive networks of connection which joined the various corners of the Mediterranean together in the medieval and early-modern world.

Though I have never handled the original (or its twin, rediscovered in Texas in 2014 by Sotheby's), I have had the opportunity to handle a modern reproduction which was made based on detailed measurements and mimics the sword almost exactly. It is a marvel of engineering. The sword's geometry and design makes it wonderfully balanced, so that, though it weighs almost 4 lbs (which is very heavy for a sword of this type), it feels light enough to wield in one hand. The tremendous skill which would have gone into the design and fabrication of that weapon made me question my received wisdom about the superiority of the modern world, and eventually to question the very meaning of "modern" at all.

The questions that this sword inspired have had long-lasting effects on the course of my continuing academic study and interest in the middle ages, and it is still an inspiration to me today.

Title

A Sword From Italy by Way of Alexandria

Description

It was not my first time in The City, but it was my first time visiting the Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's reputation stretched out wide before it for a young man from the West Coast. I had long been interested in art, and I knew that the Met had one of the best collections in the world. I had missed a previous opportunity to go a few years back, and I wasn't going to do so again. My sister, a friend, and I took a train up to Fifth Avenue, and soon were outside the museum's broad, colonnaded entrance.

My interest in the medieval period had only recently begun at that point. When I saw in the catalogue that the museum had an extensive collection of European arms and armor, I couldn't resist. We walked through the classical Egyptian section, admiring the tiny-carved Lapis lazuli figures. We paused for pictures amid the ruins of the Temple of Dendur, which stood in the middle of a small reflecting pool. Beyond that, we finally entered the arms and armor section.

Amid all the impressive examples of late medieval and early-modern craftsmanship, one piece in particular stood out to me. It was a large sword with a broad, angular blade (see attached picture of the same sword in the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was on loan in early 2020). The surface, while pitted slightly, was remarkably unmarred and smooth other than an inscription near the hilt written in Arabic. The sword as a whole had a simple elegance. Though the crossguard had little horn-like curls at the ends, it was otherwise unadorned. It had the appearance of a practical tool, precise and deliberate. It looked heavy but somehow also quick.

I was intrigued. I began asking all sorts of questions about the sword: Where had it come from? Who made it? Why was there an Arabic inscription on what was clearly a western European sword? Searching for those answers gave me my first taste of the interconnected Mediterranean world which would later become my obsession. The sword is thought to have been made in Italy, either in Brescia or Milan. From there, it was taken to the isle of Cyprus, at the time ruled by the Lusignan Kings, successors to the long-lost Crusader States. Then, sometime around 1419, it was presented as part of a diplomatic gift from Cyprus (along with many other weapons) to Sultan Shaykh al-Mahmudi, whose name is contained in the inscription. The sword, and many others like it, are one of many pieces of physical evidence for the extensive networks of connection which joined the various corners of the Mediterranean together in the medieval and early-modern world.

Though I have never handled the original (or its twin, rediscovered in Texas in 2014 by Sotheby's), I have had the opportunity to handle a modern reproduction which was made based on detailed measurements and mimics the sword almost exactly. It is a marvel of engineering. The sword's geometry and design makes it wonderfully balanced, so that, though it weighs almost 4 lbs (which is very heavy for a sword of this type), it feels light enough to wield in one hand. The tremendous skill which would have gone into the design and fabrication of that weapon made me question my received wisdom about the superiority of the modern world, and eventually to question the very meaning of "modern" at all.

The questions that this sword inspired have had long-lasting effects on the course of my continuing academic study and interest in the middle ages, and it is still an inspiration to me today.

Source

A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Date

2012

Contributor

Thomas Morin, 32, Historian

Identifier

sword-from-italy

Referrer

National Humanities Center

Location